Idaho's claim to fame is that it produces over a third of all the potatoes in the United States of America. A few months ago, this sleepy little state was thrown into the limelight when it passed a law, called the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, that prohibited transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports. The law, backed by the right-wing Republican party, prescribed that athletes participate in sporting events based on their sex at birth. Furthermore, it instituted intense body examination for transwomen and girls to prove their sex.
Supporters of the bill say that trans women and girls have a natural biological advantage over other girls and women, and this ban is necessary to ensure that the latter are not discriminated against. Opponents of the bill say that it will crush the aspirations and sense of belonging of trans women and girls, who will not be allowed to compete with others in their gender. Right now, a federal judge has blocked the law, but the way it plays out will be interesting, not just for the United States, but the rest of the world.
There are two very clear sides here – the one that says that an original male biology gives trans girls and women an unfair advantage compared to girls and women who don’t have it; and the other which says that identity trumps biology – and not allowing trans women and girls to participate with other women and girls will be discriminatory. And, neither side is really wrong. Biological women and girls have the right to protect their turf, their sense of achievement – competing with an even playing field. And trans women and girls have the right to inclusion. Over here, you have two traditionally discriminated against groups – women and transwomen – both of whom are demanding their right to ‘equality’.
When we look at equality, and equal rights we often forget that there are competing interests that have to gain or lose, every time the concept of equality is redefined. We see this a lot in India, especially when it comes to issues such as reservation or special provisions for communities that are traditionally discriminated against. There is the understanding that people today should not have to pay for the sins of their forefathers, and at the same time, there is the understanding that those families and communities that have been discriminated against for centuries need special provisions. So how do you balance of the right of a young woman from a middle-class family in a metro who aspires to be a doctor, with the aspirations of another young woman from a tribal heartland with the same dream, and lower marks? Whose rights are more important?
Whether you see the issue of beef in India or the playing of religious music on loudspeakers; whether you talk about the imposition of vegetarianism in some building complexes or the banning of alcohol for great social good in Ralegan Siddhi, you are talking about the rights of one set of people stepping on the toes of the rights of other people.
Among the more interesting things that we saw play out over the last few weeks, has been the discussion around ‘period leave’. Activists have been campaigning for 'menstrual leave'. In 2017, a private member bill – the Menstruation Benefit Bill - was introduced in Parliament by Lok Sabha MP Ninong Ering, and it proposed two days' paid leave each month for menstruating women. Also, it looked at a more flexible working framework for women. On the face of it, a great idea. Any woman will tell you that this is the time of the month where they need most rest. Between migraines, spasms, mood swings and excruciating cramps, most women undergo traumatic pain for the privilege of being born women.
Will something like ‘period leave’ – on the face of it, a good move – increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace, or will it worsen it? If you are an employer and you had to choose between two equal candidates (one from each gender) at the almost equal price tag – but one who worked 24 days fewer in a year than the other (slightly more than a working month) – which one would you hire? And, would your choice be discriminatory or would you be watching your bottom line. And will such thought across the board increase or decrease the participation of women in the workplace?
As humankind embraces diversity and inclusion, many of these topics will raise their heads to confound us. At such points, it is important to remember that both sides do have valid points – both sets of rights are important and valuable. Yet, both sets of rights cannot triumph. There is no easy answer to this – those demanding inclusion are not wrong; those demanding to preserve the status quo are also not wrong. The problem is when we start demonising the other view, rather than help build consensus.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.