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As A Queer Bengali, My Language Has No Word To Define My Identity

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By Anonymous for Cake:

A while back, when I was toying with the idea of coming out to my parents (I still haven’t, by the way), I was testing out how I would do so—thinking of what I’d tell them, practicing it in front of the mirror, and so on. In my long-drawn process of trying to come up with how I’d break the news about my sexuality, a single dilemma remained constant—of how I’d communicate it in the language I speak (i.e, Bangla). Like a lot of middle-class Indian millennials, I’ve had an English-medium education, while my parents, a Bengali-medium one. Hence, I almost exclusively converse in Bengali with my family. However, in talking about my sexuality, when I started racking through all of my extensive Bangla vocabulary to come up with a word that would aptly describe being ‘pansexual’ (or even bisexual), I was stumped.

The question arose—does Indian linguistics allow for queer identities? And even when it does, is it really able to encompass the whole spectrum of queer and gender nonconforming identities that are out there?

How Indians Talk About Queerness: The Linguistics Of It

Even before I even knew anything about gender or queer politics, I was always struck by how unnecessarily gendered Hindi is as a language. The ‘pul ling’ and ‘stri ling’ (i.e the male/female binary) dominates even the most trivial of words, the most inanimate of objects, and that makes pronouns extremely rigid. Bangla, on the other hand (which, as mentioned earlier, is my mother tongue and the first language I learnt), is a contradiction, and is wonderfully gender-neutral, especially when it comes to pronouns. In Bangla, there is no equivalent to a ‘he’ or ‘she’—and instead we say ‘shey’ or ‘o’, both pronouns applied completely regardless of gender.

But despite these two languages being so different in their applications of the ‘ling’, one thing remains common—a lack of a vocabulary to talk about queerness. What we have is a vague, generalized word for same-sex attraction—‘samalaingik’ in Hindi and ‘shomokaami’ in Bangla and that’s about it.

Rigid binaries are a western import, and Indian history is full of ambiguous identities. So it’s ironic that while Western culture and languages have clearly laid out their demarcation of identities and have put names to a whole spectrum of queer and non-conforming gender expression and sexual orientation, our Indian vocabularies have hardly allowed for the same. And, though unsettling, there is a historical, social and deep-rooted patriarchal context to this.

Indian society—regardless of class or social and cultural background—largely considers discussions about sexuality a taboo. We hardly talk about sex—especially not in the vernacular—and hence, our vocabulary abounds in euphemisms. Thus, it’s not a surprise that when it comes to queer identities—identities that defy the traditional ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ or ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, we fall back on the same, often bigoted euphemisms that our parents (and their parents before them) teach us and perpetuate. And it is these euphemisms, shrouded in their sense of forbiddenness and scandal—that often turn into slurs, into an unconscious ‘othering’ of queer identities. “Sharmaji ka ladka ‘woh’ hain.” “O ektu onnyo rokom.” This ‘woh’ and ‘onnyo rokom’ (different) are elusive categories—not because you don’t want to say the word, but because you have been conditioned so deeply to use such euphemisms that you no longer know how to.

The ‘Meyechhele’: Trans Identities and Bangla

My first encounter with a trans woman was when I was seven. My aunt had just given birth, and a group of Hijra women—as tradition goes—came to ‘bless’ the baby, performing rituals, singing songs and dancing in a way that had me mesmerized. However, as I looked on in childlike fascination, I found the adults around me look at them with apprehension—trepidation, even. Later, while talking about the incident, these adults used the word ‘hijra’ like it was an insult, an anomaly. It didn’t just stop there—the people around me continued to use the word as a slur, with brows furrowed and noses scrunched, when they saw any trans woman on the street.

Another word that kept recurring—and shockingly, is a common one in colloquial Bengali vocabulary—is ‘meyechhele’ (which literally translates to ‘girl-boy’)—and was thrown around as a casual slur to any man who did not adhere to the strict bounds of traditional masculinity. Whether that be the wonderfully gender-nonconforming Rituparno Ghosh (someone that the bigoted middle class Bengali always puzzled over, because on the one hand they would love and appreciate his films, but continue to deride the man for his blatant disregard of gender norms) or a teenage boy who was a little too skinny or a little too clumsy. ‘Chhakka’ was reserved for cruder tongues, or larger threats to the gender binary. Calling someone a ‘meyechhele’ implies that they are some kind of an aberration—because they defy the binary.

The Bengali vocabulary—much like the Bengali public—still doesn’t know how to reconcile trans identities. When Naihati-dweller Manabi Bandopadhyay became India’s first transgender principal, the Bengali public was further confounded. I personally know many who misgendered her, who used these two slurs for her. What many didn’t, and still don’t, understand is that every transgender identity is not ‘hijra’—that hijras are a whole different cultural community altogether.

But sadly, there is no other Bangla word for it. And even if there was, it’s usage has been eclipsed by slurs that are so common that they are legitimized, and skewed, bigoted terminology.

Can I Ever Express Queerness In Bangla?

I come back, here, to my original dilemma—about how to put my queer identity into (Bangla) words. I did some more digging, consulted a few English-to-Bengali dictionaries, and (unsurprisingly) came up with no appropriate phrase to describe pansexuality. I did, however, stumble upon the loose terminology for ‘queer’, ‘bichitro’ (‘vichitr’ in Hindi).

This is ironic, because the other contexts and meanings in which bichitro is applied and used is to describe something vivid, something versatile, something with multiple facets (but also, something confounding). Bangla might use ‘bichitro’ to refer to queer people, but what it lacks, what is decidedly not ‘bichitro,’ is how the language itself does not allow for such variety. When I do come out to my parents, I will still have no one word to tie my identity to—and while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because hey, sexuality is a spectrum and labels aren’t always good; it still frustrates me how the language does not even allow for a sexual orientation which might be beyond the confines of ‘bichitro’ or ‘shomokaami.’

I know that I am perhaps not alone in this dilemma—that many queer Indians who converse largely in their respective vernacular languages might also find it difficult to put a name to their queer identity in their mother tongue. A culture of silence has spawned this, and continues to spawn this. So, for us to come out of our closets, we first need the (non-Western) language to do so.

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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.

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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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