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Growing Up As A Brown Girl, This Is How Feminism Helped Me Embrace My Identity

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By Aakanksha Sardana for Cake:

Feminism for a Brown Girl
Representation only.

Seven-year-old me blinks my eyes at the television. None of the famous people on TV were called any of the names that my friends or I had. Where were the Indians? Was I not allowed to be famous? “Mom, can’t I be famous?” I asked. A “child’s” wish. You can. You can be whatever you want to be. You can fly as high as you wish.

Eleven-year-old me was grossly overweight, majorly in love with food, and in dire need of braces – a group of people laughing terrified me. Confidence got lower, anxiety got higher, and I disappeared into the shadows.

Fourteen-year-old, newly entering into the era of social media found that information and opinions were everywhere. Everyone had something to say, and being the Science Nerd I always was, I wanted to know EVERYTHING. I found out that my bushy eyebrows, and wider hips weren’t attractive. The start of the most teenager-y of my teenage years, I started eating lesser and lesser. Boys liked girls who were thin, right?

Seventeen year old me was so ashamed of my heritage, I asked people to speak to me in English. “I don’t speak Hindi too well.” I said. My parents bought me books, the Mahabharata, one of the most well known Indian epics, my mother, wanting me to learn about the Sikh gurus, bought books filled with illustrations showing their lives, stories of valour, sacrifice and selflessness, but these just went on top of my bookshelf, never to be picked up again.

I vividly remember saying “I’m not even that dark. Almost fair enough to be white, actually” (I know you’re cringing. But you aren’t cringing as much as I am). But I had forgotten that I come from a country where our brown eyes express love, to show sorrow in another’s, they twinkle with laughter in another’s joy, with warmth, when we welcome guests. Atithi Devo Bhava – ‘The Guest is like God’, one of the first traditions we were taught. Compassion is above all, poetic verses taught us. I had forgotten that the curves and stretch marks that my mother has are a reflection of the meandering river we played by as children, fierce, preserving, growing, that on sunny days when we sit on the terrace, our skin is the colour of the very soil that gives us life.

Today, as a twenty-year-old, I have lost many of my inhibitions. I have learnt about where I come from, and I have learnt to be proud of it. I have learnt that I am different, I look different, and behave differently. But I am in no way less. I have also learnt to love my body, my uneven skin tone, and the fact that I am actually not fair enough to pass off as white. And I have learnt to love it even, and especially, when others do not.

But many people of colour have not yet made this transition, because they aren’t provided with an environment conducive enough to instill that feeling of self-confidence. Many people deny racial discrimination by saying that to them, the world is colourless, but racial discrimination will only truly end when we realise our differences, in gender, in colour, in sexual orientation, but do not deny others any opportunities because of them. The feminist movement only aims to make people realize; to help everyone who feels that they are too different to be accepted.

Most visible feminist movements today are…white. And isn’t everything, really? We’re calling Jennifer Lawrence a revolutionary icon for liking pizza, I ‘accidentally’ bought foundation that is two shades lighter than my actual skin tone, Priyanka Chopra was in a completely average American show but all of us collectively lost our cool because finally the hottest character on a sitcom wasn’t white.

But consider this, is a movement really useful until it talks about the experiences of every single group and community? Are another’s experiences any less valid than ours, just because we do not experience them?
I admit that I am much more privileged than most people of colour. I am still alive. Twenty years old, haven’t been married even once (Although, Ranveer Singh, if you’re reading this, HIT ME UP), and given the freedom to do one of the things I love the most – learn.

And all these discussions about visibility, body issues, these are just for the privileged, right? But is our skin something we must just be at peace with? Is our body something we must merely accept?

If your feminism discriminates between who you must fight for, if it finds one person’s problems to be more grievous than another’s, it is not inclusive.

Our fight should be for that girl who had to quit school in the fourth standard because her parents decided that she was old enough to be married, it should be for that girl who cringes because of her complexion, wishing she could bleach her skin. It should be for the trans person who can’t get a job, and for that overweight girl who hopes no one will notice that she’s skipping meals. I remember reading a story about an Indian origin American who was ashamed that her mother would wear a sari at her Graduation Day. Let us fight for every person who lowers their eyes when their heritage is brought up, for all those Muslims who are antagonized every single day because they choose to cover their face, for the black people who are called thugs because of their locks, for every woman who is harassed on public transport because of the red dot on her forehead.

I am a woman of colour, and I will drape my sari (just kidding, I don’t know how to), put on my bangles, wear my bindi, you will hear the sound of my anklets as I walk away from you, you may find my eyebrows too bushy, my waist too wide, my skin too dark, and I may have hair on places you find unattractive. But the fact that you will try to hold me back because of this is what will push me forward.

Photo Credit: Facebook/Angry Indian Goddesses. For representation purposes only.

This article was originally published here on here on Cake.

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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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