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How Desi Feminist Memes Are Taking On South Asian Patriarchy, And Slayin’

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Back in 2010, I had hopped on to the Tumblr bandwagon to keep up with discussions about my favourite shows, but I found something there that was unexpected and far more interesting — Desi Tumblr. It was made up of South Asian bloggers from various diasporas — either first, second, or third generation immigrants. Among them were women trying to reconcile themselves with the ‘modernity’ or ‘progressiveness’ of Western culture. They wrote hilarious text posts about their daily experiences, and shared tidbits or anecdotes which keenly explored how hard it was to straddle the dual oppressions of a South Asian patriarchy at home, and the patriarchal and racial politics of the West.

As time went by and Tumblr became more and more popular in India and other parts of South Asia, desi women from everywhere (and not just those from diasporas) began to join in and added to these narratives. ‘Desi Girl Problems’ or ‘Brown Girl Problems’ became popular Tumblr posts, with all kinds of desi women voicing their grievances; so much so that it expanded to other social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and has now become a popular ‘meme format’ on the South Asian side of the internet. Feminist Bollywood GIFs, run by Pakistani blogger Imaan Sheikh, Bollyglot GIFs, Buzzfeed India, along with many other desi (female) Tumblr users, are continuing to comment hilariously on their shared experiences, and are making this meme format go viral.

So What Are These Memes About, Anyway?

There’s a lot that the average desi woman has to endure — the parental pressures of getting married, constant discrimination, judgement, slut-shaming, so on and so forth. And that’s exactly what we see reflected in these memes. They engage with various issues — whether it be repression within the family sphere, discrimination at work, or various other ways in which South Asian women are both subtly and not-so-subtly morally policed. What instantly strikes me (and many others) about these memes is how immensely culturally specific they are – taking on experiences that almost every desi woman faces in her household. That’s why the lure of these memes are so irresistible: you can’t help but share them, because they strike an important chord.

The trend that began as individual Tumblr posts has now become a rage, so much so that entire Facebook pages and Twitter handles dedicated to them have become daily fixtures. And on Tumblr, countless text and GIF posts chronicling these common ‘Desi Girl Problems’ continue to be shared, becoming an important medium for South Asian women to register their individual voices of dissent and use them to battle stigma.

The posts never hesitate to address uncomfortable realities that one often doesn’t (or can’t) in real-world conversations – sexual taboos, MRAs hijacking the social justice movement, or discussions about consent. Most of these memes are superbly on point, and that’s why they keep getting circulated.

The humour here is a crucial element. It’s the humour that brings about a connect with the content of these posts; and it’s the humour which actually makes one engage with these issues. Historically, humour or satire has often been a tool of social reform, and these memes follow in that vein. You look at a meme, laugh at it, but it stays with you;  you are forced to reflect on the issue it brings up, and you can’t help but mull over its content and recognize how you experience the same in your daily existence.

Source: Feminist Bollywood GIFs

These memes become a part of a movement in itself – a movement to revolutionize desi internet, to make it more socially conscious and more importantly, to expose and explore the hypocrisies and sexist double standards within our culture. They may be funny and ridiculous, but they are also brilliantly incisive and revealing.

Source: Feminist Bollywood GIFs

Why It’s Important: Uniting Brown Feminists, Slamming Stigmas

Only a couple of weeks back, Buzzfeed India posted a meme about feminism that was met with a negative comment. While the comment wasn’t an unexpected one — because Internet trolls are always ready to pounce on feminists — what followed in the replies to the comment was truly an important thing to behold:

A whole bunch of women who don’t even know each other came together to shut down this troll — and therein lies the power of the Desi Feminist Meme. It helps bring desi women from different parts of the world in contact with the other, and leads to a strong sense of solidarity. Hence, they become an important form of reclamation of the self from the various subtle and dangerous forms of patriarchal violence and suppression; a feminist victory of sorts, even if it happens online.

So the next time you see and share a Desi Feminist meme on your timelines and go ‘Yass Kween‘ in your head, know that you’re part of a larger cultural conversation; an indirect but immensely effective challenge to a status quo which systematically silences our voices both in the domestic and outside world. And we have Desi Tumblr (and by extension also Twitter and Facebook) to thank for it all.

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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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