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‘Girls To The Front’: The ’90s Music Movement That Made Feminism Punk Rock

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When members of Russian band Pussy Riot protested against President Vladimir Putin government at a Moscow church in 2012, it was as if time had folded back on itself, to the Riot Grrrl movement of the early ‘90s.bk

Riot Grrrl grew out of the Pacific North Western region of the US. It was a feminist movement led by young female punk rockers, like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who spread their message of “Revolution, girl style, now!” through their music and hand-made posters, pamphlets, self-published ‘zines, and meet-ups.

Few movements in the last 25 years have so graphically flipped off the patriarchy. By the ‘90s most people had taken for granted the feminist achievements of the preceding decades, but Riot Grrrl, emerged to say “we still have work to do.

The Beginnings

The name ‘Riot Grrrl’ is said to come from a personal exchange between members of the band Bratmobile, when Jen Smith wrote to Allison Wolfe: “this summer’s going to be a girl riot.”

With punk as its genre of choice, Riot Grrrls were laying claim to what had become by default ‘male-territory.’ The punk movement was about rage, release, and shock value. The objective wasn’t to be pleasing, and the genre was criticized for its lack of musical harmony (ah conservatives, will you never learn?)

But it was predominantly female-majority bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile that got told they couldn’t play their instruments. Here’s the thing though: Riot Grrrls weren’t on stage to deliver three minute arpeggio guitar solos. They were there to crush under their DIY-ed combat boots the social construction of passive, sexualized, consumable femininity. And also crowd surf without the fear of being groped at their own show.

The Politics

“Because we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

A typical Riot Grrrl style poster

This is a line from the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, written by Hanna, and published in 1991. From seizing the means of production to battling internalized misogyny, everything we want to explode our Facebook timelines with today was already a major talking point for Riot Grrrl.

Laura Barton wrote that the movement gave voice to “domestic abuse, rape, sexuality, the need for safer streets, abortion rights and equal pay among the issues.” But what made the movement so recognizable was the anger. There was something new about not wanting to dilute this feminist fury, or make it palatable to the oppressors and their beneficiaries. It was all about sticking it to The Man.

Riot Grrrls were not just carving a space for themselves in music, but for women concert-goers too. Punk shows could get physically violent sometimes, a major reason why female fans felt unsafe going to see their favourite bands. In a defining moment, Hanna called “all girls to the front” at a Bikini Kill concert. She was also known to confront badly behaved douche-bros, mid-song.

There’s a lot of academic interest in the Riot Grrrl movement, and why not? Band members like Hanna and Jack Off Jill’s Jessicka Addams were steeped in feminist literature, and they were reproducing their knowledge in their performances. These weren’t glamourized hysterics of the musically immature. These were dedicated acts of subversion.

The Music

Kathleen Hanna more or less spearheaded the movement in 1991. On Bikini Kill’s anthem track “Rebel Girl,” Hanna sings, “When she talks I hear the revolution.” And the song’s same-sex sub-text is, for its time, pretty path-breaking. But make no mistake – this is no corny ballad, it’s a war cry, from one grrrl to another. The track “White Boy,” samples a male voice insisting that “girls are asking for it.” Hanna’s response on the record is so full of anger, you can still feel on this side of the twenty-first century.

The Lunachicks from New York City took a dig at the ‘crazy bitch’ stereotype/slur. Visually, members stayed true to their name, with streaming and over-the-top make-up, outlandish costumes, and an electrifying stage presence. On “Light As A Feather,” they sing about athe little séance game you might remember from ‘90s cult classic ‘The Craft,’ and other sleepover staples that these ‘uncool’ girls just never get invited too.

Over in Florida, Jack Off Jill was dominating. The group highlighted the grittier aspects of Riot Grrrl musical expression, with darker sexual themes, drawing on Goth subculture. Singer Jessicka Addams was also very different from other Riot Grrrls, often criticized for her weight. “There weren’t a lot of overweight women in [the] 90s-girl alt-nation,” she said. “I think I provided an antihero for [fat] women.”

Over in England, punk bands were mushrooming everywhere, like Skinned Teen, and Pussycat Trash. “Boy-girl revolutionaries” formed the Brighton-based punk rock outfit Huggy Bear in 1991, announcing the coming of a new and energetic era in their track “Her Jazz.”

The Art

lunachicksThe album art from each band’s early records are the best preserved examples of the Riot Grrrl aesthetic. A lot of the art harks back to the anarchist Dada art movement born in Switzerland in 1916. The Dadaists had their own manifesto, moved to action by their revulsion of society. Riot Grrrl seems to borrow a lot of their aesthetic choices, like the use of newspaper clippings, and a cluttered aesthetic. But while the Dadaists were about withdrawal and contemplation, Riot Grrrl posters issued a guttural call to arms to girls everywhere.

Among the guerrilla art-forms popularized by the movement, the ‘zine was the most interesting. It was deliberately and markedly different from all other commercial publications marketed to young women in the ‘90s, particularly the fashion magazines, which were seen as mouthpieces of sexist capitalism, telling girls to be blushing pin-ups and nothing more.

All the art was filled with positive, if enraged, messages about girl-power, about smashing the patriarchy, and about getting girls to love themselves in a world that fed off their insecurities.

Is Riot Grrrl Finished?

Music critic Everett True said the movement “became codified far too rapidly into a handy tag,” and that it was too fluid for periodization. Twenty five years on, Riot Grrrl still has its political resonances.

The internet had digitized and expanded ‘zine culture, allowing young women to truly take the means of production into their own hands. Take, for example, Brooklyn artist Mikhaila Nodel, whose impressive body-positivity online zine, ‘Cosmic Cuties,’ challenges mass-market ideas of beauty.

In 2014, the “Alien She” exhibition, on all things Riot Grrrl, opened at Carnegie Mellon University. The following year, Boston declared April 9th as Riot Grrrl Day, with an official proclamation signed by the Mayor, “Because: Our young women can’t be what they can’t see. Girls need to see other girls picking up drumsticks, basses and microphones. They need to see other girls picking up paintbrushes and pens, and telling their stories loudly.”

(translated lyrics here)

Today Pussy Riot is still carrying the torch, followed up their church protest with another at the Sochi Olympics. They were whipped and pepper-sprayed by state-hired Cossacks shouting “Putin will teach you how to love the motherland,” but even this couldn’t deter members.

In her detailed summary of the feminist politics of Riot Grrrl, Jennifer Pan called it a “cultural moment that never quite materialized into a full-scale storming of the streets.” But what it did do was proliferate ideas of revolution and women’s solidarity through an explosion of cultural products. Riot Grrrl may have been written off as a purely ‘90s phenomenon that ended almost as soon as it started, but everybody needs to take inspiration from that old phrase. You know the one. Punk’s Not Dead. And neither is the riot.

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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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