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Sofia Ashraf, She Who Started A Revolution With ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’: This Is Her Story

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By Sofia Ashraf

Note: This article was originally published on Homegrown.

I live my life in a state of constant duality. Between fervent ambition and numbing nihilism. Between professionalism and ideology. Between Mumbai and Chennai. Call me fickle, call me confused. But being in limbo doesn’t paralyse me. My duality drives me to seek answers and explore sides of me that a well-adjusted me might never chance upon.

sofia ashraf

All dualities aren’t constant though. Take for instance the oscillating pendulum between my blind faith in God and my strongly atheistic pragmatism. Spoiler alert: I chose the latter. The journey though, is a long story and every story has at least two sides to it. Both versions in this case are mine.

Once upon a time, I was born into a rich, happy, carefree Muslim household in Chennai. Once upon a time, I was fettered and bound, unable to express myself truly.

I was strongly religious. I loved my religion and all it entailed. It was beautiful, it defined me and it gave me purpose. I was always confused though. Religion told me one thing, my brain told me another. My heart? Well my brain told me it’s just an organ that pumps blood and religion agreed.

I was a bit of a groupie too. I wore the merch. I knew all the words to the prayers. I was constantly talking about it. I loved to dance too. And dance I did. Between four walls and five times prayers. On stage at my all-girls’ school with my all-girls’ team surrounded by all-girls’ cheers. But what decadence, I wanted a bigger audience!

My mother though, loved to sing. She was always training my sister to sing. My sister who had the voice of sunshine reflecting off honey. My sister who was bullied in school. My sister who needed a little extra push to overcome her chronic introversion. Maybe if I learned to sing, we could all be a family. We had nothing else in common.

But melodies eluded me. Rebellious notes kept jumping away from the neat tune I laid out in my head. I had to accept it, I couldn’t sing. But I could still…music. In my attempt to impress my mother, I discovered my love for music. So what if I couldn’t sing or play the piano. I had music inside me. But how do I tell them I did? I tried. It came out as musical prose. Luckily there was a name for it back then—Rap.

Elders in my religion said it was wrong but music felt right too. There is melody in prayers and piety in the sound of violins. Why couldn’t I rap praises to God’s name or dance in exultation at his creation?

Then 9-11 happened. I could see people treading on eggshells around me. I felt the need to defend my religion. I started a Muslim Youth Group. But I wanted the message to reach more people. Then came along the perfect opportunity – Justice Rocks. A subversive rock show that lobbied for social and environmental issues. A platform where I could state my case to an audience who came to listen as much as they came to mosh. I owe the entire series of life changing events that followed to the organisers of this show.

At Justice Rocks I rapped about Islam. I also rapped about environmental issues. I think there was also a tongue-in-cheek piece about language politics. But what stuck wasn’t just the message. It was the image. The sight of a woman in a burkha, rapping. The press lapped it up. The live video started getting a couple of views. And the greatest honour of all – A.R. Frikking Rahman called me and asked me to rap for him. If you didn’t get goosebumps reading that line, no amount of carefully crafted adjectives can make you fathom the sheer ecstasy that meeting gave me!

The press coined me the ‘Burkha Rapper’. How embarrassing! It wasn’t meant to be a gimmick. It wasn’t a costume or a statement. It was as much my identity as my personality. I will never take it off, I said.

It wasn’t an epiphany. There was no radiating light guiding me or musical crescendo leading me to my destiny. It was a slow decay of an old belief that no longer made sense to me. So I gave it up.

I was a blow to people around me. My mother the most. People had always told her I was different. That I would rebel. But she defended me. “Just you see,” she would tell them “she’ll prove you all wrong.” Sorry ma! I proved the others right.

The toughest part about following your heart is the trail of broken ones you leave behind. Standing up to society doesn’t mean picket fences and tear gas. My Tiananmen Square was hearing my grandmother plead, with tears in her eyes, for me to accept Islam again while I refused to give in. My hunger strike was seeing the pride my family had in me slowly drain away. My hemlock was willfully accepting that my mother could never truly accept the person I have become. But I am too brutally honest to lie to myself. I did it for 22 years and I couldn’t do it anymore.

With the end of one duality, began another. Thus far, a book told me what was right or wrong. But now that I had to decide for myself, I didn’t know. What did I believe was right? What were my principles? Was I a good person or a bad person? I couldn’t find these answers at home. It was too familiar. Too easy to slip back. I moved to Mumbai to find myself. 4 years in the city. 4 glorious years of rising and falling. Disappointments and personal victories.

I still haven’t found my answers. But this quest has led me to so many new discoveries and new questions. It led me to so many new experiences. I traveled far and tasted new flavours. I fell in love and out of it and found the will to fall in love again. I danced in the rain and nursed myself out of the fever that followed. I cried on shoulders, sometimes others’, sometimes my own. I met people. So many people. I danced with sinners and sung with saints and found their tunes to be the same.

I am not the same girl who left home 4 years ago and yet I am still her. That girl was rebelling against pop culture by wearing her convictions on her sleeve. This girl has a whole new revolution to sustain. That girl couldn’t experiment with her clothes, so she expressed herself through her hair. This girl still loves to take scissors and colours to her hair. I mean, I went bald for heaven’s sake. If haircuts are therapy, that right there is rehab! That girl may not relate to this one nor vice versa. But I think the two can respect each other. They both believed in something.

Self-exploration rarely gives you absolute answers. My journey of self-actualisation began when I realized that there are different versions of me and each one is as much me as the other. Instead of destroying me, my duality defines me. Have you seen my tattoo? It is a pre-historic creature called the Archaeopteryx. It was supposed to be the missing link between birds and reptiles. A creature between two worlds. It could lie underground and say “I am neither bird nor reptile” or soar to the skies flaunting its claws and tail yelling “Look! I am both.” I choose to soar.

About the author: Sofia Ashraf is a 29-year-old copywriter by profession and a rapper by digression. A workaholic from Mumbai, from Chennai, from Kannur, from everywhere yet nowhere. After nearly two years of dappling in professions ranging from dubbing for anime to music, theatre, dance, event management, video editing, and graphic design, her last stint was at Ogilvy & Mather Mumbai where she worked as a copywriter.

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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.

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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.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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