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A Map Might Seem Like Just A Piece Of Paper Today, But Here’s Why It’s Much More

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By Priyanka D’Souza:

Later that night I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered where does it hurt?
It answered

The recent attacks and calamities have sent made quote by Warsan Shire viral and it is so beautifully apt. Only the atlas knows where it hurts.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was sentenced by Zeus to hold up the crumbling sky (Oranos) because Oranos was too weak after enduring the war between the Titans and the Olympians.

With the ISIS trying to gain more territory, to Middle Eastern leaders wanting to unite the Arabic lands, to countries like the US and Russia, with their numerous other allies, extending their political influence into geographical areas they have no businesses in, to the innumerable border disputes world over— the map is being constantly tugged and twisted by power, money and vested interests.

You might be wondering how poeticising of current affairs and personifying a map makes any sense, but you see, map manipulation in its actual sense was used extensively during early modern times and has some interesting things to say about the times gone by.

16th and 17th century Europe was a time of great exploration and scientific discovery. Cartography then became an important discipline. Analysis of early modern cartography doesn’t only show us the progress mankind made in science and geography since maps aren’t just a product of scientific and mathematical measurement, but also reflect a socially and politically constructed world which speaks strongly about status and power.

European monarchs used globes and maps to express their symbolic possession of the world. Gayle Brunelle has noted that maps in those times constituted a form of possession in a society where symbols were often believed to be as real as material things. Therefore “maps were, in and of themselves, a source of power which was no dependent on actual conquest and territorial control. Obviously it was ideal to possess both map and the territory but… in the absence of an empire, a map asserting possession of one could be almost as empowering.”

Image source: WordPress
Image source: WordPress

Brunelle gives the example of Francis I of France (1515—47) whom she sees as the first French king to explore the use of maps to pursue imperial interests. Eager to outdo the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and to save face after his defeat at Pavia and captivity in Spain, Francis needed an empire and so he encouraged exploration of the New World and had maps prepared by his cartographers and geographers, the most famous of which is the cordiform world map of Oronce Fine. This was a heart shaped world map that symbolised Francis’ all-encompassing, compassionate rulership. It was based on the cartographical information of the New World from the courts of Europe and explorers’ expeditions at the time. Factually though, France had not conquered or colonised any part of the New World yet as per the Oronce Fine, with fictional territories of ‘Terra Francesca’ and ‘Terra Florida’, Francis was an important player in the race for possession of the New World. In fact, these virtual possessions of Francis even entered the rare maps of Spain (Spain who followed her own tradition of map-making, allegedly rarely had her maps printed to guard her advanced geographical knowledge).

Many rulers and important people came to associate themselves with maps, globes and orbs in visual portrayals to show power and status. Charles V, Francis I, Louis XIV, Queen Elizabeth I of England and even her admiral Sir Francis Drake, are visually represented alongside globes and orbs.

So we see, maps weren’t just scientific instruments but they were also incredibly important visual allegories. Here in India, the most extensively used tradition of allegories can be seen in the imperial Mughal painting, particularly under the reign of Jehangir and his son, Shah Jahan. They borrowed heavily from the European allegories and introduced this symbolism seamlessly into the preexisting Mughal painting style.

The Jesuit missionaries had gifted Emperor Akbar with a Polyglot Bible which marked the beginning of the exchange of visual ideas between the Mughal court and the European world. The purpose of these allegories was, as Ebba Koch puts it, “…to give abstract concepts or performed gestures of ideal kingship a pictorial expression.” This Europian inspired symbolism was explored as a major genre of Mughal painting under Akbar’s son, Jehangir (literally meaning ‘world-siezer’) who was an art connoisseur known for his refined tastes.” Under Shah Jahan (meaning Emperor of the world), globes continued being used as an imperial attribute… the invention of Jehangir’s highly original political allegories are formalised to express the ideology of Shah Jahan’s just and benevolent rulership favoured by the heavens. On the globes, allegory outweighs cartography; the justice symbol…obscure(s) any geographical representation” Koch adds.

Maps have for centuries been manipulated to serve the interests of the powerful. They may convey messages of political superiority, tell us of boundaries and demarcations, be analysed as social constructions and be used as even allegorical symbolism but neither an Indian world map where Kashmir is shown as the crown of the Indian subcontinent nor any other world map in which Kashmir is no man’s land, can convey the suffering of the people. You can draw out an Israel on the map and stuff it down the world’s throat but you can’t blame the atlas for the conflict and bloodshed that ensues.

“…it answered

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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, 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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