Voices: The ugly troll-fest around period leave shouldn’t drown us out

Around a third of women who menstruate suffer from severe pain known as dysmenorrhea (Getty Images)
Around a third of women who menstruate suffer from severe pain known as dysmenorrhea (Getty Images)

There’s no subject that brings out people’s latent sexism on Indian Twitter as dysmenorrhea - or period pain. Men mansplain it, families dismiss it, employers invisibilize it, legislators shift the goalpost and menstruators live with a pain that has been described by scientists as having the same intensity as that of a heart attack.

According to the Spanish Gynaecology and Obstetrics Society, around a third of women who menstruate suffer from severe pain known as dysmenorrhea. And yet people with acute dysmenorrhoea are practically invisible to those around them to an extent that when the “period leave” debate exploded on social media in late February, the initial response – mainly from men – was swift, condescending, and dismissive.

“Imagine if your doctor took a ‘period leave’ on the day of your surgery,” wrote one person. It was the day Spain legislated to grant three-day leave with the chance to extend it to five days for “those with disabling periods. And Indian Twitter was split down the middle into mainly two camps - those who supported period leave and those who didn’t.

Interestingly, it coincided with India’s Supreme Court’s decision to hear a petition on the contentious topic. (It later disposed of the petition, referring it to the executive to formulate rules).

What started as isolated tweets, soon degenerated into an ugly troll-fest.

Because, you see, men don’t care about workplace equality as much as when it comes to benefits not available to them - take period leave for instance. Menstrual cramps mainly afflict cis-women. If they are given monthly leaves for it, “what is the equivalent of that for us?” cis men wanted to know. Implying the leave was a perk for women and it did not bode well for equality if men did not have a similar break to compensate what companies were offering women.

It became quickly apparent that one of the main arguments was that the period leave would affect workplace productivity and even male morale, if men had to “pick up the slack” for women who needed a day off a month, 12 days a year, according to some.

When you think about it, the blame mainly lies with how much society normalized women’s pain. Men who have seen women in the role of primary nurturers and caregivers around them their entire lives – as sisters, daughters, mothers, wives – cooking, cleaning, washing through pain and heavy bleeding, obviously do not see what the big deal is.

It’s a condition Indian women have been forced to normalize since puberty because of how much responsibilities they carry from birth to death. So when they demand rest it comes as a huge shock, including to employers. Let alone a country such as India – where periods are a huge taboo still with religious norms keeping menstruating women out of areas such as temples and the kitchen – worldwide they are still the butt of jokes. Women are called “hormonal” and “PMSing” just for expressing normal emotions.

Remember how Tiger Woods handed a tampon to a rival as a joke, associating bleeding with being a loser?

And yet, period leaves are neither new nor radical. Worldwide, menstrual leave is offered by countries including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea and Zambia. Since 1992, the Indian state of Bihar – considered one of the most economically backward – has been offering two days of menstrual leaves a month.

It was introduced in Soviet Russia in 1922 but removed in 1927 after people expressed fear that it would lead to discrimination. South Korea allows female employees to take a day off every month.

In 2020, several private companies in India introduced menstrual leave for their female and transgender employees.

In January 2023, the Indian state of Kerala granted menstrual leaves for women students in all state-run universities.

One of the major (and valid) arguments against the leave is that it would lead to discrimination against women who will become unemployable. If we take the example of Spain, where the leave requires a doctor’s note and the public social security system - that is, the government - foots the bill, it becomes a model that can be emulated with proper public feedback and research.

The huge pushback against period leave also stems from the fear that women, who already have limited rights, will be further shunned and isolated from public life if they sought to medicalise periods as something for which they needed rest. Many people suggested that women do not need extra leave - why don’t companies simply extend their sick days? Here’s the problem with that. Period is not a sickness. Both men and women have a limited number of sick leaves at work but cis men do not get periods.

So this isn’t an issue that can be addressed keeping in mind equality. It’s a matter of equity – women compete with men in all spheres with disadvantages men do not have. When governments enforced the eight-hour day, 40-hour week, or weekends off, there was bound to have been pushback based on arguments on productivity. But labour laws were upgraded keeping in mind the quality of life of workers. The pushback against period leave is understandable. But like every other workers’ right, this too will be normalized if governments understand that women’s lived experiences are different from men’s. Women in paid work in developing countries such as India still carry the burden of household chores and child and elderly caregiving. The day off – for those who need it – will go a long way in giving menstruators rest.

What men (and male-majority employers) need to understand is that women who have debilitating pain with zero support from society aren’t demanding the leave as just a day off to relax. They will still be beholden to chores at home. But it should be available if they need it. One also needs to understand that periods are not the same for everyone. Some need the first day once every four or five months. Some come to work thinking they’ll manage but need to go home when the pain becomes unbearable. Some need the last day due to heavy bleeding. Some just need a few hours offline. Some need work from home. Periods are different for different people.

If a business turns hostile to women because they’re unable to manage pain they’ve no control over, that business will do well to evolve or shut down. If women are eliminated from workspace for seeking comfort for a debilitating condition, the government needs to step in. Quality of work isn’t determined by how many hours a woman physically turns up for work – the Covid lockdown established that.

And even in this whole debate we are primarily thinking of white collar jobs. Imagine the relief it will bring to women who do manual labour when it becomes legal to seek relief on bad days. This whole debate has exposed not just how little people, especially men, actually understand periods, but also how devoid of empathy they are of menstruators around them.

When policies are considered and legislated, they are done for the poorest of poor as the lowest common denominator. And in India, the disenfranchised are often from whom choice is stripped. They are the ones who work under inhuman conditions – the daily wagers, the domestic and factory workers. And when the government legislates it’s this section that needs to be kept in mind so that they don’t suffer the brunt of employer apathy.