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How Your Experience Of ‘Bharat Mata’ Depends On Whether You Are Its ‘Daughter’ Or ‘Son’

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By Karil Soral:

bharat_mata‘Bharat Mata’, ‘German Fatherland’, ‘Mother Russia’…. I am sure that you might be familiar with all these terms. We come across them often but tend to ignore a clear gendered notion that is inscribed in them or rather to them. Since the past three decades, a new interest has been drawn to this concept of gender and nation. As one can see from the examples that I have stated above, it is clear that the nation is a gendered entity. Feminist scholarship along with the historians of nation both tended to ignore this. It was presumed that history of men and women was similar. But as I will examine it further, the formation of nation and even experience of citizenship has not been universal and has varied for men and women.

Women have participated in nationalist struggles, for example in the Indian nationalist struggle they were an important part of the Civil Disobedience movement, and in Vietnam, women played an important role in their war against the USA. The feminist historians of the ‘third world’ nations have taken the lead in establishing the linkages (I have deliberately used the term instead of ‘comparison’) between gender and nation. They have shown that women’s emancipation in these countries has gone hand-in-hand with their anticolonial and nationalist struggles. However, having emphasised on the important role played by the ‘third world’ nations in the relation between gender and nation does not mean that we overlook the ‘first world’.

Mutter mit Kindern
The Nazi feminine ideal. Source: Wikipedia.

Women have also played a significant role in the production and maintenance of ‘national communities’ as well as ‘national identities’. In Nazi Germany women were looked upon in their ‘traditional roles’ as mothers and as ‘producers of pure breed Aryans’. In India as well, right-wing institutions like the RSS and the VHP use the rhetoric of ‘Hindu mother’ as preserver of the ‘Hindu family’. The point being made here is that through the control of women’s sexuality a community boundary is set up. Women are seen as “markers of community boundaries”.

A paradox emerges here. On the one hand, women have been called upon in nationalist struggles to fight with men against the imperialist powers. On the other hand, a difference has been maintained between the colonials and imperialists and that has been determined by the ‘traditional’ roles of women, as signifiers of a community’s boundary. Thus, women seem to play a role which is between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and this is not just limited to nationalist struggles. We can see its continuation in the post-independence period as well. Women are on the one hand looked upon as workers, homemakers (to a small extent) etc. but they are also looked upon as ‘preservers of tradition’. No matter that she might be a CEO of a multinational, ultimately she has to take care of her family.

But a dilemma emerges here. We cannot take women as a unified category of analysis. The experiences of women in India might be different from that in the USA. The experiences of those in the US might be different from say Australia or Kenya. From this, it can be said that the nation though itself is a gendered entity also formulates or is a catalyst in the construction of gender norms. Thus, the nation plays a dual role in the gender analysis. It is itself formulated on gendered lines and it further helps in the preservation or further construction of gender. Further, the nation also provides with the institutions of ’empowerment’ of women.

One other aspect you might have noticed is that this whole gendered entity of nation is formulated on a gender binary. For example, we have ‘fathers’, ‘sons’, ‘mothers’ and ‘daughters’ of the nation. It leads to the normalisation of gender difference as well as there being no talk of other genders. The discourse of nationalism provides legitimacy to normative gendered constructions of masculinity and femininity.

Continuing on our path of this gender difference one can also show (as I have above) that there is a difference in the national entities. There was a construction of particular imagined ‘domestic genealogies’. From this, it can be argued that there was a difference between the imperialists and the colonial nations. Women again played a crucial role in maintaining this difference. For example, the native colonial Indian men were shown to be effeminate and not capable of doing ‘good’ for the ‘native family or women’. At the same time, the British saw themselves as ‘protectors’ of both ‘white’ as well as native women from these men.

Source: Wikipedia.

A further analysis of the gender roles based on gender difference is necessary here. Men are always looked upon as fighters and protectors of the gendered entity of nation. Women, on the other hand, are looked upon as sacrificing and producing sons for the nation. This brings us to the concept of ‘eroticised nationalism’. This is always, mind you, in a heterosexual manner or rather this ‘eroticised nationalism’ is always heterosexual. One can think of a lot of Bollywood movies that meet this criteria and even famous patriotic songs as well. The nation is gendered as we have seen but it is also seen as a brotherhood or fraternity. This brotherhood excludes all those who are seen as deviants for example, homosexuals. This happens through novels, cinema, pamphlets etc. Some examples may include songs like A.R. Rahman’s ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Ab tumhaare havaale vatan saathio’, and movies like ‘Mother India’ etc.

I mentioned above that we must not consider women as a uniform category. Nations shape the discourses of women in a context but they are not the only factor. Race, class, community and caste all shape the experiences of women. Thus, the definition of feminism and for what purpose they use it to their benefit is also contextual. We cannot make the mistake of not considering these differences. But if there are differences between women themselves in that their respective experiences are varied, how can we take them all into consideration and proceed towards a comparative analysis? Also, the fact that nations are being strengthened and are not declining further puts an obstacle in our path of analysis.

There might be some women who want to be identified within a national context, within a particular community but still may strive for feminism as a means of recognition of certain constitutional rights while some may totally disagree with the notion of nation and strive for internationalism. How can we analyse these different experiences? One way might be establishing linkages. But before we do that it has to be stated that to study nation as a monolithic bloc would be a mistake.

Since the past three decades with the coming of the age of globalisation nations as a gendered entity have not declined but only strengthened. However, what this has also meant is that there have been a flow of peoples from one nation to another that is migrations have also taken place and that too on a large scale. What about these migrants? Once they become citizens of another country do their past experiences or citizenship get erased by just the confiscation of their passports? Obviously not. There are certain linkages with their ‘past nationality’. Thus, these migrants are in a sense transgressing the boundaries of two nations, their ‘past nation’, i.e., one from which they migrated from, as well as their ‘new nation’, i.e., one to which they migrated. Also, the flow of capital, multinational corporations or basically the inception of the globalised economy along with these migrations have put the notion of nation as a uniform entity in a flux. But it is because of these very notions that the nations are being
strengthened as well.

Thus, in this globalised world, one can analyse the varied experiences of various feminisms and without a disregard for the contextual analysis through the model of a ‘trans-national feminist’ approach. This model takes into account the domestic issues of women in a particular community, caste, class, race or nation as well as tries to establish the linkages simultaneously through a pan-world approach. Thus, the varied experiences are recognised but at the same time what linkages can be established within these varied experiences are also looked at.

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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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