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Why Colleges Need To Stop Telling Women What To Wear

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By Shivani Chimnani:

I never assumed that because I was a woman that anything was off limits to me.”

On 16th August 2015, ‘Malhar’ one of Mumbai’s finest and most distinguished inter-collegiate fest was held at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. The female students of St Xavier’s college, who were volunteers for the fest, were prohibited from wearing shorts. The reason cited by the principal was ‘security concerns’ (since Chauvinist Daily suggests that women wearing short clothes are the primary cause of crimes against women). This policy created large scale media uproar and received wide criticism from students as well as non-students. Such a measure isn’t first of its kind and sadly won’t be the last. When I read about this instance, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I was furious for not being furious, I ought to be livid, why wasn’t I? It was because such discrimination was becoming insidious, creeping into our daily customs, becoming a standard part of daily life, it seemed normal compared to the other worse things happening. But a jolt of cognizance soon swept in, of course it would. The Indian society manages to retain its foremost position in the race down ‘Who’s the most regressive’ road.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is immensely saddening when Mumbai Colleges which epitomize progress and development undertake such archaic policies. If urban colleges undertake such an approach, what are other institutions to emulate? The practice of girls not being able to wear shorts is actually widespread among a number of Bombay colleges. However, if adequate body fabric was the solution to women’s safety, then shouldn’t women in Kashmir be the safest? But this isn’t the case, is it? Commanding women to dress in a certain manner is not only downright unfair but also illogical. Next thing we know, we will be mandated to wear space suits for ‘safety’. Colleges are meant to be the forum of equality and growth, but when such discriminatory policies are carried out, it furthers the problem for women, not minimizes it. Young students witness this and some may even get influenced by it and practice the same in life, and restart the vicious circle of patriarchy. Colleges are telling young students that it’s okay to tell a woman to dress how we think she should. What could be the alternative? Maybe transform the environment to make it a safe haven for her, instead of asking her to calibrate her attire.

Firstly, it is imperative to understand that we cannot possibly ask a woman how to dress, what to do, where to go, so on and so forth. It defies the basic idea of gender equality. If we ask women to dress in a certain manner, we are blatantly implying that it is her body which is causing men to sin, pass lewd remarks or give the endless lascivious stares, but we all know that’s not the case. Secondly, if there exists a dress code, it ought to be gender neutral instead of female centric. This way students will know that what isn’t allowed, is impermissible for all, not for some. Gender neutral policies must be implemented at the grassroots level, and educational institutions play an integral role in formulating opinion. Thirdly, if the issue of safety is to be thoroughly addressed, laws have to be brought in place. Colleges must have an austere sexual harassment policy, including a women’s redressal cell where such complaints can be lodged. After deliberation, if the case is found to be veracious, strict action must be taken against the perpetrator. A women’s development cell does exist in a majority of colleges, but its effectiveness is not largely known. Lastly, if there exists a problem, talk about it. A multitude of sexual harassment cases go unheard because we have accepted it as something natural and routine and should be ignored. We have to understand that it is a grave issue, and has to be brought out in the open. One must talk to their peers or teachers about sexual harassment, and find ways to tackle the same. In fact, colleges could conduct regular meetings to discuss such issues. The teachers should be approachable enough to go and talk to when something of this sort occurs.

Patriarchy is embedded in the world at large, but the key is to destroy it, not further it. We cannot possibly tell a woman that because she’s a woman some things are off limits to her. We can’t tell her in order to be safe, she has to let go of her freedom.

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  1. Avinesh Saini

    Just like we cannot ask a woman how to dress, there is no way a place can be turned into a safe haven for her.

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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.

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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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