Periods: in or out of Arab labor policies?
Why is it that until today we still speak about menstruation in whispers?
Half the world population experiences menstruation, but why is it that until today it is spoken about in whispers? Female colleagues ask for sanitary pads and pain killers in the workplace under muffled breaths; a girl suffering from bad period cramps will tell other family members that she is having a flu or is ‘sick’. In some places, young girls still look down in shock and fear when they have their first menstrual cycle.
The fact is that there is little public discussion surrounding the topic of periods and menstruation. Dramatically less so in the Arabic speaking world. This is due to a multitude of factors that can be surmised simply as, culture – thus implicating religion, tradition and customs, and other influences as well.
It is these very factors that determine important outputs such as educational initiatives on menstrual health, strong policies furthering gender equality, and, arguably, most imperatively, breaking the cultural taboo on periods. In order to have menstruation noted as a worthy point of discussion in private and public policy – dialogues must be had at home, in schools, and in the public sphere and there is a desperate need for this conversation to be dominated by women.
Whatever the extenuating factors may be, the outcome is the same – a taboo which breeds a lack of education on menstrual health. In her unpublished MPhil thesis at the University of Oxford titled, “Unlocking the Secret and Breaking the Cycle: Menstruation in Contemporary Jordan,” Alethea Osborne conducted a study on 48 women in the Jabal al-Nadheef area in Amman who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. It is worth noting that the average household income in this area is between 500 and 700 USD per month, a relatively low income in Jordanian standards.
Osborne discovered many cases in which women did not know what menstruation was until reaching menarche. This shows clearly that even within the mother-daughter relationship there is very little communication surrounding the topic. In other words, a young girl’s primary and secondary access (family and school) to menstrual health education is stunted to say the least.
Osborne explains that the average age of menarche in her sample group was between 13 and 14. However, the access to information these women had regarding menstruation is problematic to say the least. Of her sample 40 percent of the women said that they had no understanding of what menstruation was before having their first period. Only 9 percent of the sample claimed to have been fully prepared prior to reaching menarche.
Furthermore, school and friends do not seem to be the main source of education on the topic but rather mothers or other female family members.
Finally, the majority of women claim that they received knowledge regarding menstrual cycles only after experiencing their first periods and thus was of no significant help.
So distorted is the communication flow regarding menstruation, that some women say that the only times in which they discuss menstruation with their husbands is to deny them sexual intercourse. Under this distorted lens, menstruation becomes, in one instance, an empowering experience.
However, a key finding in her work is that the ‘medicalization’ of menstruation is one way in which it is emerging in public discourse, as a health concern through the use of biomedical language. The use of such language provides distance between the individual and the phenomena, to open room for discussions.
One such example is an initiative undertaken in Tunisia two years ago at a boarding school in Makthar North of the country. As is the case in Jabal al-Nadheef in Amman, socio-economic conditions affect the ability of many of the girls in Makhtar to purchase disposable sanitary napkins. A company producing reusable pads intervened with the assistance of an NGO. “Wallah we can,” an initiative founded by Lofti Hamadi, also a member of Génération Liberté aims to improve living standards for children in Tunisian boarding schools. Hamadi explains: “while I was visiting boarding schools, I noticed that the foam of the mattresses was often ripped out. The supervisor at one of the schools told me that the girls used the foam as pads when they were menstruating because they didn’t have enough money to buy disposable sanitary pads.”
Through this, almost, medical intervention, girls simultaneously received access to “workshops to help create a space where the schoolgirls can feel comfortable talking about sexuality and intimate hygiene with their friends and classmates,” adds Hamadi.
While this initiative holds promise and certainly seeks to help girls in the Makhtar boarding school, the limitations are clear. There are numerous schools in the Arab speaking world that are in desperate need of interventions with no prospects. A cohesive approach which much inevitably involve governments must be sought, rather than seemingly random initiatives by companies or NGOs,.
Periods in national and company policy
This lack of education works through a bottom-up approach wherein, it has the potential to spread. Aside from certain grassroots initiatives geared at improving policy regarding women, a large majority of women in the Arab speaking world will hold true to the stereotypes imposed upon them. In reality, however, as is in the remainder of the world, female health is generally governed, dictated, and debated by men.
As is in the remainder of the world, female health is generally governed, dictated, and debated by men
It is not apparent if there are any national policies in the Arabic speaking world that deal with menstrual leave, and this lack of appearance itself is indicative enough. There are, though, accounts of its use in company policies. This is not unique to the region with only a handful of countries in the world adopting a national menstrual policy.
In countries including Japan and South Korea, women are entitled to extra days off over their yearly sick-leave allowance. Naturally the policies vary – in some instances, a woman is entitled to between one and three days of paid leave, in others, the leave is unpaid.
Most recently this was debated in Italy, with a bill presented by four female parliamentarians proposing to allow women a three-day paid ‘period-leave’ per month. The bill was passed in November 2017 for women with a condition called Dysmenorrhea, which causes severe stomach and back pain during periods, nonetheless, to large controversy. Some hailed this as a success for women, others, argued that it was a set-back.
One side argues that this further stigmatizes women in the workplace – particularly when competing for the same jobs as men. This categorizes them, in some instances, as a liability, or an under-performer in comparison to a male counterpart. This depends on the nature of the work and the outputs expected of an employee. This school of thought argues that women are not a, “special condition.” And, rightfully so.
In addition, they argue that this may further backfire on female unemployment rates due to the other benefits a woman is entitled to such as maternity leave, thus causing employers to be hesitant to choose female candidates for vacant positions.
In the Arabic speaking world, there are private companies employing a menstrual policy. This includes between one to three days of paid leave that is not deducted from annual sick leave. However, there remains a unspoken pressure not to exploit this leave due to workplace perceptions. Women still fear that they will be looked down upon or reprimanded for something that has been given as an employment right.. Still, the majority of the region employs a blanket sick leave policy, whereby an individual may use sick days where needed.
Ultimately, gender equality is not about winning rhetorical arguments against men, meaning that battling the stigma that men in the workplace may have because of such a policy remains a pale reason when compared to the very real and actual need of some women. Fundamentally, when determining women’s rights, it is women themselves who must be at the center of the decision making process.. In doing so, and by truly considering women’s rights, should we, as women, not then consider the ‘woman’ that is in, unfortunate, need of this policy?
As Gloria Steinem famously wrote in, If Men Could Menstruate (1978):
“Black men were given poorly paid jobs because they were said to be "stronger" than white men, while all women were relegated to poorly paid jobs because they were said to be "weaker." As the little boy said when asked if he wanted to be a lawyer like his mother, "Oh no, that's women's work." Logic has nothing to do with oppression. So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.”
As this natural phenomenon affects half of the entire population, the word, rather the euphemisms, we use to discuss menstruation cannot be so discreet that they harm women.
If we cannot, yet, have open discussions with our daughters, let alone husbands, or colleagues, how can we push forward women’s issues in policy and governance?