The Case for Empathy in Menstrual Leaves

TATIANA ZABRODINA

It’s been about three years. In the sweltering North Indian summer and half a city away, I interned at a modest organisation swung into activity by less than fifteen folks every day. My days, then, were almost always pre-stuffed with overtime work. I wished to do a lot, and well. (An optimistic construction of my still-intact toxic work ethic.)

Some position particulars, gradually unfolded: an undefined role, check; no pay, check; no leaves, check!

To further tell you about myself from then, I possessed fewer feminist ideas than I do today. Or, to put it plainly: I chose myself seldom. I have also always had excruciatingly painful periods.

Two-three weeks in, I got my period — I remember waking up to nausea, abdominal cramps and sheet stains. (A routine, in my case.) I cleaned up and mechanically popped a Meftal Spas — for needs beget habits. The very earliness of the day prompted me to type a text to a senior and the HR rep, explaining how I could not be present at the office because I felt “too sick”. Swoosh, I hit ‘Send’.

“Sick”, “feverish”, “unwell” — menstruation, for me, never had to be burdened under overused lexicons of mundane excuses. However, I was yet to learn that one could puncture patriarchal discomfort just by being stubbornly explicit about what is.

Yet, later that same morning, I found myself at the receiving end of a furious phone call. It did not matter that I spilt the true reason, requested the day off — breaking down. The HR rep threw absurd (and so far, untold) organisational policies at me. I was asked to report to the office “immediately” or face termination. I was nineteen; I took the second Meftal Spas pill and booked an Uber.

Before this, such unkindness had remained unknown. The staff composition at the office carried women as about its half. So, what stunned me the most was that these two senior executives, leading teams with young women, were also women. It was unsettling how they — fellow menstruators — could uphold such indifference about something that remains so solely intimate to us.

Everything that we refrain from talking about turns into fear or a taboo. For society, menstruation is both.

It is true that some menstruators barely feel any discomfort (like, take my mother), while others writhe in debilitating pain (: me). But, linguistic constructs and social conditioning confine the latter within the sticky ‘lower pain thresholds.’

Patronised, women plough through this monthly pain in rehearsed, generational silences. Other folks on the gender spectrum remain abandoned.

Menstruators are expected to accommodate periods (with its accessorising pain) in their lifestyles. However, those who endure it will tell you they adjust their lives around their cycles. Work, weddings, trips, socialisations, physically-demanding activities like hiking or dancing, or even having sex — the relentless calendar calculations just elude the rest.

Outrageously, even any attempts to alleviate this pain are labelled immoral and come laden with myths. For long, a rumour engulfed my teen peer group: “Meftal causes infertility.” So, again, the expectation was that we would sacrifice our ease for faraway motherhood. It was a mercy that I never really felt too maternal!

Still, it is revolting how so much of this pain could have been so easily comforted: with menstrual leaves.

Or, in other words, by practising empathy.

Our archaic, rule-sewn frameworks like institutions and workspaces were never designed to support rudimentary human needs. (Note: Human needs mean human needs, not just of the cishet men!) The architecture of these power structures is so homogenous that it is distorted.

More cishet men dominate and spearhead our professional spaces than women or folks from the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Their excessive participation in spaces they do not own (and debating things that have nothing to do with them) devoids narratives and outcomes of the much-needed firsthand experiences, contexts and nuances.

This is how any policy curation attempting to foster gender equality and equity gets obstructed by the heavily-employed words like “misuse”, “abuse” and “discriminatory”. It further explains why while the shushes around menstruation trespass academic and professional environments, the sensitivity does not.

Much of empathy is just unlearning. Listening makes unlearning the easiest act.

Menstrual leaves assert periods as periods — unmasked and set forth. They place menstruators in charge of their bodies — especially when discomforted. They do not diminish us, no, but, instead, tangibly acknowledge and give space to our inherently muted sufferings.

I hope, sincerely, that the women at that organisation, and everywhere else, learn to make their pain visible.

I hope we remember that it only takes one woman to decide she deserves better and turn the world more human for the rest, and all.

Because, for plenty, menstrual leaves are just feminist emblems of exhibited empathy, recognising us for us.

[Written for Living With Stories (LwS)for a jointly-built weekly blog segment: It Matters.]

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