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‘Period Leave’ Reinforces Damaging Stereotypes About Women

It demarcates home as a woman's space and the workplace as a man's.

09/08/2017 8:30 AM IST | Updated 09/08/2017 8:31 AM IST
Blend Images/John Lund/Stephanie Roeser

Culture Machine, a young start-up with a "network of 350 YouTubers connecting 22 million subscribers and an average of 0.5 billion views per month", creates video content for large corporate brands and helps them gain publicity through social media. It's not surprising that its tagline is "Entertainment for the Internet Generation." Now, of course, what comprises entertainment for the Internet generation is debatable (trolling, anyone?), but for now let's talk about "feminism for the internet generation", especially as conceptualised by Culture Machine.

This hip young company is well aware of the massive viral potential of a YouTube video featuring urban 20-something women (speaking in English, using OMG in every sentence and talking about how they want to just have chocolate and watch Netflix on the first day of their period), who are then saved by benevolent bosses who announce a day off every month as "period leave." The video ends with an attempt to make this a rights movement with the exhortation, "Let's legitimize the FOP (First day of Period) leave policy across the country—an initiative by Culture Machine," followed by a signature campaign addressed to the Women and Child Ministry. Following plenty of media attention, the idea caught on and Kerala-based media company Mathrubhumi also announced "first day of period leave" to its employees.

What period leave really does is put the focus back on a woman's unique physical aspects, and reinforces the idea that those are by default her "limitations"...

Both organisations claim to have broken new ground in ending the taboo against menstruation, but let's take a step back for a minute. How radical is any of this? How many women's real subjectivity is represented by organisations like Culture Machine and their policies? Are they truly in a position to initiate a meaningful conversation around the menstruation taboo? Have they gathered enough data to ascertain that this measure more than others would enable greater participation for women in the workforce? It seems that every other corporate brand is pushing so-called feminist initiatives in a socio-political milieu where talking about women's issues has become both a fad—it's the right subject to ruffle feathers and grab eyeballs, but to what end? Women's rights are being co-opted in a manner where standpoint and subjectivity are ignored.

Rights movements cannot be forced from the top. They have to come from within as a resistance to the systemic violence and oppression faced by those at the bottom of the social order. The first day of period leave policy initiative by Culture Machine applies only to the urban upper-class female workforce. It has nothing to do with the much larger woman workforce engaged in the unorganized sector—the construction workers, daily wagers, agricultural labourers, domestic maids.

We are yet to come up with job security, fair wages and maternity/childcare leaves for most women. I doubt that bingeing on Netflix and chocolates on the first day of their period is high on their priority list. For them, taking an "optional" day off would mean losing wages. What they need more is access to clean toilets at their workplace at all times. Fact is, most upper-class upper caste household don't even allow their domestic maids to use the toilet. In addition, these women don't have access to basic hygienic products during menstruation. Before talking about period leave policies we have to incorporate these basics into the unorganised sector. Only then can period leave meaningfully fit into the narrative of the rights movement.

To break the taboo around menstruation we need to first understand that it is not a problem which women need to take home... We need our men colleagues to be equal partners.

Additionally, is "period leave" a constructive response to menstruation, which, after all, is a normal bodily function even if it causes varying degrees of discomfort? It is part of our life, very much like breathing, eating and defecating.

Giving a day off is neither an intelligent way to initiate conversation around the menstruation taboo nor does it benefit the majority of the women working in various sectors. What it really does is put the focus back on a woman's unique physical aspects, and reinforces the idea that those are by default her "limitations", rendering her incapable of functioning. Which is simply not true for many of us. The majority of women across the world work as efficiently during their period days, even in physically demanding jobs. At the same time, many women and men have difficult medical conditions which they fight every day to attend to their professional duties.

I myself deal with hypothyroidism coupled with GERD and IBS which makes my morning extremely difficult, with nausea and stomach cramps. I can have acid reflux any time of the day which makes me sick to the core, drowsy and disoriented. On the other hand, I can function well with a painkiller on my first or second day of period. The point here is that humans have different physical conditions and capabilities and all workplaces should be sensitive enough to accommodate them on a need-to basis. But to suggest that the entire woman workforce is physically unable to even perform a desk job during her period is not realistic.

Such policies reinforce the myth that women "have it easy". In truth, women do NOT have it easy. A day off does not take away a woman's challenges in achieving her ambitions.

To break the taboo around menstruation we need to first understand that it is not a problem which women need to take home and deal with on their own. We need the male-dominated work environment and our men colleagues to be equal partners. Keeping a bank of sanitary pads in the office would be a great gesture to start with. If a woman suddenly stains her clothes or seat due to overflow, she should be able to deal with it without feeling the need to hide her predicament or be ashamed of it. The office environment should be conducive enough for her to talk about what she is going through should she need to. Every organisation should inculcate sensitivity towards women's issues, and these values should be part of their office manual and code of conduct.

Lastly, such policies reinforce the myth that not only are women not as productive as men, but that they are given an "unfair advantage" and "have it easy" because of the policies and laws favouring them. In truth, women do NOT have it easy. A day off on her periods does not take away a woman's real challenges in achieving her career ambitions. It is mere tokenism that doesn't address deeply held patriarchal notions that demarcate home as a woman's space and the workplace as a man's.

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