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Dear Aunty, Does Being Religious Stop Me From Being A Feminist?

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By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Hi everyone! Hope you’re all ready for some Friendly Advice meets Feminism this fine day.

A asked:

Does being religious stop me from being a feminist?

Dear A,

I’m third generation agnostic. You should know that at the outset. While my paternal grandmother was into astrology and birth charts and what not, my maternal grandmother didn’t—still doesn’t—hold much faith in those things. Growing up, spending holidays in Hyderabad where she lived, I remember exactly one religious idol, and that was a rather pretty bronze Nataraj statue, and one luridly painted Lakshmi who sat in the store room. I didn’t even know who they were for the longest time, I just thought they were random art objects, more for her collection of knick-knacks (she has a ton). I learnt all my Indian myths through Amar Chitra Kathas, or sometimes from my mum or dad, but this Wise Old Grandmother Telling Stories thing? Not mine. She wasn’t anti-religious, per se, I just don’t think she cared enough. My parents didn’t care either, so there I was, brought up with zero thoughts on God, gods, festivals, special fasting days and so on and so forth. When I was about six, I remember one of my classmates saying he didn’t believe in God, and I was so jealous, because neither did I, I was just too chicken to admit it.

That being said, despite, or perhaps because of this astounding lack of religious education, I was always drawn to spiritual texts. When I was about eight, I was enrolled in a Catholic school which took my impressionable mind and moulded it: I composed poems to Baby Jesus, while at the same time telling my parents we were going to go to hell if we didn’t go to church. I’ve read the Bible, I’ve thumbed through the Quran, I’m up-to-date on several versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and pretty much any novel that has religion as a base. (“Acts Of Faith” by Eric Segal is particularly good, if you’re searching.) But, in all my reading, and thinking, and deciding about it, there’s one thing that can’t be denied: most religion is pretty sexist.

I’m just going to quote from a few major religions here:

From the Morning Service in Judaism: Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.

From the Bible: When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.

Speaking of being unclean, we know that Hinduism follows similar practises vis a vis menstruation, although since there isn’t a standard book for the Hindus, it’s hard to find a source for it. Some say it’s about killing an ancient demon, others say it’s Ayurvedic, either way, women aren’t fit to interact with society.

And Buddhism is rife with sexism, just an example here, from an article by Devdutt Pattanaik: In the tale of Sudinna, a young monk breaks his vows of celibacy after his old parents beg him to give his wife, whom he had abandoned, a child so that his family lineage may continue. When this is revealed, the Buddha admonishes him thus: “It is better for you to have put your manhood in the mouth of a venomous snake or a pit of burning charcoal than a woman.”

My point here is not to make you disavow religion forever, but to become a thinking person about the god/gods/rituals you follow. Many of them have sexist roots—but that’s also because these books have never been updated. And women have always been low on the totem pole of enlightenment and whatnot that our ancient fathers were so concerned with. If you’re going to be a 21st century religious person, dear A, then you need to begin by questioning everything you believe in. Hold it up to the light and see if still rings true within you. It will be an uncomfortable exercise, but one that is necessary.

Who knows? You might even find your relationship with the universe improves upon questioning. You might find yourself that much closer to enlightenment. And isn’t that all we’re hoping for as a human race?

Love,
Aunty Feminist

Aunty Feminist loves to hear from her readers! If you’d like her to answer a burning question you might have, send it to us at auntyfeminist@youthkiawaaz.com or tweet your questions to @reddymadhavan.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.

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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.

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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