The first day I walk by the ladies with the blood-red hair, I ignore them. It’s nothing new to come by eccentric folk in London or seeing the beautiful, majestic entrance of the British Museum, with its proud columns and its iconic, awe-inspiring pediment, serving as the backdrop for the odd protest. I’m in a hurry - for my first tour of the day is about to start. So, I walk in without ceremony.
The second day I walk by the ladies with the blood-red hair, I pause ever so slightly to wonder what compels them to be back, enduring the cold and the stares, but not enough to ask what they’re about. I’ve never been one to meddle or cause trouble. And I’m in a hurry, again.
The third day I walk by the ladies with the blood-red hair, I’m struck by their attires: tight-fitting, white overalls with a big, proud splash of red between their legs in the shape of a flower - for some it’s a rose, for others a poppy, for some a tulip and so on. This time they’ve got my attention. But... I’m in a hurry.
That night I dream of red flowers.
The fourth day I walk by the ladies with the blood-red hair, I’m in pain. My brain barely registers the numbness gradually invading my fingers inside my soft-leather gloves, my tears freezing mid air or the annoyingly loud chatter around me. My attention is claimed aggressively by my monthly visitor. The one I never want but have to endure. The one I have to deal with consciously and unconsciously for hours at a time while managing hundreds of priorities all the while projecting authority and professionalism. The one that makes me feel sad or hot or angry for no particular reason. My period. A symbol of my femininity, a hope for a future family and a constant reminder of nature’s discrimination towards women. But my pain doesn't concern our clients and neither my employer. So as usual, I bite my tongue, I clench my fists, I take deep breaths and forge ahead. I cannot be seen as weak. I cannot be seen as less able.
Later, I find myself in front of the suffrage collection. I’ve been here many times before, imagining the brave women who fought for our rights. This time something resonates differently with me; I wonder how they found the courage to fight, putting themselves in danger, enduring public ridicule and hostility repeatedly. What does it feel like to make history? Did they know they were heroic? I wonder, did they realise the importance of their actions back then? The impact they would have in the world? I try to picture them: boiling an egg, serving their families, then going to meetings, designing signs, then marching peacefully only to be mocked, shunned or even harassed, beaten, imprisoned...
Leaving work, I approach one of the ladies with the blood-red hair. “Hi, I’m Anna - a tour guide here. I’m usually in a hurry so I haven’t had a chance to hear about your cause. Would you mind telling me a bit about your purpose?”
“Thank you for stopping by. I’m Beth and one of the many women in the world who suffer from dysmenorrhea. I’m currently unemployed and lost my previous job because I used to work from home or take sick leave too often according to my last employer. The gender pay gap is a fact, backed up by robust, global stats - many are trying to remedy this in different ways. What’s less discussed because it’s still taboo even among women is the impact of our menstrual cycle. We’re here to demand equal treatment as professionals and better working conditions for women with dysmenorrhea. We have the right to look after ourselves when needed without repercussions at work. Our monthly pain is a testament to our nature - we’re built to bring life into the world. Often, this is accompanied by disproportionate difficulties for some of us. But this shouldn’t mean we deserve any less as professionals. We demand equal treatment, equal opportunity. We want women across the world to feel it’s ok to openly talk about their pain and claim the right to take time for themselves, as needed, without feeling guilt or suffering repercussions."
That night I dream of red flowers again. I want one for myself, perhaps a red daisy. I try to reach it but I stumble, every time. I’m hesitating. I’m breathing hard, my skin tingles, my tears flow. I know what my flower is. And I will have it.
The next day I don’t want to get up. I feel sick, I feel sad. But people depend on me, my colleagues depend on me.
Several hours and tours later, I meet my boss as I put on my coat. “Hiya Anna. Where are you going? Don’t you have three more tours?”
“I’m in pain,” I say. “I’m bleeding heavily today.”
His eyebrows shoot up - the awkward look in his eyes reminds me of a boy who’s learning about sex for the first time. He’s probably wondering if he heard me right. Our monthly bleeding is not something we talk about openly - not with colleagues, bosses or men in general, not even between us. The few times I’ve taken leave, I’ve felt guilty, somehow less worthy of my position. And I’ve never said out loud what my real problem is. “Apologies, I won’t make it today because I’m bleeding, my cramps are killing me and I feel like crying.” That's what I should say. But usually I utter something more akeen to “I feel a bit unwell" or "I'm under the weather,” whatever that means. But today, I want to be open and honest. I ought to.
“Ok,” he tells me. “Hmm… Why don’t you take a painkiller?”
“I have taken many since I woke up. They’re not as effective now,” I explain patiently.
“Ah, I see. Well, take all the time you need,” he says - though he doesn’t sound convinced.
“Thank you,” I say and turn to leave.
“Out of curiosity,” he says, making me pause, “how come it’s tougher this time round?”
My indignation increases as my pain escalates but I know his ignorance is more my fault than his. “It’s always this tough.”
Before I leave, I visit the suffrage collection again. This time, I think about the many nameless women who created an unprecedented movement to drive change. I’m certain that if I could ask them if they saw themselves as heroes, no one would say yes. All these brave, everyday women achieved something extraordinary by coming together to fight for a common, greater cause. They were women like me.
The last day I meet the ladies with the blood-red hair, I stand with them. I’m one of them. My hair is red too - a fiery hue signifying the fire ignited within myself. My white overalls are decorated with a red daisy.