RITU PANDEY explains why “period leave’ could be a misguided step
Periods, for a 14-year-old me, were a horrific discovery. Of course, for what was happening with my body but also for all the strange things that suddenly started happening with me thereon. The day I returned from school with a stained skirt, along with the instructions that came my way on daily hygiene was a complete ban on my entering the kitchen or the pooja room and touching any food item, water and utensils till “I was okay.” I was miserable, unable to make any sense of anything. Was I not “okay?” What was wrong with me and why? There was some explaining, but too confusing for my simple, teenage mind. It took me a while to figure things out and contextualise them over the years as I saw manifestations of my “misery” all around me.
Like in my small family of working parents, I never gave much thought as to why for three days of the month my father and grandfather would take turns in the kitchen. Neither did it ever occur to me, why in my neighbour’s large household, one or two daughters-in-law were always sitting like outcasts on a rug all day away from the kitchen every month. But today when I look back this was my earliest education in “periods” and “period leave”, now made famous by Coexist, the UK-based company which plans to offer its 24 female staff time off for their time of the month. As I see it, India always had well defined work boundaries that focused on a healthy environment for both men (earning) and women (nurturing) without any suffering. And time off on days when one was menstruating was an essential part of this arrangement. Over time though, the intent was lost in rituals and “rest” was confused for “cleanliness” leading to isolation of women in their most painful days from households and communities, examples of which I cited above.
What Coexist has started is very well-intended, no doubt. Working while you’re bleeding is painful and a few days of rest would be a blessing. But how long before this turns into an excuse for something else? Fraudulent medical certificates and manipulation of sick leaves are an ugly reality of our work places after all. And would the employers then be open to granting leave to employees suffering from other serious ailments that see monthly recurrences such as the cylic vomiting syndrome? Besides, women this far have dealt with bigger challenges, and quite successfully, even while they bled. So why restrict the demand for gender parity by equating physiologies and pandering to stereotypes?
Instead, now that we’ve broached upon the subject, the need of the hour is, to not let it be brushed under the carpet any more. Periods are natural, and normal. They are a health issue, more than a women’s issue. It’s our ill-informed taboos around them that are all women’s issues — from ban on temple entry to use of sanitary napkins to even that pretentious everyday coyness around them — because these affect them for life. Why else would my father and grandfather who, quite admirably, took turns in the kitchen not open up to me on what was wrong with my mother on those days? And why do I still have to make a big secret of my sanitary napkin each time I need to change them while at work? Let’s talk about these things, with our men, more openly and candidly. That’s what we need more urgently than any leave. Period.
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