We learn about periods, or menstruation, in our high-school Biology class. But what our education so conveniently misses out on is its ugly side-effects, the discrimination, and the nonsensical people who ask, “PMS-ing or what?”
Let’s Talk About the Ugly
In some Indian states, a girl’s first period is celebrated as her passage into womanhood. These cultural traditions must be respected, and can be followed by whoever wishes so, but it is important to realise the subsequent sexism that comes along. These celebrations are more to do with a woman’s fertility than normalising conversations around menstruation.
In most Indian homes, menstrual untouchability is still followed in many ways. In some, disallowing women to go to the temple or praying is seen as the least stringent rule, while in other households, menstruating women are given a comprehensive list to follow. This includes living in a separate room, using separate clothes, not touching any furniture, not interacting with the male members of the house, etc.
The practice largely stems from the idea that menstruation is impure, and if a menstruating individual touches anything, it will become dirty. Many politicians and public figures advocate these practices in the name of religion and ancient science, often going to the extent of explaining that period-related discomforts and illnesses occur when the said rules are broken.
This is not to discount people’s belief in religion, or the existence of ancient science, but to question the argument that is based on their ill-informed interpretation of one source. Moreover, the argument leaves out bodily autonomy and presents an unscientific and dangerous explanation for serious conditions like endometriosis, PCOS, and dysmenorrhea.
Zomato and the Debate About Period Leave
Zomato introduced paid menstrual leave for all its women and transgender employees with a statement saying,
“At Zomato, we want to foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance. There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for a period leave.”
The news sparked a conversation about period leave in India and received mixed reactions.
Many women applauded the policy for validating period pain, while journalists like Barkha Dutt believed that ‘this can be used against women to shame, embarrass, and sexually repress’ them. She went on to say that ‘periods are annoyingly uncomfortable and often painful’ but that it can be fixed with a ‘simple Tylenol, Meftal, or a hot-water bottle’.
To a certain extent, I understand the sentiment behind such a claim.
We live in a country where menstruation is still taboo. Many educated and progressive people carry stereotypical opinions that are deeply entrenched in their minds.
We also live in a patriarchal society that questions a woman’s ability to work as effectively as a man, whether or not she is menstruating. Menstruation or pregnancy is often used as an excuse to justify the gender wage gap as well.
So, in such an environment, if a woman were to use a paid period leave, the subject becomes public information to her colleagues. Some employees will understand, but many will question if she is receiving ‘special treatment’, ‘unequal paid leave’, ‘unfair opportunity’ to work in the same role/team as they are. Which is why a lot of women choose to work, despite the pain, to avoid being labelled as ‘weak’ or ‘incapable’ of doing their job.
Simplifying period pain as just ‘annoying’, is essentially telling anyone who menstruates that they are exaggerating or over-reacting to their pain. We cannot discount the biological differences that exist in over half a population. Instead of trying to comprehend a basic human process and find ways to accommodate its negative effects, if we choose to blatantly ignore it and call it a ‘flaw’, then what is the point of arguing about equality?
Understanding PMS and Period Pain
I have always had painful periods. There were frequent visits to the school nurse during classes or skipping school entirely on the first day. It was three years ago that I found out I had two small, benign ovarian cysts. They are harmless, common amongst menstruating women, and usually go away on their own.
However, they do worsen my periods.
Stabbing pelvic pain during which I cannot possibly walk. Uneasy and heavy lower back pain. Stomach cramps that are a constant throughout, intensifying if I ever strain myself or if I dare to get stressed out a little. And feelings of anxiety and depression that loom around a few days before and continue well into my period.
The hollow and empty feeling, which everyone usually undermines, hugely affects my productivity. I am unable to motivate myself to perform daily tasks, unable to concentrate, and unable to explain myself in most situations.
I stop all intake of caffeine, alcohol, and carbs during my period to avoid bloating and cramps. And I exercise regularly to reduce some of the side-effects and to cope with the fatigue.
Everything in my life changes for 10–12 days every month.
This is just my experience. Countless women, whether or not they have cysts, have similar symptoms in varying intensities. Those with serious conditions like endometriosis, PCOS, etc., face far worse symptoms. The reason I explain this is not for the pity or the sympathy but for people to understand how periods can have a drastic effect on one’s daily life.
Because it is all reduced when a man makes a PMS joke, who probably does not even know what it stands for. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, for the ones who thought of coming at me with the ‘not all men’ argument.
Why Paid Period Leave Is Important
Most institutions often ignore an individual’s economic, race, caste, and gender background, without understanding its effects on their work. This is not equality. This is simply demanding women, the LGBTQ+, and marginalised communities to adjust themselves into an already existing biased and patriarchal system.
The decision to work on a period is not a choice. Menstruating individuals in the labour force often do not have the luxury to take leave, and the ones who work in corporate offices choose not, to avoid workplace discrimination.
Gender equality in a workplace should not mean that everyone caters a system that disregards their health concerns. Gender equality comes from developing an environment that accommodates all genders and provides equal access to opportunities for everyone.
What Zomato did is exactly that; ‘understand biological realities’, ‘make room for the biological needs’, and create an inclusive, safe environment where one can report discriminatory behaviour.
What can be done further is to educate everyone, right from school, about the different menstrual illnesses, and the side-effects of menstruation. Employers can also create awareness by mandating diversity and inclusion training for their employees.
In an ideal world, these solutions would already exist, or there would have been no need for them at all. Until then, it is on us to learn the human differences, unlearn the biases, and firstly, discontinue the regressive practices at home.