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What The Spice Girls Taught Me About Gender

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By Pooja Pande

When Posh Spice finally broke her maun vrat by some actual singing, she made an impact on me.

I remember the moment like it was yesterday (and since a part of me is firmly convinced that the 90s were just like some 10 years ago), it might as well have been.

spice girls featured

Wannabe, that in-your-face anthem for so so many girls at the time, showcased the vocal talents (yes, among several others) of Scary, Ginger, Baby & Sporty as each told you about what they wanted, what they reallyreally wanted. But Posh was on mute the whole time. In fact, if you watch the video now, with that decade-old (ahem) hindsight, she looks positively clueless. Like the rest of them had a meeting about their philosophy, and then went out for a few drinks. Without her.

Then came Say You’ll Be There. A neurotic song about “the friend zone” that was so catchy you almost thought you’d got it figured out too. The friend zone, that is. One by one, Scary, Ginger, Baby & Sporty looked you (‘boy’) straight in the eye and told you to mind it! All except Posh who’d been given the most predictable outfit in the video (leather) and everyone could tell that she’d given in to the pressure and this time, had actually lip-synced!

But it was with 2Become1 (yes, altogether with no space like an email ID and symbolizing the “closeness” the song was about) that the lady decided to take on the critics.
So, she opened her mouth and sang.

And thus it is, loaded with this baggage of history, that I remember the moment – Posh with some crazy-cool video tricks in the background mush-gushing into the camera the legendary line – ‘Boys and girls look good together.’

Now, in their defence, Spice Girls songs weren’t particularly known for their brilliant lyrics (One of the things they reallyreally wanted, after all, was ‘zig-zag-aa’, though I’m not sure I spelt that correctly), and 2Become1 was a song about make-up sex. (LSR flash: ‘It’s love-making! Not sex!’). It’s pretty vanilla in its emphasis on love and sex that could obviously only be heterosexual, especially since they had to push in their safe sex message into it, what with being youth icons and all – ‘Be a little bit wiser, baby. Put it on, put it on…,’ sings naughtynaughty Baby Spice, and presumably the boys are all making halts at the local drugstore on their way to see their girlfriends.

But there was something missing in this picture. Oh right, the boys! Which boy in his right-minded boyhood, would ever be caught dead listening to a Spice Girls song? And they were more weird-sexy or interesting-sexy, the bunch, than straight-up sexy to appeal to the ram-rod straight guys. (There’s a curious expression that was buried circa early 2000’s).

The Spice Girls were all vagina monologues, they were IT. And it was the girls who were watching them, singing their songs, trying on their attitude, convinced about which flavour they were, who were obsessed with them. They harboured the most massive crushes on them, and not just in LSR, but all over the world. They were famously called the new Beatles – ‘it’s like we have an all-new John, Paul, George, Ringo.’ (Yes, even the pop culture analysts forgot about Posh Spice).

And when you saw the Spice Girls together doing their Spice Girls thing, you saw a reflection of your own spicy-sweet sisterhood (if you were the popular kid), or a fantasy of what your sisterhood could be (if you were the loner). How, indeed, could boys & girls look good together when it’s so plain that it’s girls and girls that look so bloody good together.

And so it was that when Posh Spice finally sang, she got the wrong line.

As far as awakenings go, this moment was pretty momentous. Because didn’t everything else that was being sold to you shove the ramrod straight argument down your throats? The mainstream was all about neat pairings off into He’s and She’s (waved away with warm farewells as they sailed across on their love-ridden or love-laden boats, apparently) and anybody presenting the slightest deviation to this golden rule, was clearly wired differently in the brains. Read: Queer. A word that’s been reclaimed a million times since the ‘90s, but despite it all, it is what is it is in 2015 too. Evoking an anomaly. One you’re meant to fight for, in your aggressive declarations because this country doesn’t take to nuance too well. Or too easily.

Just as the boyfriends waiting outside LSR were obvious achievements meant to be flaunted, the lovebirds inside the college – a girl who wore a sari everyday and her girl who wore pants everyday – were labelled queer, even as they took their ‘appearance’ cues from the heterosexual world thriving around them.

What I felt then, in that moment, only came to be crystallized in the decades that followed.
Girls and girls look good together. Undoubtedly.
A man can carry off a sari. Unabashedly.

Gender is a fluid thing. It’s not even a thing. It’s an emotion, at best. And a label, in its worst avatar. It’s a box to tick on an official form, which, thankfully, my D.U. counterparts will now have options on.

Gender is a shape-shifter the contours of which are soft, and hence imposing rigidity and rules on it only make it worse. Harsh, hard and inhuman. Hell, for so many – that’s just what it was for that gay couple in my college.

And with imminent news of a possible Spice Girls re-union (Old Spice, yes yes) on the horizon, perhaps it’s time to find meaning and hope in un-obvious places again. Like a music video. And maybe we won’t even need to snub Posh this time.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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