By Lipi Mehta:
Vinatoli Yeptho is a 22-year-old studying law in Kolkata. Originally from Dimapur, Nagaland, today she’s no stranger to the discrimination women from the North East part of India face every day. However when she was leaving her hometown with dire warnings by her elders to be “aware and alert”, Vinatoli tried to keep all her biases aside because she had “so many dreams and positivity”. But in her very first few months at a Gujarat college (where she studied before moving to Kolkata), she experienced something that was impossible to just “shake off”.
“The students were overly nice,” she recounts.“One evening, a bunch of girls followed me and asked me, ‘Where are you from in China?’ I told them I am actually from Nagaland. And then they asked, ‘Ah, where in China is Nagaland?'” This was the first time Vinatoli had encountered what she had only heard about till now – that people in her own country know little or nothing about the North East part of India. When she told them Nagaland is in India, they seemed “disappointed”. “This was the first time I faced something like this, but definitely not the last,”she told me over our phone chat.
Such experiences continued even when she moved to Kolkata – where it wasn’t uncommon for her to be asked if she was from Myanmar, Japan or China. Sexual harassment of women from the North East especially, as she observed, was disturbingly common on the streets. Moved and disturbed, she wrote and performed “Five Rules For Whomever It May Concern”, a poem that boldly addresses the shame and sexism women have to face for simple, everyday life choices.
And over the last week, Vinatoli’s poem has taken the internet by storm.
“If I wear red cherry blossom lipstick and smile at you, do not take it otherwise. It is just courtesy, not curiosity,” she says as one of the five rules. I was blown away when I first heard her powerful slam poetry. And while chatting with her I realised how her passion to act against this discrimination is almost infectious. The conversation made me think about how little I myself know about what it means to be a woman from the North East part of India and live in another city, where most of the population knows little about your history or culture.
Immensely inspiring, Vinatoli said she’s determined to continue writing about issues such as anxiety, body shaming, and racial discrimination – issues that we don’t consider “real” enough. “We know it’s happening but we don’t admit it,” she said. And through her work, she hopes to break the silence around just how intense and real harassment is for a woman from the North East, “who’re labelled by so many people, in so many layers”.
And for those quick to jump to conclusions Vinatoli had a simple request, “If you don’t know, ASK me about my culture. I’ll be very glad to explain. Don’t assume, and don’t judge me.”