Menstruation and its occupational hazards have always been a contentious issue for women. Till a few decades ago, it was a matter never discussed openly in our part of the world, and definitely never in the presence of men! From that perspective, it is no doubt a mark of progress for women that work places are now considering menstrual leave policies for female employees. Is this move woman-friendly initiative? Or is it a covert attempt to isolate women by emphasizing their fragility, physically and mentally? This indeed is a debatable matter.
It has to be agreed that, compared to many other places in India, Assamese women have fared better in the hands of patriarchy. But even in our liberal state, when it came to the acceptance of a woman’s natural biological functions, the mindset proved to be blinkered and prejudiced. The ritual of tuloni biya is a decisive pointer at how young girls, after attaining puberty, had to go through a farcical ceremony of a proxy marriage to a banana tree, a substitute for a human groom! Ironically, the apparent dichotomy in the ritual escaped the attention of the enforcers. On the one hand, the ceremony itself symbolised that a girl was ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. While simultaneously, it curbed the natural rhythm and free movement of young girls by imposing severe restrictive measures. For many young girls in earlier times, attainment of puberty became a nightmarish proposition and they greeted it with tears and trepidation.
This age-old custom is mentioned only to bolster my argument that women today have come a long way from their earlier cloistered existence. Gone are the days when having your periods meant being made to feel like a pariah in your own home, being excluded from all familial and social activities. And even from one’s marital bed! The modern women are now strong and vocal contenders for gender equality. It has no doubt been a relentless effort to fight orthodoxies and opposition at every step.
However, today, young girls can refuse with impunity to go through a ceremony like the tuloni biya. And girls in the present times are also much better equipped to handle their periods with more sophisticated protection and excellent pain-killers available everywhere. Options like hormone-therapy are also at their disposal. Hence, the concept of taking leave during one’s periods makes me unsure whether we are being pushed back to the dark times. Or whether such a move would only widen the gender divide, which we have tried so hard to bridge.
My personal thesis regarding this sensitive issue is simple and unequivocal. If sportswomen all over the world can go through their rigorous training and perform at their optimum level without caving in to menstrual discomfort; if women can travel in space, unconcerned about their period cycles; if our daily domestic help can report for duty and carry on with her taxing chores in not one, but in several households, then all women must definitely be endowed with a physical resilience to work even with a certain degree of discomfort. Why should working women then, equipped with proper restrooms in their work places, need to take leave during their periods? And specially, when it is a given that if anyone’s dysmenorrhea is intolerable, there is always sick-leave to fall back upon.
As a teacher of long standing, I have seen students who go through a harrowing time during their periods. But their numbers are limited. Most girls lead normal and active lives during those few days. And even those who abstain from classes are often forced to do so because of the utterly inadequate washroom facilities, a common and lamentable feature in the majority of our educational institutions.
There is nothing defective or dysfunctional or even unhealthy about menstrual cycles. In fact, our periods are indicative of good womb health. Feminists have for long talked of menstrual activism for liberating women’s bodies from social control, of freeing them from shame, silence and taboo. Without getting into the deeper implications of interpretations and theories, I can only add my quiet attestation to the idea.
If women endorse periods leave, we will only be reverting to our traditional role of being the weaker sex. Why should the women of today allow a natural biological function to handicap them? Why should a woman’s time of periods be revealed in the office attendance sheet? Isnt it like wearing the status of your body on your sleeve? Surely women today can perform at the same level as men and be faultlessly professional in their approach to work.
I firmly believe that the introduction and the acceptance of such a leave will be an intrusion and an invasion of a woman’s private space. It will raise questions about her work culture and work ethics and will undermine her hard won empowerment and equality. A young friend succinctly summed up the matter for me when I asked for her opinion on this issue. I rest my case with her words, “If you want a man’s job and want to earn a man’s pay, you have to keep a man’s hours!”
Aditi Chowdhury retired as Associate Professor, Department of English, Handique Girl’s College, Guwahati.