Whether it was considered powerful or polluting, menstrual blood, and therefore menstruation itself, has been subject to certain controls by human society. In India today arguably all women have experienced these, mostly through forms of exclusion. Depending on who you are and where you are from, you may not enter your kitchen, place of worship or touch iron while menstruating. Some women may even be forced to sit outside of their houses or not bathe during their period. Many of us educated, ‘empowered’ women eschew these beliefs, so it is understandable why some of us, faced with the prospect of paid menstrual leave, wonder how this is not a similar system of exclusion from the workplace.
To respond to that concern, one would invoke Joan C Williams 1989 essay ‘Deconstructing Gender’. Gautam Bhatia, a Delhi-based lawyer, referred to Williams’ essay in perhaps the best argument for paid menstrual leave on the Indian social media. Williams points out that wage labour is constructed to benefit the ideal worker — one who has no family obligations and such — who is effectively male. When women try to meet this ideal, they are at a disadvantage. In fact the ‘ideal worker’ is not only male, but also one without physical or mental disabilities, is cisgender and heterosexual. When we consider the workplace from this angle, we realise that it is not only reproductive needs (Williams was referring to pregnancy and childcare) but other needs as well that must be taken into consideration in designing a workplace.
What paid menstrual leave does, in such a scenario, is not to exclude menstruating women or transmen -- or ghettoize them as television journalist Barkha Dutt argued on social media -- but include their needs into the design of a workplace that is equal while recognising difference.
This last point is another argument against the idea of paid menstrual leave: how can women demand equality while asking for ‘special’ treatment. This is an issue that has plagued generations of feminists; but it should have been resolved by now.
Joan W Scott in her 1988 article ‘Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism’, argues, powerfully, that the opposition of equality vs difference is a false construct. Equality does not mean ‘sameness’ and equal treatment cannot erase difference. Women are different from men. The danger is in mixing gendered expectations of women in the workforce -- which are entirely social and cultural constructs — with recognising biological (sex) realities. Gendered expectations include assuming that those identifying as women are better suited or not at all suited for certain tasks based on their gender. In the Indian media, this may result in more women covering so-called ‘soft’ beats like child welfare or health rather than ‘hard news’ beats such as politics or defence.
Perhaps it is having won this battle to attain some sort of perceived equality at the workplace that makes some women, most white collar workers, uncomfortable with the notion of paid menstrual leave. However, the concept must be viewed from the perspective of inclusion and as aimed at challenging notions of who an ideal worker is. As a step towards a workplace that recognises the diversity of experience and needs of its employees, paid menstrual leave will lead to the creation of a more sensitive and equal workplace that will benefit all employees.