As Baba came home and switched on the TV, 10-year-old me would sit bathed in the gleam of flashing headlines, dumbfounded by a woman with short cropped hair, asking questions nobody else did.
I went to a Christian missionary school. We said our prayers each morning, were asked to lift our skirts to check for tights underneath, made to comb our hair into neat braids, always speaking softly, threatened with punishment if we weren’t a ‘good girl’. Amidst this, the idea of a feminist trailblazer was life altering.
As a child, the field of journalism barely gave me any role models. In a predominantly male landscape, Barkha’s unabashed persona made her something of a rockstar to many in my generation. In 2006, she wrote, in an issue of Outlook India, ‘India, In a Minute’:
“Here’s a confession: you need to be at least a little bit crazy to be a good TV journalist. Or maybe I’m only justifying my own madness.”
That resonates with me even today, forming a protective shield around all the hate I get for my supposedly ‘controversial’ articles.
So when the same Barkha Dutt decries and rubbishes my own womanhood, it feels like a personal loss.
Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism and want period leave. PLEASE.
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) August 11, 2020
Every month, for two days, I am rendered immobile. I drift in and out of drug-induced sleep, scream, cry, and seek verbal assurances from others that I will, in fact, not die within the next second. I have crashed on pavements, sat down in the middle of grocery aisles, and passed out on heat pads while they burnt my skin.
At the end of her essay for the Washington Post, Barkha writes, “Sure, our periods can be annoyingly uncomfortable and often painful, but this reality usually demands no more than a Tylenol or Meftal and, if needed, a hot-water bottle.”
Barkha Dutt’s take on period leave is basically her saying: I had to work all these years without period leave, so your generation better not have more rights than I did, otherwise the heroic story I told myself about my own cramps meant nothing
— Sneha R (@free_oota) August 11, 2020
Her naiveté would have been hilarious if it wasn’t a direct assault on her promise of comradeship. Having surpassed the capacity of several brands of painkillers, my body feels small against the robust biological system that Dutt attributes to every woman.
It is the vicious cycle of transgenerational trauma, where one generation passes down obstacles to the next, simply because they had to fight more for the most basic rights. TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a wonderful allusion for this. Captain Raymond Holt, the founder of a gay support club within the police department, is apprehensive about handing over the reigns of presidentship to a young officer. He hasn’t struggled enough, Holt claims. Gina asks him, “Isn’t that a good thing?”
And really, isn’t it good that those who come after us don’t have to struggle as much because we created a better space?
Dutt obsesses over a single type of woman. One who is always on the road, is not vain, and functions exactly like her male counterpart. Citing her frontline coverage of the Kargil War in 1999, she writes,
“I reported Kargil with my period and no sanitary pads because my bag got shelled. I took a combiflam for the pain and carried on, using toilet paper.”
In this, she promotes the erasure of other female lived experiences, as though the experience of a war correspondent without debilitating periods is the status quo in discussions around reproductive health.
Speaking about fighting her way to the frontline, convincing the authority which stayed her request on the premise of there not being separate bathrooms for women, Dutt equates the path to success with the erasure of feminine markers in female lives. In her story for Outlook India, she chronicles her brave feats as a journalist – flagging down cars of netas, catapulting over the police to shove a mic into the face of the accountable – but ends with:
“I cringe when I meet women who know how to wear their lipstick but aren’t ready to get any dirt under their nails.”
In this, she has crossed over to the very side she claims to be fighting. The side that judges women by their appearance, the side which uses a thumb-rule stereotype when speaking of all female experiences, allowing no space for different lived experiences, deeming somebody ‘lesser’ because they do not function in the exact same way that they do.
Because it will shut many doors women are still trying to break down and trust me the moment you claim period leave those doors will remain shut and I’d shut them too for someone who thinks this is a good reason for time off
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) August 11, 2020
The corporate jungle may close doors on women because of a hiring bias. But one certainly can’t overthrow that mentality by catering to it. To state an inevitable bias among corporate giants, is one thing. To reaffirm it by saying ‘I would do it too’ is to be complicit in perpetuating a male-centric mentality.
Tonight, I’m going to sleep hugging something Nietzsche said,
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.”
Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.
Featured image credit: Reuters