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How Feminism’s Best Criticism Came From This ‘Black, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, Poet’

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MRAs on the internet have a lot to say about feminism, but they ain’t shit. You know who actually produced valuable criticism of the movement? Actual feminists. And they’ve been doing it for a while. Back in the 1980s, the deep sense of exclusion felt by African-American women culminated in an alternate gender movement called “Womanism.” One of the names that often comes up in discussions about Womanism is Audre Lorde.

‘Black, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, Poet’

These were the words Lorde would use for herself. She recognized that multiplicities existed both between people and within them too, and refused to deny expression to each part of herself. Lorde was born in New York, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement steeped in African-American identity. As a queer black woman, she came to the feminist movement with concerns that were very different from her heterosexual white fellows, and her acute awareness of this difference informed a lot of her politics. One of Lorde’s most enduring proclamations (made during a feminist conference in New York, has been “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The statement went on to become the title of a text that is as powerful as it is concise. We’re always tempted to give people a taste of their own medicine, but this is exactly what Lorde warns against in her counter-metaphor.

1: In Which Audre Is The Lorde Of Intersectionality

Lorde was smack in the middle of the second-wave feminist movement, which was all about rescuing typically feminine traits from patriarchal devaluation, and much of her work does centre on ‘women-identified-women.’ But there was an important difference between Lorde and her feminist peers – her insistence ‘woman’ was not a monolithic category.

It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences,” she says, while speaking at one of those arrogant academic events. In ‘The Master’s Tools,’ as well as other writing, Lorde invokes difference. A lot. Long before the term “third wave feminism” was in popular circulation, she urged the movement to also address ageism, ableism, homophobia, classism, racism, and cissexism – both in the world, as well as within its own ranks.

2: In Which She Calls Out White Feminism For What It Is

Lorde was super woke about the pitfalls of a feminist politics that was produced exclusively by white women. By the ‘80s, feminism had formally moved into its hundredth year (if you take the suffragettes as a reference point), but the material was still the same. Sure ideas about performance, and fluidity, and economic independence, and abortion and all of that was newly evolving, but all of it was so focused on the social, political and economic experiences of white women, that it did little for women of colour – and also tended to forget (deliberately?) the disabled women, lesbian and trans women, poor women, immigrant women, women of non-Christian faiths and more.

Audre Lorde (left) with Meridel Lesueur and Adrienne Rich, (1980). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

White feminism slowly started reproducing many of the aggressions characteristic of the hegemonic male-dominated system. The statement “We’re all women, why do you want to talk about race?” was dangerously modelled along the lines of “We’re all people, why do you want to talk about gender?” And both were used to discourage any challenges to status quo.

Lorde knew that the universalization of women was a dangerous falsehood. And it pays for us to remember that, because when universalization sets white as default, our movement are accused of being a ‘western import,’ and are seen as inapplicable to our respective contexts.

3: In Which She Calls For A More Radical Approach

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Asks Lorde. And her answer – surprise, surprise! – is that there’s a lot of self-congratulatory action. Just like LGBTQ activists have stated repeatedly that marriage equality is not the end-goal of queer politics, so too did Lorde argue that a few token women in positions of power did not signal the death knell of the patriarchy.

It’s important to remember the differences that exist between women, especially the differences created by colonialism, slavery, or segregation. Even today, the internet – feminism’s new favourite tool – is flooded with articles that ask “Have You Considered Womanism?” because the problems that existed three decades ago still confront black womanhood, as well as women of multiple other non-Caucasian ethnicities.

Feminism will not become the intersectional theory or praxis it intends to be, if it refuses to learn from such breakaway movements as womanism. It can no longer view ‘gender’ as the only channel through which oppression is extended. Lorde’s text highlights, for example, how poverty and racial discrimination combine to keep so many black women out of feminist spaces such as the conference. The idea is to close the gaps that exist between diverse women, in addition to closing the gap between genders. How can all women present themselves as a united front against the patriarchy, when race, class, age, and sexuality leave them so deeply divided?

The narrowness of white, corporatized, airbrushed feminism does not and cannot represent the interests, needs and struggles of all women, and is invested, instead in making the movement palatable for the very people opposed to it. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde reminds us. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Lorde’s is among those works that tried to strengthen the movement from within, to widen the scope of feminism, to say no woman left behind. It is important for rich feminists, white feminists, english-speaking feminists, upper-caste feminists, and all women to take a cue from Lorde and examine their privileges, and how they themselves contribute to the oppression of other women. Lorde was pushing for a community of women who would give each other a leg-up. And if that isn’t the most radical way for women to fight the patriarchy, I don’t know what is.

To read more from our ‘Decoding A Feminist Text’ series, click here!
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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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