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From One Man To Another: This Is The Role You Play In The Feminist Movement

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By Abhishek Jha for Cake:

Although there can be different forms of feminism, the one central tenet that runs through all of them is a struggle for women’s agency, space, and voice. This at the very least should be kept in mind when formulating what men’s role within feminism should be. I say this because, as we sometimes see, there are often ‘well-intentioned men’ seeking to define or learn this role, sometimes in a’‘well-meaning request’ to women in a long thread of comments on Facebook or in a general conversation.

What also needs to be clear from the outset of such a project is that whatever rubric you may find for yourself, including this one, is not something that men have come up with themselves. Even the lauded helpful husband who does the dishes or ‘allows’ their spouse to go to work does so because throughout history women have kept fighting for this. To put it clearly: men’s role within feminism has been/gets/will get created by what women have asked of men. If you find yourself speaking to someone who credits men with making an original contribution to the fight against sexism and patriarchy, question that. Why? Because that – their agency – is exactly what has been denied to and snatched away from women, courtesy patriarchy. Could the contribution not have been made by women? Was a woman who made the contribution silenced, or erased from or not recorded in history?

The practical examples that are developed here are then also the result of being made to do the line of questioning that we take in the previous paragraph, which is – if you observe – only derived from the basic tenet of feminism that we began with.

1. Listen

For over two thousand years, we have heard men speak – in books, on television, on the radio, and in scriptures. It is not as if feminists want to ban men from speaking. When a woman is speaking, and speaking about feminism at that, kindly desist from hogging the mic for yourself as the know-it-all. Nobody is going to doubt your speaking skills or your knowledge. You have thousands of years of documentary evidence of men speaking, men learning, men singing, men shouting, men using all available media of speech to look up to, imitate, or worship. You are already privileged enough to speak.

As this popular Tumblr blog has been documenting for quite some time, this privilege has meant that only men tend to be portrayed as experts on all subjects of discussion. A great example of such all-male-panels (aka “manels”) is the Indian parliament. This male-dominated body – the highest ever representation of women here has been just over ten percent – has decided time and again that the parliament does not need reservation for women.

So, yes, men also have the privilege to speak about (or over) women. But listening to women allows you to learn what they want– which could lead you to what feminism is, how it has evolved over the years, and continues to do so.

2. Read and Think

Now our ‘well-intentioned’ dude will, after considerable bickering, finally give up with something like, “I have not read up on this,” or “Can you please elaborate?”

Feminists are also often accused by these guys of having resorted to ‘specialised knowledge’, ‘theory’, ‘history’, and ‘jargon’ to ‘just beat them down’. But feminist theory is not something that women learn just for laughs. Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ begins with the trouble that she had to go through to even begin writing that text.

What I am trying to put across is that what you call specialised knowledge is the result of a lot of labour that women have undertaken to liberate themselves. Feminist theory did not come out of thin air. Right from the women who fight for their rights within their homes to those who fought on the street to those who had to fight to produce and disseminate this knowledge to the woman who perhaps with patience explained to you in five short sentences (because you were lazy) the knowledge that she accumulated after much work, women had to do a lot of labour to fight patriarchy. And you want to make her work more, for free? That’s not very feminist of you, is it?

3. No Ally-Theatre!

Now suppose you read up on feminism, you learn about oppression, and you want to support women’s fight against patriarchy. You could be then called an ally. But you are not satisfied with it. You go ahead and proclaim yourself a feminist ally.

Privilege alert! ‘Feminist’ is not a badge that you get to wear just because or even if you have read everything about feminism and agree with it. As soon as you ‘proclaim’, you are again demanding space and attention, all of which you already have without even having to work for it.

If you continue to participate in patriarchal practices, your proclamation is plain theatrics (hence, the word ‘ally-theatre’). Women might call you an ally if they find support from you when they fight to end gender pay gap, gender discrimination at work, sexual harassment, when they demand affirmative action, etc. But if earning brownie points for being termed an ally is your motivation for supporting women, you are not supporting women’s struggles. You are just performing ally-theatre for your own benefit.

Another form in which ally-theatre presents itself is when men who call themselves allies point out that ‘not all men’ are bad because male allies exist. Two things are to be kept in mind here. One, when women criticise men, they are not targeting you or allies specifically. They are attacking a whole system that privileges men. Two, even if you are an ally, you still are part of the problem, because your privileges don’t vanish once you are an ally.

What women demand from men is support in the form of actual work, which we will deal with in the next section. What must precede and follow such work is the understanding that this work alone is men’s role in the feminist movement. A ‘Hello, I am a feminist ally!’ declaration is not.

4. Men’s Space Within Feminism

While learning to do all of the above, what men can do is make their own spaces feminist. This would mean putting an end to the manel, the sexist talk that you are used to, patriarchal norms that you easily give in to, the easy-applause that male writers, artists, activists get, and more. For our ‘well-intentioned’ dude from above, this would also mean speaking to men about ending sexist practices, instead of educating women on what feminism “really is”.

This is also to say that men should not demand space from women’s platforms and forums. This is yet another way of saying that you already have huge footprints all over the globe, which you can start working on. If your family, workplace, organisation, institution, or party is male-dominated, patriarchal, misogynist, or sexist, change that instead of asking women’s spaces to share their mic.

Still More

Most of this piece treats gender as a binary, because oppressive structures tend to work in that manner. Ending this binary would mean doing all of the above and staying alert for any new demands that the feminist struggle makes from men. Now some men may have been doing this work but as the joke goes, ‘a male feminist walks into a bar because it was set so low’. Feminists have to work hard to keep even this bar from sliding even lower. Feminism has come to include the struggle of several other marginalised groups. If men want to raise the bar, they must also learn about the struggles of all such marginalised groups.

This article was originally published here on Cake.

Feature image source: Google

Banner image source: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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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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