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This Awful Concept Reduces A Woman To Just Breasts And A Vagina

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At some point, we’ve all been subject to those ‘forwards’ on Mother’s Day or Daughter’s Day that enlist the traits one ought to admire about the women – kind, nurturing, emotional, soft, ever-enduring women. Many of us have recoiled from those sugary sweet, rose infested wishes, thinking “who the heck are these women?” not because being kind and having emotions is something to scoff at, but because it read more like a section from ‘Patriarchy’s Guide To Being A Woman.’ Some of that discomfort comes from (in case you were looking for the word) an ‘essentialist’ view of womanhood.

What Is Essentialism?

Essentialism is a close relative of “generalization” and “universalization.” It involves paring something down to those attributes, traits or behaviours that we presume is its “essence.”

Sounds a bit airy-fairy but remember that it’s been had some nefarious uses in the past. Remember how British colonizers said Indians were essentially incapable of self-governing? Or how Europeans saw Africans as essentially a slave race? Or how Nazi Germans saw Jewish and Romani people as essentially inferior? Or how the West thinks Muslims are essentially bloodthirsty? It has also meant that much of human history records White Europeans as essentially enlightened and blessed.

But there have been attempts to put the concept to better use. Back in the 1970s, French feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, tried to raise the social value of femininity (especially those qualities the patriarchy loves to belittle) by writing extensively about feminine bodies. Unfortunately, this attempt precluded all women who did not have vaginas, breasts, the ability to give birth, and a classic ‘feminine’ nature.

Essentially, There’s Only One Kind Of Woman – Wrong!

“Wait, but all women have vaginas and give birth, right? That’s what makes you a woman, right?”

Wrong.

By that definition, trans women, intersex folks, women who for various reasons cannot conceive, women who choose not to conceive, women who have had double mastectomies, and women who do not procreate heterosexually are, by this definition, not Women™. And what happens to people who have vaginas and who menstruate, but identify as (trans) men or non-binary?

Paeans and pop songs have been written to the ‘essence’ of woman, but romantic jibberings aside, there is no answer to the question “what is a woman?” Even if we’re given to Plato’s original essentialist philosophy – a ‘world of ideas’ where things exist in their purest, most real form, thereby making everything in the physical world imprecise copies – it would mean the ‘essence’ is a physical impossibility. And maybe it’s better that we take a cue from Plato, because we’d sooner arrive at this conclusion: “womanhood is an unachievable end.

Essentially, ALL Women Act A Certain Way – Wrong!

Judith Butler has written about the performativity of gender – meaning that the moment a female-identified person stops performing her ‘feminine’ role, it becomes difficult to classify her as a ‘woman.’ And there’s all these checks and balances to make sure women keep performing. We shame their bodies for daring to grow hair, we make fun of them for having anything less than a C-cup, we call them “boyish and ugly” for having taller builds and shorter hair. We click our tongues when they play contact sports, and we mourn conspicuously when they can’t have babies. All of this flies in the face of a ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ womanhood, when ‘women’ are produced through a lot of social interfering.

But it isn’t just about (not) having certain attributes. Essentialism as a concept also argues that attributes produce defined and predictable social behaviours – men are ‘naturally aggressive,’ women are ‘naturally meek’ – which only gives credence to the gender binary as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Failure to comply means “gender-policing,” which is uncomfortable for cis women who do not align 100% with Woman™, as well as many trans people, like South Asian poet Alok Vaid-Menon, who are not interested in “passing” as cisgender.

Essentially, Women ONLY Have Pregnancy Related Issues – Wrong!

When we think of ‘women’ as essentially baby-making machines, so do most of our systems, from family to legislation to even medicine.

“Women’s health issues” seems to exist as an altogether independent category, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), trouble conceiving or giving birth. But even with the overemphasis on women’s reproductive health, it continues to be a limited sphere. Issues like endometriosis, which affects 89 million women worldwide, is still not taken seriously enough. Too many women have had their health concerns dismissed with a casual “just lose some weight,” or “you’re overreacting.” And a range of morally-loaded chastisements prevent women from seeking and getting medical attention for problems regarding sexual activity.

The institutionalization of gender-essentialism is also apparent in how medical diagnosis is male-oriented. Because “men’s health issues,” tend to encompass a broad spectrum of medical risks, like HIV/AIDS, ADHD, heart disease, or drug addiction, procedures for diagnoses itself are oriented towards the male body. The essence of womanhood, it appears, does not include such medical risks.

Further, because medical practices are given to classifying women as person-with-vagina-and-uterus, many institutes are completely ill-equipped to address the health needs of trans women – that is of course, if they’re not busy denying them treatment altogether!

But It Is Essential We Identify And Fight This Problem

Not only does essentializing confine women to their gender role, many of our laws and provisions are drafted keeping only a ‘certain’ woman in mind. In India, we legally permit marital rape, because a woman’s essence is dutifully submitting to her husband’s every demand.

A woman’s essence lies in her current or impending motherhood, and has consequences for the workplace. The Maternity Benefit Act that gives new moms 26 weeks leave is a hard won victory, but has created a deep division between working moms and all the single ladies – the latter having to “[pick] up the slack when other women took off to have babies.

A woman’s essence also, apparently, makes her incompatible with STEM environments, because – as accusations from male peers reveals – they are too emotional, too irrational, and too distracting to be there.

Finally, a woman’s essence has truly made her the second sex, relegating her to a mere satellite in man’s orbit, always cast as someone’s daughter, or wife, or sister or mother, and never really her own person, with her own mind and her own needs. And that may be the root of all this trouble in the first place.

Featured Image Source: 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 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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