You would imagine that period leaves would come as good news to feminists, but in this day and age, there is still a ransom to be paid if you are a menstruating woman with a career on the rise.
If men menstruated, period leaves would be in the constitution; hell, they would probably be the 11th commandment – thou shalt not work thy male employee like a mule when he is bleeding – and women would be extended the same grace, but that is not the case.
In 1947, menstrual leaves became enshrined in Japanese labour law following years of lobbying and campaigning by the nation’s labour unions. Neighbouring countries like Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Korea later followed suit. Decades later, Nike incorporated menstrual leaves into its code of conduct and, in March of this year, UK-based company Coexist introduced the policy, allowing its female employees to take time off to handle their monthly visitor – should they feel the need to – and renewing the debate around the touchy subject.
While many across the world applauded the decision, the sturdiest opposition to the concept of period leaves came from feminists many of whom argue that the policy undermines women’s capacity to function in the workplace and warn that taking advantage of this benefit could impede a woman’s career advancement. Their concerns proved to be legitimate; according to a story published in The Guardian earlier this year, many women in Asia, where the trend originated, don’t make use of the dispensation out of fear that it would be perceived as weakness – some women even fear that it would lead to sexual harassment. In countries where the legislation is in effect, the duration of the leave and the measures with which to implement it are entirely up to employers to decide. But because boys will be boys, regulations are not always followed. In Indonesia, for example, there have been instances of underwear inspection!
The fact remains, however, that women do menstruate and the question of whether or not menstrual leave constitutes a medical necessity, as it stands, is not the ultimate determinant, as each woman experiences menstruation differently. Twenty-six-year-old Jesse experiences severe pain during her time of the month; “I’m one of those girls who don’t have light cramps – I twist and turn with pain.” So does Nariman, who put it quite graphically, saying, “It literally feels like my pelvic bone is expanding and my uterus will fall out of my vagina.” To 21-year-old Mariam, however, menses might as well have a mind of their own; “Sometimes it doesn’t really hurt, but other times, it’s like someone is stabbing you in the stomach continuously.”
According to England’s National Health Service, up to 90 percent of women experience dysmenorrhea (period pains), 20 percent out of whom experience it moderately while two percent suffer from severe pain. Another study has shown that up to 14 percent of women are often unable to work because of period pain. “Women who have good healthy ovulation are more prone to dysmenorrhea, which can sometimes manifest itself as severe and debilitating pain,” says Dr. Ayman Hany, Lecturer and Consultant of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Cairo University.
Unlike men, the opportunities and privileges women are afforded are not infinite, so we do what we do best – we pop an Advil (or 10) and soldier on with a polite smile on our faces like our insides don’t feel like they are being ripped apart. However, this method is dangerous at best, and deadly at worst. “Pain medication could cause bigger problems like serious liver damage, kidney problems, and stomach ulcers,” Dr. Hany warns.
As often propagated – although wildly exaggerated – by pop culture, menstruation can also affect a woman’s attitude; many experience violent mood swings and irritability – they basically become men. “I get extremely mentally exhausted, moody, and cranky, and if anyone puts a lot of pressure on me, I crack. I get very emotional,” Jesse says.
What Jesse may not know, however, is that this behavioural change is both her body’s reaction to the influx of hormones and its coping mechanism with the physical pain. “Women experience physiological pain such as breast tenderness and muscle cramps in the lower abdomen to which the body responds by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural morphine, which in turn affects her behaviour,” Dr. Hany explains.
In Egypt, the discussion around women’s standing in the workplace hasn’t even begun, but when asked whether women should be allowed to take time off during their periods, Dr. Hany said that painful menstruation is a medical condition, no different than a toothache. “If your teeth really hurt, your boss can’t expect you to be able to work, so I’m definitely in favour of paid period leaves for women.”
Amy Mowafi – CEO of MO4 Network, who runs the country’s foremost digital media agency with a number of department heads most of whom are also women – opted to meet Dr. Hany halfway. “Girls will sometimes message me saying, ‘I have my period and it’s really bad and I can’t come in,’ and I’ll never say no to that […] I know there are some situations when it is genuinely a big medical problem and it genuinely affects them, but other times it’s just cramping,” she says. “I would not accept it if a guy calls me and says, ‘ma3lesh my stomach hurts this morning, I’m not coming to work,’ so I’m not going to accept it from a girl, either.”
Mariam, Jesse, and Nariman, while in favour of a one day paid period leave, are all too aware of the inconvenience such legislation would pose to Egyptian employers. “My only concern would be of people taking advantage of that, like in school when a girl would tell the PE teacher she is on her period for the second time in a month because the teacher is obviously not keeping track of everybody’s cycle,” Mariam jokes.
Between feminist diatribes and institutional sexism, Mariam, Jesse, Nariman, and I are left to face a world in which being a man is some sort of a prerequisite – a norm to conform to. There is a ransom to be paid for our comfort and well-being. To some of my fellow feminists, my asking for a period leave is tantamount to saying that my uterus is keeping me from doing my job properly and that women might as well just go back to the kitchen when it is simply a case of me being my feminine self. It is simply me proudly avowing that I have a vagina and that I menstruate and that it shouldn’t warrant my being the butt of sexist ‘hormone’ jokes, nor should I be penalised for it any more than a man is for his inability to birth children. Granted, there are those who will view our bodily functions as validation for patriarchy, but telling a woman she shouldn’t complain about her period is like telling black people to suffer police brutality in silence and get over slavery, or telling homosexuals they should stay in the closet. It is absurd on its face.
(Photo by Osama Selim)