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Race To Caste To Class: The 8 Types Of Oppression A Woman Can Face In Her Lifetime

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Two women walk into a grocery store. One of them is black, the other is biracial and ‘passes’ as white. At the cash counter, a young employee chats animatedly with the woman she thinks is white, bills her purchases and takes her check. When it’s the black woman’s turn, the cashier asks for two pieces of ID, and has the gall to call it ‘standard policy’.

This is an actual incident, later recounted by the same black woman in a film on racial inequality, and it’s the reason why our approach to oppression needs to be intersectional. Intersectionality was a political idea created by black women in the USA, when they realised that mainstream or white feminism, was simply a blanketing of women’s issues, and therefore did nothing for women of colour.

Recognising difference – that’s the game. Not looking at women as a monolith, or a homogenous group with the same set of concerns. One of the counter-arguments to intersectionality has been to say: “Who needs labels, we’re all human!” But it doesn’t matter that all humans share DNA, or that we all crawled out of a pre-historic swamp or that we were all created in the image of God, because there are many things that divide us, and we can’t act like they don’t. In fact, differences of race, sexuality, gender, religion, caste, class and more can create new and unique problems that a unidimensional ‘humanist’ approach is incapable of handling. And problems have a way of converging when you, as is usually the case, are a composite of many identities.

1: If You’re A Woman

Apparently the presence of what is medically called the ‘female’ reproductive system makes women subordinate to men. It’s been that way since a ‘biological’ hierarchy was created between the two binary sexes – men are strong, aggressive protectors of possessions and women the meek, generous caregivers to all. Obviously, these definitions do not sit well with us today, and for good reason.’The second sex’, as Simone de Beauvoir calls ‘em, are denied jobs, married off, physically violated, forced to depend on men, simply because that’s the place the patriarchy (a man’s world) put them in.

2: If You’re A Woman And Belong To A Minority Race

#YesAllWomen must bear the brunt of this patriarchy. But some women more than others. Women who belong to a racial community that has historically been marginalised face two layers of oppression. If you’re a black woman in any of the white majority areas of the United States, you are twice as more likely to not have a job. “A white woman makes 77 cents and a black woman makes 69 cents of that dollar,” says Janai Nelson, of the NAACP. You are more likely to be punished for laughing. And you are more likely to be shot dead. It’s nearly the same for Latinx women in the USA. Here in India, Dravidian women from southern states are constantly made fun of (like in this popular North Indian poet’s monologue), while women from the North East are stereotyped as ‘loose’, and must face racial discrimination from mainland Indians.

3: If You’re A Woman Who Belongs To A Minority Religion

More often than not, tensions sprout between religious communities, as between Hindus and Muslims in India, Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, or between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist extremists in Myanmar. But it’s women’s bodies that become the site of communal violence. In times of extreme religious strife, women from the ‘other community’ have been kidnapped, beaten, and raped, and the partition of India in 1947 has been the biggest example of this.

4: If You’re A Woman From A Community Traditionally Seen As ‘Lower Caste’

For Indians, caste identity too creates the condition for violence against ‘Dalit women‘. Savarna or upper-caste Hindu women do not have their bodies literally sold into ‘temple prostitution’ the way Devadasi women are. Savarna woman don’t get pushed into sex work for lack of other options. Dalit women are more likely to be raped and murdered, denied medical care or work by upper-caste doctors and employers.

5: If You’re A Woman Who Identifies With An Alternate Sexuality

When it comes to representation, lesbian and bisexual women have to make do with an image of themselves that is often fetishised and packaged for the male gaze. And the few halfway decent portrayals are killed off. A GLAAD count showed only 10% of films featured lesbian characters. And in Indian media too, queer women’s representation is miniscule. But that’s the least of your concerns as a queer woman. Medical practices are ill-equipped to address health issues unique to queer women. And sexual assault – the looming demon in every woman’s life – is significantly higher for queer women. In fact, queer women in India are subject to ‘corrective rape’ by their own families.

6: If You Identify Yourself As A Woman, But The World Doesn’t

It starts when people in your immediate surroundings prohibit you from identifying with anything but the gender assigned to you at birth. Discrimination against trans people can be perpetuated in small and petty ways like continuing to use male pronouns, but can escalate to violent punishment as well. Transmisogyny – that’s the term to remember when trans women made up 72% of hate crime murders in the US alone. In India, trans women are denied work and basic human dignity, and are left with few work opportunities besides begging or sex work. And even after Indian universities began accepting transgender students, the low enrolment rate indicates how limited trans women’s access to education is.

7: If You’re A Woman With A Disability

When you’re a person with disability, you also have to worry about how the majority of your city’s infrastructure has not been built with you in mind. Missing ramps and elevators, crumbling sidewalks, low availability of wheelchairs or crutches, no learning material in braille, no peers who communicate in sign language, or peers who, instead of understanding your mental health needs, think you’re possessed, or a burden. Man, it’s gotta take some courage to even want to get out of your home and face all of these shortcomings every day of your life. Of course, all of this is not independent of the usual concerns women have – general safety, unsolicited advances and more. In fact, women with disabilities are even more vulnerable to sexual assault than non-disabled women.

8: If You’re A Woman Without Economic Privilege

363 million people in India live below the poverty line. In the USA, 14.8% of the total population is classified as poor. In China, it’s 11.2%, and in the UK, it’s 1 in 5 people. Any kid in school will be able to tell you what this means: little or no access to education, housing or food; which means no knowledge of your basic human rights and no access to good health; which means little or no means of income, and very little space to voice your concerns. Imagine being a disabled queer woman of colour, and not having the economic means to help yourself.

Oppression Is Layered And Complicated

Different women experience oppression differently. And privilege also plays a huge part in the equation. For example, men have more privileges than women, but it’s also true that in India, upper-class savarna Hindu women have more privileges than Dalit or Muslim men. To illustrate further here’s one of those choice YouTube comments:
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Yes. Only a certain class of people have access to the internet, and devices that use the internet. But again, it’s those layers that determine that privilege. I would imagine the average heterosexual male has more internet privileges than somebody who’s closeted. And here’s another one for ya: an urban elite non-binary kid has more privileges than a trans woman from a lower-income group. There’s stats for all this, but also take a gander at what is essentially a live-action video of how privilege separates us all. The participants in this video stand in a row, hands linked, as a perfect emblem of human first, everything else later. But their privilege or their lack of it literally rends them apart. And honestly that’s how it works in the real world.

The eight types of oppression mentioned here are still fairly broad – nested in each are other problems that often go unnoticed. Which is why the world desperately needs intersectionality – to help us explore all these complicated and overlapping differences and find solutions for all of them, not just the most prominent ones.

“Humans are are born free, but everywhere in chains.” That’s Rousseau, but I’m paraphrasing to be more gender-neutral here. He wrote that in the 18th century, when slavery, prostitution, and the hard demands laid on the working classes were among the most visible forms of inequality in the Industrial West. Today, the same sentiment has taken on simultaneously local and global dimensions, to include the various ways that oppression works, and we need to be ready and willing to deal with it.

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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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