Seema lives with at least seven other family members in a 200 sq. ft room in Mangolpuri, at the far end of east Delhi. There’s a low-cost sanitary napkin manufacturing unit nearby, and Seema, a migrant labourer from UP, told me that she had bought napkins— Rs20 for a packet of 8 — from there a few times. But, she said reluctantly, it was a problem.
Was it the price?
“Not always. But the men in the house...”
It turned out that Seema and her daughters found it difficult to ‘hide’ the napkins from the sight of the men they shared the room with. “Once, my son was rummaging through a bag to find a shirt and found a napkin packet we hid there. He was pretty appalled,” she recalled.
In an entirely different economic universe, my friend, a product manager with a multinational pharmaceutical giant, told me that she may ask for a ‘period leave’ from her male manager, if such an option existed, but she knew that most of her female colleagues would not, especially the younger ones in their 20s.
“First, the environment is not conducive to ask for a period leave. Second, there are men who assume we are slacking even if a woman said clearly that she needed to be home because of her periods. There are men who have actually said that to our faces,” she told me. The problem here again? Men.
This isn’t all.
When I was working on a story on GST on sanitary napkins, a woman in Gujarat who ran an NGO which also made low-cost sanitary napkins, told me that they had distributed them for free to school-going girls in a village. But a few days later, the girls returned the napkins, saying there was no way to dispose of them. If they dug up a hole and buried the napkins there, dogs would dig them up, creating a mess. Another Maharashtra-based NGO narrated a similar experience where women returned free biodegradable napkins because men wouldn’t allow them to be disposed of even in the garbage that was composted to be used as manure in farming. Again, the issue? Men.
A friend, who has worked in national English dailies, in newsrooms populated with women, but with male bosses, said that despite crippling pain, she has never explicitly told her managers that she needed a leave because of cramps.
“Despite it being a newsroom, conversations around periods were always done in hushed tones, and if male colleagues stumbled upon a similar conversation they’d hurriedly walk away, visibly uncomfortable,” she said.
Since journalist Barkha Dutt suggested that allotting period leaves for women would prevent them from ‘flying fighter jets’, I asked a woman pilot with a private airline how conducive it was to ask for a ‘period leave’ at her workplace. While she had never thought about it, she thought that her company and leadership was approachable enough to discuss such topics. But she said that most other airlines could be “draconian” when it came to conversations on issues such as these.
Though Dutt and supporters of the argument she proposed seem to believe that acknowledging menstrual pain would possibly hold women back from professional opportunities, the lived experiences of women narrated above show that it is some men who are to be blamed for this, not our bodies.
Across economic classes in India, the discomfort and dismissal of men have constantly interfered with women’s access to menstrual hygiene and comfort. After Zomato’s announcement on a period leave for employees, I spoke to several women—teachers, marketers, and government employees—who all said that even if their employer allotted a ‘period leave’, they would be reluctant to ask for one because of an uncomfortable professional environment.
Yet, the ‘progressive’ narratives around period often centered around women ‘overcoming’ periods, smiling and literally jumping in joy. Sanitary napkin commercials have been instrumental in giving visual glorification to this narrative by suggesting, using their products turn women on periods into dancing Jeetendra clones.
Despite diversity managers and suchlike, the rules of engagement in a corporate culture are more often than not dictated by men. And arguing that a period leave will deny women opportunities means unquestioningly accepting a culture crafted by men for the convenience of men. While reporting a piece on the wage gap, almost all the HR heads I spoke to were women. And yet, most of them admitted that there were few accepted ways to determine whether a wage gap exists in a company, let alone mechanisms to address it. The human resources head of a multinational electronics company, in fact, countered my question on the existence of a ‘boys’ club’.
“The boys’ club has not stopped you from joining them. You have to show up. But as a woman you have to make sure that you don’t get drunk like them, or crack inappropriate jokes. Then you stick out. Otherwise you are fine,” she said, indicating that her own years of struggling to fit in has made her normalise discriminatory practices in her own life. Though she used the example of her own success as evidence that men don’t always necessarily hinder the progress of women, the conversation also emphasised the need to play by the success rules set by men. Dutt’s opinion on period leaves, unfortunately, echoes a similar sentiment.
Interestingly, while reporting on affordable menstrual hygiene products and companies, I came across organisations headed by men, grassroots knowledge initiatives led by men — indicating, with proper gender sensitisation, many men can be included into the process of making menstrual hygiene accessible and fair, for women.
Discrimination occurs not just in the case of periods—both men and women find it difficult to broach the topic of their mental health in most Indian companies. The friend who works for the pharma giant told me that she had not slept a wink in the past two days and her mental health had been in the pits, so she asked for a leave on the pretence of a ‘cold’. When corporations begin treating women’s health or mental health (of both men and women) as important, they will also be forced to acknowledge the need for radical policies to address those, which may not fit into their their existing profit-making models. And why change anything when the old parochial ways are still working for them?
But just a few years ago, most companies wouldn’t send POSH compliance notices to employees. Now they do and that important change began with a conversation, amplified by similar conversations elsewhere.
A day off as a period leave may not be necessary for all women, isn’t a perfect solution to women’s health issues and needs to be done across economic classes, not just in white-collar jobs. Some may still say it’s gimmicky, considering that Zomato doesn’t even give its riders basic employee benefits such as paid leaves. But it’s a first, necessary step towards the right direction. Let’s not scuttle it because it’s apparently stopping ‘us’ from going off to a hypothetical war. This is life, not a JP Dutta movie.