Mumbai-based media company Culture Machine got people talking earlier this month when it announced its new FOP, or first day of period leave policy, where women employees had the option of taking the first day of their menstrual cycle off from work. And when I say it got people talking, I mean everyone. The story made global headlines in outfits like Reuters and The Independent, and Fortune magazine even published an op-ed titled ‘Why This Company’s New ‘Menstrual Leave’ Policy Is Especially Misguided’.
Closer to home, The News Minute rounded up 16 women to ask if women needed period leave (10 said no). And most recently, on Thursday night, journalist Barkha Dutt jumped into the fray to weigh in on the debate. In a Twitter thread, Dutt said menstrual leave was a “silly idea”, and a form of women ghettoising themselves.
She said the concept of period leave would be used to ban women from combat roles and police forces (never mind the whole thorny debate on whether having women in combat roles is necessarily a huge feminist victory), and that while periods are uncomfortable, they don’t really stop women from doing their work. She used her own example of covering the 1999 Kargil War while she was on her period to prove the point that women didn’t need “nonsense protective gear” like period leave, and said that women were “better than that”.
As is the case with anything Dutt writes, does or tweets, she received a barrage of responses. Ignoring the usual vicious trolls (and man, are they vicious), there were responses from women who agreed with her, pointing out that such a system would reaffirm the belief that women were weak. There were also a number of women who disagreed, pointing out that her one experience of having mildly uncomfortable periods doesn’t speak for all women. Many spoke about their own experience of suffering debilitating pain due to chronic conditions like endometriosis, which causes period pain so bad that women nearly pass out from it.
But I think they may be missing the point too.
The fact is, you don’t need to look at any one woman’s experience to make the case for period leave. There are women who experience mild discomfort during their periods, and there are others who suffer unimaginable period pain because of conditions like dysmenorrhea and endometriosis. Most women’s period experiences fall somewhere along the line between the two. But, barring a few exceptions, all women have periods.
The point is not that all women are physically unable to work on their periods. Just like all employees aren’t physically unable to work on Sundays, or past 5 pm without being paid overtime. It’s that we shouldn’t have to work when bleeding painfully from the vagina, and it’s okay to say that.
The eight-hour workday and the two-day weekend seem normal to us now because we’ve become used to them, but it wasn’t always like this. In fact, both concepts are barely 100 years old, and came to be only after several decades of protests, demonstrations and strikes from labour unions in the United States.
At that time, around the Industrial Revolution, factories and businesses implemented ten to twelve-hour workdays and six-day working weeks. Workers, who were used to farming and setting their own work hours, soon grew disillusioned and disgusted with the situation, and wanted more time to spend with their families, and to rest and recuperate from the rigours of the day. So they demanded more humane working hours in the form of a 40-hour working week of five working days of eight hours each.
Factory owners, naturally, said that reduced working hours would massively affect company productivity, cause costs to overtake profits, and that it simply wasn’t a viable or reasonable option at all. Labour unions persisted, and organised peaceful marches that turned into violent demonstrations, and things finally came to a head in 1919, when four million American workers went on strike, forcing factories to make the switch to eight hour working days. A couple of decades later, it was encoded into the law. And here we all are today.
When they made these seemingly radical changes, heavens didn’t fall, the US economy didn’t come crashing down, and capitalists continued to make their profits, despite all their cries to the contrary. But workers were one step closer to working in a system that respected their rights, the limitations of their bodies and their need for adequate rest. All of these workers could work 12-hour days if they were forced to, and indeed, they did for very long, but they chose instead to create a situation in which they did not. And now, of course, we live in a world where the two-day weekend is taken for granted, social psychologists extoll the virtues of weekend rest in increasing productivity, and Google’s Larry Page even praises the idea of a three-day weekend.
I feel like the story of how weekends and humane working hours came to be makes for an important and inspiring comparison when we’re talking about lobbying for period leave. Of course, the people who are invested in maintaining status quo will say that this is going to lead to decreased productivity, losses and just unimaginable chaos that the economy will never recover from. Of course, very few businesses are going to want to give women additional leave, and we can’t really expect anything better from them.
As a fun experiment, go on Facebook and write something in defence of maternity leave and watch men you know turn into people who closely resemble those who troll Barkha Dutt. They’ll immediately come flocking to tell you that it will cause unmanageable delays in the delivery of projects, force firms to not hire women at all for fear that they’ll disappear to have babies on the company’s payroll and that women will take advantage of the policy to keep having paid vacations under the guise of pregnancy. Maternity leave came into place in 1961 and the whining of those who are concerned about the imminent collapse of capitalism is still on.
But history tells us that changes like these, which may seem unthinkable now, can become mainstreamed into how we see work culture. We just have to keep the fight going.
Asking for period leave won’t break the world as we know it. It’s just a practical realisation of bringing women’s experiences into the centre of work culture, and tailoring work culture to meet the lives and needs of half of its work force. Implementing a system of period leave may seem as radical as cutting 32 hours of the work week did in 1919 (or as it seems even now to people who like to imagine domestic workers shouldn’t get the same benefits employers gets in offices), but making the workplace amenable to the people who work in it won’t cause the damage some imagine it will.
And even if does shake things up a bit, isn’t that the whole point? Is it enough, as women and feminists, for us to just fit seamlessly and noiselessly into a sexist world and a sexist system? Don’t mind us, we are just working quietly in this corner you gave us? If the way the market works is designed by and for men so far, do we just want to jump right in without tailoring it to meet our own needs too? Of course, women want to work, but we want to work in a system that was also designed for us, not one that we have to contort ourselves into.
Which is why I find it funny when people say this would be a discriminatory policy that reiterates that women are weaker than men. It feels like such a juvenile and purposely illogical line of argument. Of course, it would be discriminatory if both men and women had their periods, and only women were given period leave, but that’s obviously not the case here. Mainstreaming women into work and work culture also means mainstreaming their experiences, and we can’t just close our eyes and pretend that periods don’t happen. Women have periods. This doesn’t make anyone weaker or stronger, it’s just the way it is, and it’s okay if the world reflects that. These are the kinds of tangible changes we need to make if we want to centre women’s experiences into the way we lead our lives.
Of course, you can’t think about this first day of period leave policy without Gloria Steinem’s famous piece, If Men Could Menstruate, very obviously coming to mind, where she imagines how menstruation would be celebrated instead of feared if men experienced it, and talks about how if men menstruated, we’d live in a world where menstruation would be a sign of men’s strength, and our lack of monthly blood loss, a sign of our weakness and inability to withstand pain. Doctors would research period pain, while heart disease, which men would be hormonally protected from, would fall to the wayside. Men would greet each other with cries of, “Yeah man, I’m on the rag”, and women would be deemed “unable to compensate for being disconnected from the rhythm of the universe” and for their “lack of symbolic death and resurrection every month”.
Nobody is taking anything that far, but it’s important to remember that this world is ours too. It may not feel like it always has been, and that’s why it may feel like we’re asking for a lot when we change it to suit us and our needs. But it’s okay to shake a misogynistic system up. It’s okay to make noise, and take up space, and make people uncomfortable. You know we’ve earned the right to do it.
Co-published with Firstpost.