Period Leave

Kingdom is a manga about the unification of China under the Qin emperor, and a significant part of the plot deals with the fascinating and often shocking strategy that generals use to outwit each other. One of my favourite parts is where a defending general vacates his mountain fort. The enemy, comprising many tribal armies who are trained in mountain warfare, find themselves invading a fallen fort, where most soldiers have fled. Confident in their skill, they push forward, hoping to cut off the defenders, and begin scaling a sheer rock face en masse. Then, from the heights behind them, appears the defending army, and their general’s cold face is etched against the sky. Before the mountain tribes can retreat, they are cut down by archers.

One recalls, in this connection, how Germany once evaded the Maginot Line, and the ‘teleports behind you’ meme. Perhaps we take our victories for granted all too often, and forget how precarious our position really is.

I cannot pretend to have in-depth knowledge of the facts concerning my subject. But I feel compelled to voice my anxieties nonetheless.

Going by these numbers, 10% of girls in India think menstruation is a disease, 56% of girls received no information about menstruation, 87% of girls and women don’t understand its biological significance, and 23% of girls in rural India quit school after getting their period. Many women have no access to proper sanitation. It has been written time and time again that menstrual myths and taboos affect all women in India and abroad. The fact that menstruation and the industries and cultural practices surrounding it affect women means it deserves universal attention, including from men. That men might not be able to come to a complete understanding of it does not mean that they have no obligation or necessity to discuss it or to act on their understanding.

The lives of women include their lives in the workplace. It wasn’t always that women could work in most occupations. When they did work, they would be restricted to certain professions, like teaching. Within living memory, there have been people who said they weren’t ‘hungry enough’ to let their daughters work. The normalisation of women’s presences in formerly male-dominated workspaces was, I believe, no easy feat, even if only the cultural aspect be considered. This normalisation, I like to think, is a very dynamic and carefully poised cultural concept – something like a ping pong ball on a cardboard square balanced on pins. It is predicated on the notion that women can work, and the assumption (which is challenged and reaffirmed in different ways) that women should work. Women cannot work when cultural mores dictate that they must not, or that motherhood should be their sole occupation. Declare, however, that the right to work supercedes motherhood, and you may have acted in hubris. Force private companies to hire a certain percentage of women, and you will affect the economy in far-reaching ways, as well as possibly force the employment of poor workers, and leave employees subject to discrimination for being ‘mandatory hires’. Place work and motherhood on equal cultural footing and you will have dictated culture itself, sundering it from the direct link to the object of critique – female employment; that is to say, it may well be in the scheme of things that the one has more value than the other. How will the world change if the idea of women being employed changes? What if we stopped talking about it, or talked about it more? The purpose of asking all this is to point out that the idea that a woman should go to college and get a job is by no means a universal one.

This precarious position of the conceptual foundation of female employment puts me in mind of something else. I was in class one day, not long ago – I may add that I was an undergraduate student of English in Kolkata – when the teacher drifted to the topic of the 2016 American election. He recalled the Lewinsky trial and said that his own teacher had said Hilary would be President one day, judging from her poise and dignity. I tried to interject that there was a huge base of support for Trump, keeping in mind conservative stances on issues such as abortion; but the teacher would have none of it. He shook his head and declared that Hilary was guaranteed to win.

Some time later, perhaps months, I came across some very unpleasant people on Facebook. It’s not that I don’t try to be a little open-minded, but I can’t help disliking certain points of view. In the comments under an American friend’s post, two or three men were adamantly arguing that women should not go to college. They said that a woman’s biological (and therefore spiritual) purpose was motherhood, and that they were wasting their ‘most fertile’ years studying for a degree they shouldn’t need. What they also hated was that these women were becoming ‘fat feminists’ after college. Well, I tried, but they were convinced they were right, and I stopped commenting after a woman who I think was an academic started replying. When I was talking about this to a (female) friend later (I was deeply disturbed for quite some time afterwards), she said that we had to make sure these people didn’t come to power. I reminded her that the God Emperor was enthroned in the New World.

I didn’t plan to write this here, but I just remembered this answer I wrote to a question in a test, on Dattani’s On a Muggy Night in Mumbai. A gay man in the play had said that he felt free to live as he wished in Europe, but I argued that the myth of the West having a wave of ‘liberal’ progress was just that, a myth. Perhaps now more than in preceding decades – although I’m as factually uninformed here as elsewhere – the conservative resistance to feminism and queer voices is strong.

This brings me to the subject of this essay – the demand for period leave. I’ve recently seen a few articles circulating on Facebook arguing that women should be given leave when they’re menstruating. While I know next to nothing about how markets, free or otherwise, function, this did remind me of a similar article on which a friend of mine commented, possibly two years ago. He had criticised the idea, and a female friend of ours had commented, ‘Oh, have a heart’. My friend replied that this was not a question of ‘heart’: an enterprise seeking profit would choose the most efficient employees; ergo, if women had period leave, they would be less likely to be hired than men (who, to clarify, would not require paid leave every month).

We return to the simile of the ball on the cardboard. Diverse ideas shape society, and women’s employment in workplaces – the result of many years of campaigning – is no more secure than the next idea that can be questioned. Before proceeding, I concede that many employee-friendly concessions certainly have been granted by corporations, including weekends, pensions, maternity leave, and so on. It would be naive to say that asking for another kind of leave is wrong or excessive per se. But we recall those men on Facebook, and my teacher’s conviction. We recall the terrible fate of the mountain tribes in Kingdom.

We will then remember that there continue to exist many, many people – by no means all of them male – who sincerely believe that women do not belong in the workplace. They laugh at the idea. Our much-vaunted feminist arguments, which we like to think will suffice to silence such people, do and will fall on deaf ears. In a world where such people exist – or may I say, in the Lovecraftian vein, that they outnumber their feminist opponents – women who want to live as they believe they have the right to, with the trials and challenges of the workplace rather than the traditional security of the household, must negotiate their position with these presences in mind. This does not mean that granting period leave will necessarily set back all progress in women’s employment. Perhaps when my hairs are grey, it will be common. What I fear is that in this scaling of the cliff, as it were, the enemy general might annihilate these climbers.

So when my friend shared an article on period leave (which, as I recall, focussed more on menstrual awareness and such rather than its relation to the workplace – the ‘leave’ part of period leave), I asked, brusquely enough, why we would go from saying that women can do what men can to saying that women need extra leave. My friend, who I might add has studied marketing, and possibly understands the issue far better than I do, replied that women are different from men and should not have to do what men do. Like my other friend years ago, one woman replied, ‘You spoke my heart’.

When someone who probably knows more about the subject than I do takes such a stand, I have no choice but to accept her view. As it is, men are told to amplify feminist voices (which, I imagine, stems from the idea that feminism is an exoteric concept accessible not so much to everyone as to individual women). Then I have no choice but to hope for the best. One hopes that should this become the norm, it would not adversely affect the progress made. Or perhaps, as not a few sages will tell me no doubt, women are about to return to their natural role, putting an end to over a century of Yellow-Wallpaper-esque madness and neurasthenia. Never mind that my mother is a headmistress who tackles administrative and educational problems everyday. Never mind that my aunt, who never married, won a presidential award in India for her services in education. Never mind that I feel genuine rage on this issue. It’s not my problem, is it? I’ll be fine either way. I am, after all, a man.