The context: food delivery service Zomato introduced up to 10 days of “period leave” a year for its women employees.
The reaction: well, apart from the expected misogynistic (women will take advantage of this to slack off from work) and too-clever-by-half (one asked on Twitter, what about “painful erection leave” for men) responses of a few men, a big backlash came from women themselves.
From older women, women who have had to work hard through largely male workplaces and establish space for themselves and those who came after them. In the early days of women in the workplace, you had to be tougher than the men to get ahead. You could not show signs of weakness because if you did, you were immediately put down and put back in that place for the “weaker sex”. The Women’s Movement at the time was for equality, hard fought and hard won, whatever little bit was won.
A furtive exercise
I started working 36 years ago. In those days, no one discussed menstruation publicly at all. Women who could get a man to do it for them, would not even go to a shop to buy sanitary napkins. My mother was shocked when I told her that I bought them myself after I left home. In shops, till today, an assistant often furtively wraps pads or tampons in newspaper before handing them over. No one must know.
It is only recently that menstruation has been discussed openly, sort of. That people are forced to acknowledge that it is a natural process, vitally tied in with reproduction and propagation of the species. Until science reaches large-scale miracle breakthroughs, for now, menstruation and childbirth are linked.
The problem however is the generation gap between women who toughed it through to make space in a man’s world and women who have benefitted from that struggle but live in different times. Yes, we, and the women before me who were even tougher, often very unsympathetic, had to hide several aspects of our femininity or we would lose out on opportunities or promotions.
The bargain then was to “suck it up”, to suffer the pain and the humiliation because men were waiting to put you down. It could be disguised as “paternalistic concern” or just be outright misogyny ready to pounce on weak unreliable women.
Remember, these were times when men could not show weakness or emotion either. They were victims of patriarchy of sorts, of toxic masculinity. There were consequences for men not “manly” enough. A parallel strain to this is how gay men suffered and continue to do so.
But the argument that because I suffered and tolerated that suffering, you must do too, cannot hold. The Women’s Movement has to evolve. Today’s women grew up in the times that we made easier for them. We cannot expect them to follow only our norms.
The world has since changed. These women are now confident enough to demand their rights, they are more comfortable in their skins as women, they are not scared to demand acknowledgment of their femaleness. We have to grow and adapt together.
Ten days a year for what can be a debilitating experience is not an admission of weakness. It is an acceptance of need.
There are many battles yet to be fought. Together is easier than apart.
Ranjona Banerji is a journalist in Dehradun.