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Cake Bites: We Watched The ‘Shakti’ Episode On Kinnars, And We Can’t Even…

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The Indian daily soap is a veritable maze that I still haven’t been able to navigate in its entirety. While the overwrought saas-bahu dramas (that span decades) are still going strong, Indian soap operas have now apparently also branched out into the supernatural genre, with naagins and taantriks galore. Hence, when I heard that one such Indian soap (and on Colors, no less) was to have its female lead “realize that she was Kinnar,” I was baffled, and then, thoroughly intrigued. I decided to brave the melodrama and, trying my best to keep an open mind, sat down to watch the fateful “one-hour special episode” where her identity is revealed.

Cue Patriarchal Stink Bombs

As the episode unfolded, we were met with the protagonist, Soumya, the simpering newly married bride whose default expression seems to hover between that of confusion and utter despair (perhaps, she was well aware of the trainwreck this episode is heading towards). The exacting, evil mother-in law (played by Kamya Panjabi) reeked of patriarchy from the get-go—asking her to “dress up” because apparently, newlywed wives had to do so to “please” their husband; and then, bestowing upon her a “Mata Ki Chunari” so that she can conceive a male child. Predictably, Soumya drops the chunari (accompanied by some highly cringeworthy background music) and causes an “apshagun,” which in Indian TV language, stands for impending disaster.

10 minutes in and the show was already exposing its prejudices. Of course this show wasn’t going to turn out to be a flag-bearer of equal rights, and a part of me had always known that, even when I tried to be as unbiased about it as I could. But I gritted my teeth and kept watching.

The central conflict of the episode (I kid you not), was the protagonist and her husband trying to get laid (aka the “suhaag raat“), and failing to do so. While the earlier “apshagun” had already sounded the death-knell for all hopes of a fulfilling suhaag raat, it turns out that the ill omens were a-plenty. The husband (who’s basically an entitled man-child, and the stuff of feminist nightmares) loses a gold chain which he was going to gift Soumya on their much agonized over “special night”. But sadly, the bigger ill-omen here is the dialogue, in which the guys laments (again, I kid you not): “Suhaag raat ki saari choreography kharab ho gayi.” (All my choreography for the suhaag raat is ruined.)

Now let’s fast forward to the raat itself. The entitled man-child turned out to also be borderline abusive (what a surprise) and emotionally manipulated Soumya like a pro. Frustrated at Soumya’s unwillingness to have sex, he issues her an ultimatum—nearly threatening divorce unless she agrees to sleep with him. Full points for totally not getting her explicit consent, Mr. man-child.

The Kinnar Revelation

The plot from here onwards became so thoroughly absurd that I stopped paying attention. One thing lead to the other, and Soumya is fortunately saved by the bell (literally, a bell rings) and is somehow summoned to a mysterious mandir, where, ultimately (*drumroll*) it is revealed to her that she’s kinnar.

But the revelation is hardly a welcome one. The show tells us that the kinnar community—who here are portrayed as some sort of near-satanic cult—have been following her every move since childhood and have even messed up a lot of things in her life without her realizing it. At one point, Soumya likens being kinnar to being a “chudail” (witch), and that was pretty much the last straw for me.

Here’s the thing: The kinnar community is a cultural group of transgender people in North India, who have their individual, diverse identities—and are the farthest thing from an evil cult. In fact, many from the kinnar community have gone on to break barriers through their mainstream achievements—foremost of which is Madhu, who became India’s first kinnar mayor (in Raigarh).

But in this episode, the kinnar identity is surrounded by shame and stigma, severely demonized, and the community is turned into a band of villains. What’s worse, Soumya’s identity is treated as a hurdle to be overcome, rather than be accepted as something natural and legitimate.

The fact that the only Indian show remotely featuring a trans woman is actually ridiculously transphobic didn’t really come as a surprise to me. In a popular culture which constantly misrepresents and stereotypes trans people, expecting nuance (especially from a soap opera) is perhaps asking for too much. But it’s 2016—so shouldn’t we start raising our standards by now? Isn’t it high time that our television shows finally became socially aware and stopped perpetuating patriarchal (and in this case, transphobic) myths? I am still waiting for the day that we have a mainstream trans protagonist who’s unapologetic of their identity, but by the looks of it, it seems like that day is pretty far off.

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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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