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Dear Aunty, Are Those Who Wear A Hijab Not Feminist Enough?

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By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Here we are again, back to talking about the things that matter and the things that don’t. Let’s get on with it!

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[su_highlight background=”#fa0f46″ color=”#ffffff”]R asked:[/su_highlight]

Are the recent French laws banning the veil, anti-feminist? Do you think that the veil is a symbol of systematic oppression against women? Do you think that women or men who remark that the veil is emancipating or liberating- have been engendered to believe so? Or are you of the school of thought that considers any such ban on the veil as anti-feminist because it trammels the freedom or choice of a woman to wear it?

Dear R,

Such a lot of questions in one paragraph. And yet, all I can think of is this time when I was a young and fresh early twenties reporter at my first job. It was a casual job, which meant we could wear what we liked, a newsroom filled with people not more than five years older than me. The walls were painted purple, the cubicles were decorated as we liked them, and we enjoyed our youth, flaunting it almost. Our lives stretched in front of us, we were young, we were strong, we were invincible and, in all this, we were smug, almost arrogant about not caring. Why should we care when there were adults to do the caring for us?

In the same building, there was a magazine and a radio station, all of us desperately young, all of us with the same pride and ambition which we tamped down so it didn’t interfere with the ironic way we dealt with our day to day life. No one spoke about money or family or promotions, the editor was older, a father figure almost, and in all this, I dressed exactly how I did to college—a tank top over jeans, a high rising t-shirt over a skirt, I hung my cloth bag across my shoulder and smelt like cigarette smoke and perfume. I was poor, but I was young, so I won.

And in all this, an older man who worked with us took to berating me every day about what I wore. “So much skin,” he’d say. Or, “this is not a night club, you know”. I’d look down at myself—what skin?–I could only see shoulders, was he objecting to my shoulders? And I’d ignore him, but the more I ignored him, the more he wanted to say something. Almost daily: “is that what you’re wearing?” I began to curl my shoulders inwards towards myself, but I didn’t stop wearing what I did, not out of some pride, but because I genuinely had no idea what he was objecting to.

Once I came in in a fairly normal t-shirt, which had little cut outs on my upper arms, the sleeves tied together in a bow. “We should have a dress code,” he roared at me from across the room where he sat in the best spot. My colleagues slid their eyes at me sideways. They were sorry for me, but they had their own battles to fight.

Eventually, I left the job (more money elsewhere) and I went to a stuffier newspaper office, where everyone had kids and/or was married, and my friends there wore casual but firmly covered up clothes, so I did too. Mostly, I never shared a newsroom with men again—the men in my new job were in their own section, and features was a woman’s beat, soft, lifestyle news where no one cared what you wore as long as you told your story well.

If I dressed slightly less buttoned up at my new job (for an appointment later in the day, for instance), my female colleagues would say, “You look nice! Going somewhere today?” and by then I knew about “office clothes” and “day off clothes” so I took care to have a pile of each on the ready. I would never be that person who wore a tank top and jeans to work again. I wish I had known that time would be so fleeting, that time where I felt so comfortable with who I was and what I did, that clothing was a matter of choice, not a uniform I put on every day.

Because, yes, for women, what you wear is a uniform. You suggest to the world how they should perceive you by the cut of your dress, the fall of your sari. This is who I am today. If I wore a veil, it would tell you certain things about me without me having to say anything. You might be angered by it, you might bellow: we should have a dress code, but it would be you undermining my choices.

It’s tricky to write about something you don’t personally do in your own life—such as a hijab. It wades into all sorts of political and personal waters—how can I tell you what to do? If I tell you to remove the scarf aren’t I as bad as the people to tell you to leave it on? If you are comfortable with your scarf on, if you feel empowered and like this is your choice (and there are many Muslim women who speak with this point of view), then how can I, someone completely unrelated, tell you that you are being used as a tool by the patriarchy to keep women down? Do I think they’ve been engendered to think so? Again, I’m not sure, because from the discourse I hear, it seems like these women have done the research, have done the reading, and have come to this deal they’ve struck with god completely outside anyone else’s purview.

So I guess I’m giving you a sort of wishy-washy answer. Can’t say the choice is feminist, because there are so many women and little girls being forced to cover their hair just because they’re female and their hair is, I don’t know, tempting in some way? Can’t say the choice isn’t feminist because there are women who are holding on to it as a symbol of their faith, a way of signalling to the world. I don’t think I am the authority you need to speak on this subject though, so I’m adding a few links that may answer your question more clearly, because sometimes feminism means letting people speak for themselves without pushing your own viewpoint in there all the time.


My Hijab Has Nothing To Do With Oppression
In My Life, Headscarves Have Been Symbols of Oppression, Not Solidarity

Aunty Feminist

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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.

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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.

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
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Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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