I Live With Debilitating Menstrual Pain But Still Find The 'First Day Leave' Argument Flawed

A question of choice.
The sanitary napkin lying on a red calendar.
The sanitary napkin lying on a red calendar.

I was 13 when I first started menstruating and for the next 24 years I have had to make a thousand little adjustments to my life that perhaps do not stand out individually — missing a school trip here, an office assignment there — but together symbolized a large part of the life I have had to give up.

Most women have mild to severe menstrual cramps. By the age of 16 I knew I have a problem that if I did not address would not only affect my physical and mental growth, but also stunt the development of my personality. By 25 I had already been to at least five doctors who brushed it aside with comments ranging from casually dismissive and callous to outrageous and sexist.

"You are so young, as you grow older, it will get better."

"It's common. You are a woman. Women are born to bear pain — what will do when you go into labour?"

"Get married, get a baby or two out of the way, you'll be cured."

"You shouldn't be crying about a little pain at your age."

Let me explain the nature of the "little pain" that engulfed and overwhelmed me every month. In Standard X I was sent home from school in a taxi because I fell unconscious. In college I vomited through the first three days, unable to sit, unable to stand, unable to lie down. At home, I was rushed to the ER and had to be injected emergency painkillers because I was semi-conscious, dizzy, throwing up from the pain. As a reporter, I had to invent excuses to opt out of field assignments because I couldn't get out of bed. I'd get up mid-shift, and lie down in an ante-room, waiting for the pain meds to work, while a kind co-worker guarded the door to alert me if bosses came around looking for me. In 2003-2004, it was next to impossible to discuss periods with male managers, leave alone asking for the day off.

The standard query was "Why do you want to go home? Do you have fever?" I asked doctors over and over again why I had such severe pain. I asked if I did not have the right to treatment if I did not get married "and get a baby out of the way". Did single women suffering from this not have access to the cure? I was sent to get ultrasound after ultrasound and my pain medication was changed. I was known as the person in office who might not have a lipstick or lip gloss on her, but always had Meftal Spas for anyone who wanted it.

Let me add here that in the middle of the crippling, debilitating pain, I had the regular stream of well-meaning people who steadfastly discouraged me from taking my prescribed medicines. "The doctoraskedyou to have three painkillers a day? Are you sure you are not self-medicating?"

I have lost count of how many times I have heard different versions of "Painkillers are terrible! Try yoga" or "Try homeopathy" or "Eat and sleep well." I tried everything. Nothing helped. The pain medication kept changing.

By 25 I had already been to at least five doctors who brushed it aside with comments ranging from casually dismissive and callous to outrageous and sexist

By 28 I had realized I could not have a reporting career — what I most wanted. I could not hold my employers to ransom, and I could not afford to be stuck on the road, bleeding excessively, writhing in pain.

By the age of 35 I was diagnosed with PCOD, had one major operation to remove a cyst the size of a tennis ball from my ovary, had delivered a baby through C-section, was curtly told I should not risk having another, and despite all of this, my menstrual pain had not decreased, as several doctors promised. If anything the intensity had increased. And now I had a job, a baby and a household to manage, beside the three-four days of pain every month.

Which is why I hold this illuminating piece by feminist icon Gloria Steinem for Ms magazine dear to my heart:

"So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?

Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:

Men would brag about how long and how much.

Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.

To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.

Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- "For Those Light Bachelor Days."

Statistical surveys would show that men did better in sports and won more Olympic medals during their periods.

With great interest I read some of the comments on the Facebook post of a friend calling out the "urban privilege" that went into demanding a 'first day of period leave' — a campaign by a popular YouTube channel. The comments — both by men and women — ranged from evocative and empathetic, to downright patronizing and demeaning of other women's lived experience.

From considering sick leaves for periods a privilege of entitled millennials to arguing gender equality, the post triggered words I've practically heard all my life. There were many strongly opposed to the idea of a paid sick day for menstruating women. In reality, the idea is neither new, nor novel.

A handful of countries actually have menstrual leave. As early as 1947, Japan had seiri kyuka, or menstrual leave, mandated by Article 68 of Japanese Labor Standards Law.

"When a woman for whom work during menstrual periods would be especially difficult has requested leave, the employer shall not employ such woman on days of the menstrual period," it said.

Article 71 (Menstruation Leave) mandated by Labour Standards Law of South Korea allows a woman to take one day of menstruation leave with pay per month.

I am dumbfounded by the general sanctimoniousness of the arguments on social media encouraging a cult of superwomen who are expected to "suck it up, pop a pill, go to work, give a presentation, take care of their homes" — all while managing their pain as quietly and as unobtrusively as possible. What will this achieve other than further alienating those who think there's no point in getting help for themselves? For years, doctors, relatives and friends almost convinced me that this is my lot and I have to make my peace with it.

For reasons of practicality I am against a 'first, second or third day' campaign for period leaves. It's a marketing gimmick aimed at a trending hashtag. For those outraging at the very idea, it's not a legislation and binding. It could just be an added paid leave to women's list of leaves. It could be an added day to the stipulated sick leaves. It is insulting to women's enterprise to suggest that they will exploit this leave. Those who have privilege and casual leaves and hold a job can exploit them anyway if they wanted to.

Next, the gender debate.

More power to the superwomen who believe that if rural women can work in the fields and a celebrated journalist can report from Kargil while on her periods, there's no reason to ghettoize women with a period leave.

Barkha Dutt, an inspiration for many women, had this to say.

Period Equals Day off - Silly Idea- tomorrow it will be used as an excuse to block women from Combat roles, Conflict zones, Police etc

— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) July 13, 2017

It would be good to remember here that taking leave is a choice. Those who need to take it should have an enabling environment in which they would not be judged or shamed for taking it. In an unequal world, with a shocking pay gap, it's ridiculous to peg the menstrual debate to gender equality. Most working women strive to compete in a work environment still dominated by patriarchy.

What then should be the way forward?

If there's one thing I've consistently faced over the last 14 years of my work life, it's men's hesitation to discuss periods. If a man holds a managerial post, he will bring his bias and moral barriers to the workplace. Though times have changed and men are better allies to women now at the workplace, it will take many, many years to have the cohesive dialogue that's needed to overcome the taboo. Now will be a great time to start. Reproductive and menstrual health workshops should be part of every company's work room. Whether or not a woman wants the first day off, she should be able to get a leave easily if and when she needs one without being shamed for it.

If you are a woman who can manage menstrual pain and still achieve an enormous amount of work, more power to you. But if you call a period leave frivolous and assume that a woman wants to be mollycoddled for asking for one, you are doing as much harm to the gender movement as men who call women 'feminazis' for just wanting to lead full lives.

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