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Wearing A ‘Short Dress’ Or Have A ‘Travel Beard’? Then You Can’t Fly On An Airplane!

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By Shambhavi Saxena:

A few weeks ago, on October 26th, a young woman was forced to change into trousers because an Indian airline refused to allow her on board in her short dress. A former employee and relative of a current employee of IndiGo Airlines, this young woman was travelling on “staff leisure travel privileges” and therefore subject to a specific dress code. As soon as the story hit the internet, it left people confused and outraged. As one of the tweets in response reads: “For an airline that says Hi 6E! this is quite prudish.”

Airports are interesting spaces. They are in-between spaces, at the borders of one place and the next. In some cities, they are symbolic of economic power and progress, in others they are representative of a life in transit. But they are also spaces of anxiety. America is home to the oldest airfield, and in many ways has pioneered international air travel. While the outward push of the airport is characteristically American, replacing the imperial fleet with a deceptively friendly but equally ambitious airborne one, paranoia about porous borders has settled into the way they function. After all, the country has made no bones about its relationship with its neighbour to the south.

airline frisking
Image source: Blogspot

It was the twin-tower attacks in 2001 that brought in a range of new questions about security. But Islamophobia is clearly not restricted to post 9/11 America. Islamophobia is so bad that it’s not just actual Muslims who get racially profiled but pretty much anyone who matches the description – or, rather, the stereotype. Back in 2007, Metallica frontman James Hetfield was held by Luton airport officials in London because of his ‘Taliban-like beard‘! In fact there’s a number of threads on travel forums that, in all seriousness, discuss whether or not it’s okay to have a “travel beard”, given the kind of ‘random security checks’ people are subjected to so be careful in choosing a beard trimmer so that you can use it during travel!  And, as with Hetfield, it’s not just people of colour. Eight year old Drew Sanders and his father Martin, two white British nationals, were barred from their flight by U. S. Homeland Security, with no explanations given.

A month before the Sanders family were to have a run-in with security, 14 year old Scot girl Grace Wain had hers with Etihad Airways. They picked on her complexion, insisting she was too ill to board the flight, forcing her to undergo a medical examination, when in reality, she was just a naturally pale, ginger-haired individual!

In the case of the IndiGo flight, the woman in question was expected to conform to an employee dress code, because she was flying on an employee ticket. But no woman should be chastised for what she’s wearing, especially not a woman who isn’t even serving as flight staff! A fellow passenger was quick to tell reporters that the woman’s dress came well up to her knees, but even if hadn’’t been ‘modest’, were these actions justified? The IndiGo rules simply perpetuate the idea that if a woman who wears what she wants, she is a threat to the carefully constructed patriarchal matrix of modesty and shame. But so is a woman who doesn’t fit the gender binary. In September this year, trans artist Shadi Petosky was held at Orlando International Airport, when security labelled her body as ‘an anomaly’, subjecting her to a humiliating body check. Rules or not, these appear to be the insidious workings brought to you by the makers of “she was asking for it” who have regimentalized the idea that any transgression must punished. In the old days, they’d push you to a corner outside the village. Today, they throw you off the flight you’ve already paid for.

Airports have become space of interrogation, of reinforcing norms, of invading bodies with scans and pat-downs. You’d think with all that jet fuel they could at least get some mileage on progressive politics, but no. Suspicions that airport security regulations and interventions are just an extension of the dominant class’ prejudice are not unfounded. The post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ instituted by the George Bush administration resulted in the ‘No Fly List’, followed by the discouragingly frequent harassment of South-Asian fliers. Security personnel began conflating personal racist politics with their line of work. And can you blame them for just doing their jobs? Should you? The answer is yes, actually. Because harassing innocent passengers shouldn’t ever be a part of ‘security’ work.

In the U. S., the Transport Security Administration (TSA) has 3,000 Behaviour Detection Officers “trained to detect behavioral clues of ‘mal-intent.'” The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT program, flags things like “excessive yawning” and “wringing of hands” as suspicious behaviour. The Intercept has criticized the program as a tool for targetting immigrants rather than identifying terrorists.

Airports should be spaces of transit, both physical and ideological – not a psychological battlefield, where anything from the colour of your skin to the length of your skirt can make you break into a sweat as you near the security booth. What’s disappointing is that they’re creating more boundaries where they should be leaving them behind.

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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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