Mumbai-based media company Culture Machine’s offer of leave for women on the first day of their periods, which it announced this month, has set off a debate that has polarised women themselves.

Many women have asserted that not only do they not need such a policy, a period leave would prove yet another disadvantage for women in the workplace. Some of the arguments they have put forward: employers would become prejudiced against hiring women, it would legitimise the argument that women are not suitable for demanding jobs (such as combat roles), it would lead to loss of privacy and sexist comments by male colleagues, it would become the modern version of the idea that women should be segregated and shut away as “unclean” during their menstrual cycles. Not all women experience debilitating pain during their periods and those who do can avail of sick leave, they pointed out.

Many others weighed in with passionate Facebook posts about their experiences of painful periods, affirming the need for such leave.

Several women I know admitted to feeling confused. Should they stop keeping quiet and start demanding that the pain and discomfort they feel be acknowledged as normal and deserving of rest and relief? Or will doing so give a new lease of life to the demons of discrimination – that they have defeated with such effort – that claim women are “lesser than” men as they are handicapped by their bodies?

Is there a way out of this double bind?

I believe there is, and I also believe the debate that we have seen recently in the Indian media and on social media would benefit from some cold facts, and from the perspectives that feminist scholarship can offer.

Period leave in Bihar since 1992

Do you think Culture Machine’s period leave policy is an outlandish idea unlikely to work in India? Well, you might be surprised then to know that women employees in Bihar government services have been eligible for two days of leave in a month for this purpose, though not specifically stated, since 1992. The human resource guidelines of the Bihar government state:

“All women staff is eligible to avail two days of special leave every month because of biological reason. This is in addition to all the other eligible leaves.”

A January 2, 1992 government order stated that in keeping with the demand raised by various employee associations and the agreement arrived at with them, all women who are regular government employees will be given two consecutive days of special casual leave every month.

A screen shot of the 1992 Bihar government order mandating two days of period leave for women employees.

I spoke to Comrade Rambali Prasad, general secretary of the Bihar State Non-Gazetted Employees’ Federation (Gope faction) for the story behind this policy. He said: “Several of us toured various Bihar districts in 1990, meeting with groups of employees. Women employees everywhere raised the need for leave in keeping with their monthly cycle. Our Federation included it as one of the key demands of an employees’ strike in 1990. Negotiations with the union leaders took place with the then Chief Minister Lalu [Prasad] Yadav, who to his credit agreed without any hesitation that this demand had merit. That’s how the order was passed. And today, employees’ struggles have resulted in this order being extended to contract employees [such as teachers] as well.”

On my request, Shashi Yadav, general secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association in Bihar, spoke to women employees in several districts of the state and asked them if they had experienced any problems in availing of this leave. All the women she spoke to affirmed that they routinely availed of this leave without any problems. The leave is available to them till they reach the age of 45, but the women reported that they can easily get an extension and avail of it till the onset of menopause, at whatever age that may be in their individual case. Did period leave become an occasion for sexist comments and speculation by male colleagues, Shashi asked them. One woman replied, “Those who make sexist comments or indulge in harassment need no excuse to do so.” Another added, “Some men make sexist remarks even when we wear a nice sari, but that does not mean we stop wearing nice saris.”

The government employees said each woman decides when she needs the two days of leave – some avail of it on the first two days of their menstrual cycle, others on the two days preceding the onset of their periods, and they are answerable to no one about when they choose to do so. In other words, period leave is tied to each woman’s experience rather than being medicalised and resulting in needless scrutiny and violation of privacy to justify the leave.

Do all women need it?

In India, the most common euphemism for periods is “tabiyat kharab hai” (I am not well). In the debate over period leave, I have heard arguments for leave on the grounds that periods can be painful and debilitating, as well as against it, with many arguing that women are quite capable of working (including reporting from Kargil during a war) during their periods.

My first response to the latter argument is that the achievements of some women should not be used to discredit the experience of others. American tennis player Serena Williams can win Grand Slams while pregnant. Surely, we can celebrate that without telling women who complain of morning sickness or period pains, “Serena can do it, why can’t you?”

But there is an even more important point. Periods need not be debilitating to justify period leave. In this article in online women’s magazine The Ladies Finger, Sharanya Gopinathan points out that it is not that women cannot work in spite of periods, but that they should not have to. The eight-hour working day or the weekend or maternity leave – all labour rights that we take more or less for granted today – were won by workers’ movements in the face of arguments by employers that these would affect productivity and the economy. Even today, women workers who demand implementation of maternity leave and other entitlements are often laid off by employers. Does that delegitimise the concept of maternity leave?

The point here is that the average worker is not male (40% of the world’s workforce is female). This means that the workplace, too, cannot be gender-blind. Having periods does not necessarily mean “tabiyat kharab hai”. Menstruation is not a malfunction or a handicap or a disease; it is normal and natural for most women. Instead of women having to adjust to fit workplaces designed for men, workplaces need to be adjusted and transformed to fit women. (And the same goes for disabled persons).

A woman folds cloth sanitary napkins at a non-governmental organisation in Delhi. (Credit: Manan Vatsyayana / AFP)

What needs to change

The Hindi saying goes “Naach na aaye aangan tedha” (if you do not know how to dance, do not accuse the yard of being skewed). Are complaints about periods and demands for period leave basically an excuse made up by women who cannot hold their own in a competitive labour market? Or should we perhaps begin to recognise that women do not have to keep proving their competence and excellence at the expense of their health and wellbeing: it is the aangan – our society and workplaces – that is skewed and needs changing so that women can dance better.

Feminist anthropologist Emily Martin (The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, Beacon Press, 1987) identified a pattern in scientific studies relating to how menstruation affects women’s capacity to work. She pointed out that studies “that showed the debilitating effects of menstruation” coincided with post-war periods in history when “women were displaced from many of the paid jobs they had taken on” when men were deployed at war. And in periods when war-time called for large-scale entry of women into the workforce, could it be coincidence that “a rash of studies found that menstruation was not a liability after all”? Commenting on the explosion of studies in the 1980s on premenstrual syndrome, Martin saw a “conjunction between periods of our recent history when women’s participation in the labour force was seen as a threat, and, simultaneously, menstruation was seen as a liability”.

But if menstruation is not a liability for women, what do we make of premenstrual symptoms that women themselves report: including decreased efficiency or concentration, lowered emotional control, clumsiness, and displays of anger, which affect them both in waged work and unwaged domestic labour? Here, we arrive at the double bind again. There is pressure on women to deny experiencing such symptoms or to treat them as a disease to be cured by drugs and other therapies. But if women admit to these symptoms, they risk being pigeonholed as unstable and less efficient employees and human beings. One of Martin’s respondents put it this way:

“I grew up thinking you shouldn’t draw attention to your period, it makes you seem less capable than a man. I always tried to be kind of a martyr, and then all of a sudden recently I started hearing all this scientific information that shows that women really do have a cycle that affects their mood, and they really do get into bad moods when they have their periods… I don’t know whether all of a sudden it gives legitimacy to start complaining… Then again you can look at that as being a really negative thing, medical proof that women are less reliable. It’s proven now that they’re going to have bad moods once a month and not be as productive.”

Martin suggested that there was a way in which women can not only acknowledge but even embrace their premenstrual and menstrual experiences – by changing the way we view work and workplaces. She observed, “With respect to work, then, the vast majority of the population and all but a very few women are subjected to physical and mental discipline, one manifestation of what Foucault calls a ‘micro-physics of power’, ‘small acts of cunning’ in the total enterprise of producing ‘docile bodies’. What many women seem to report is that they are, during premenstrual days, less willing or able to tolerate such discipline.” And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

In industrialised capitalism, Martin argued, “Women are perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones out of balance rather than the organisation of society and work perceived as in need of a transformation to demand less constant discipline and productivity.” The way out of the bind we discussed above, Martin suggested, was “to focus on women’s experiential statements that they function differently during certain days, in ways that make it harder for them to tolerate the discipline required by work in our society. We could then perhaps hear these statements not as warnings of the flaws inside women that need to be fixed but as insights into flaws in society that need to be addressed”.

Martin warned that not only men but, often, women too would need to change their attitudes towards menstrual and premenstrual symptoms. One of her women respondents spoke of how women teachers/bosses were sometimes less sympathetic than their male counterparts towards menstruation. Some women tend to look at other women’s experiences of menstrual pain as excuses for slackness at work or studies.

This sanitary napkin with a message was part of a public art project in Delhi's colleges on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015.

It is not all negative

Martin also suggested that the symptoms women report are not always negative – many report feeling more creative or contemplative in the premenstrual and menstrual period. And even some of the negative symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome, she pointed out, could be seen more positively in a different context: “Does loss of ability to concentrate mean a greater ability to free-associate? Loss of muscle control, a gain in ability to relax? Decreased efficiency, increased attention to a smaller number of tasks?”

I remember the sense of liberation I felt when I read these words several years ago, when I was struggling to understand why my own premenstrual stress made it more difficult to cope with situations involving conflict (of which there is so much in the kind of work I do as an activist), but why at the same time I actually found myself reading, absorbing, making connections and writing better at such times, if only I could, temporarily, be kept free of stressful situations. A gentle and validating light shone on the problem when I read Martin’s words: “Perhaps it is the creative writing tasks present in most academic jobs that lead to the result researchers find puzzling: if premenstrual women cannot concentrate as well, then why are women academics’ work performance and concentration better than usual during the premenstrual phase?”

And what about the eternal menstrual and premenstrual bugbear – anger? Martin suggested that society – and science too – tends to see anger as natural in men, but a sign of irrationality and a source of instability in women. Lowered controls in premenstrual or menopausal periods allow women to express a perfectly valid and justified anger that they are socially trained to suppress at other times. And that is why such anger, instead of being denied and managed medically or being dismissed as “You’re just PMS-ing”, ought to be accepted as an expression of justified rebellion against a system that is deeply unjust to women. Martin wrote, “To see anger as a blessing instead of as an illness, it may be necessary for women to feel that their rage is legitimate. To feel that their rage is legitimate, it may be necessary for women to understand their structural position in society, and this in turn may entail consciousness of themselves as members of a group that is denied full membership in society simply on the basis of gender.”

Discrimination at work

Could period leave lead to violations of women’s rights at work? Of course, it could – absolutely anything can be a pretext for patriarchal oppression and violence at work. A 2002 study of Nike and Adidas workers in factories in Indonesia (We Are Not Machines, Timothy Connor) found that in the Nikomas Gemilang factory, workers who wanted to claim legally-mandated menstrual leave had to “go through the humiliating process of proving they are menstruating by pulling down their pants in front of female factory doctors”. But such violence does not need period leave as a trigger: after all, women workers in a Kerala factory in 2014 were strip-searched by female supervisors to find out who left a used sanitary pad in the bathroom.

As things stand, there are dozens of discriminatory work conditions, rules, and restrictions uniquely applied to women at workplaces in globalising India. Many women workers in India do not even have access to toilets. Women in Tamil Nadu garment factories are prevented from using mobile phones and speaking to co-workers, and are kept confined to factory and hostel premises. A report by civil liberties and feminist organisations found women garment workers in Karnataka are subjected to similar restrictions and intrusive surveillance, including sending someone to follow women workers into toilets to make sure they do not “waste time”. This report found “male supervisors, floor in-charges, including managers, call the women workers by abusive names… and cast aspersions on their character”. We need to reject and challenge these discriminatory forms of workplace discipline that subject women to hostile and violent work conditions that take away their autonomy. At the same time, we need to demand that workplace policies be tailored to ensure the privacy, dignity, and physical and mental wellbeing of all workers, acknowledging that this can call for distinct and unique policies for women.

Many women workers in India do not even have access to toilets.

If men could menstruate

In her article If Men Could Menstruate, feminist Gloria Steinem suggested that women were not “lesser than” men because of menstruation but that menstruation itself is seen negatively because it is experienced by women in a patriarchal society. Turning on its head the notion that women are unfit for combat roles because they menstruate, Steinem wrote that if men could menstruate, “military men, Right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (‘men-struation’) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (‘you have to give blood to take blood’), occupy political office (‘can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?’), be priest and ministers (‘how could a woman give her blood for our sins?’) or rabbis (‘without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean’).”

Martin added to Steinem’s list of what the world would do differently if men (and not women) could menstruate: “We would all be expected to alter our activities monthly as well as daily and weekly and enter a time and space organised to maximise the special powers released around the time of menstruation while minimising the discomforts.”

Surely, we do not need men to experience menstruation in order for us to see that our lives (whether related to domestic labour or waged work) could and should be organised so that women experience minimum discomfort and are able to avail to the maximum of the capacities unleashed around and during menstruation. Period leave is a step in the direction of such a world.

Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, and a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist)