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Why Women Need To Reclaim Their Body, Self And Spaces From Religion

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By Atiya Anis:

India celebrated its 70th Independence Day on August 15. Yet, a section of the population still fights for equality. More than sixty six long years after the Indian Constitution was adopted, discrimination continues to exist. Not only in personal space, but also within the institutional mechanisms of the country.

It confuses me whether to celebrate the court ruling on Shani Shingnapur Temple and Haji Ali Dargah or be ashamed of our legacy of hypocrisy where women are worshipped and at the same time considered impure and unfit to enter places of worship. If displaying hypocrisy was a sport, I am sure India would lead from the front. The ban on women entering the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah is in direct contravention of Article 14 (Equality before law), Article 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and Article 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Indian Constitution. If there is discrimination within a state of the country, even if it is inside a religious institution, it no longer remains only the concern of the institution or community. It becomes a national issue. The women all over the world and especially in India will always be thankful to the Court’s ruling against this oppressive religious practice. This is the start of bringing about structural change in the world’s oldest and complicated institution called religion, which no one dares to question.

The practice continued for years, with us being unperturbed. Modern day feminism largely talks about liberty to dress in western attire, drinking, partying, revolutionary facebook posts and hashtags on feminism. This trend of urban feminism, embraced by the middle and upper classes, is oblivious of the struggles of the rest of the population. Religion still holds much relevance to majority of ordinary women who derive their strength from God to fight for their numerous struggles. Many women I know rubbished the issue questioning why do they even need to go inside the temples. But is ignoring it the correct approach? Would it not lead to increased confinement of women to more such spaces? I totally agree with this fight for the right of space. It is not only about temples or mosques; it is about the unfair attempt of confining women and snatching away their human rights.

The insensitive and protective practice was justified by the Dargah by claiming that this saved women from physical discomfort and sexual harassment. The justification offered demonstrates the highest level of misogynic attitude. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), as many as 2. 24 million crimes against women were reported from 2005-2014. Thankfully the Dargah committee responsible for the patriarchal ritual is not a part of India’s governing body, otherwise all women would be exiled to an inaccessible, isolated Island, to make it safer for women.

‘Loiter’ is another brave effort at reclaiming public spaces. Women are encouraged to ‘loiter’ around in public spaces. It bravely protests against the exclusion of women from public spaces. The movement started from Aligarh Muslim University and is gradually spreading all over India. Attempts like these need to gather a broader base to dilute any further attempts on women’s freedom. Treating women as “the other”, as socially and physically subordinate has led to gendering of public and personal spaces, whether implicitly or explicitly. These loopholes in local history, tradition and culture that perpetuate this gap require intense scrutiny. Festivals like Rakhsa bandhan and Karvachauth, which have attained social are subconscious demonstrations of male supremacy. Similarly, the practices of “talaq-e-Bidat” (triple talaq), “nikah halala” and polygamy need to be declared illegal and unconstitutional. But there is something that makes people speechless when it comes to questioning their faith.

Religion has the power to silence even the dissenting believer. Fear of the unforeseen, intricate customs and traditions coated with religious dictates have long played the role of establishing and perpetuating the economic and political power and hegemony of one class over the other. With time, religious institutions have taken the shape of bureaucratic institutions with its sets of non-negotiable rules. A normal person caught in the cobweb of everyday struggle hardly finds time and energy to come out of the myriad of binding rules and dictates. It is interesting to note that all religions have contradictory interpretations and the upholders of faith are ready to kill and die for their unique religions, yet the status of women in all remains subordinate. Women who fall outside the accepted roles are treated as outcasts and subject to punitive treatment. These are uncomfortable questions that need reflection before we bow down to the rusted customs and traditions.

Many believe that he word “religion,” which comes from the Latin word religare, means “to tie, to bind.” This etymology of the word very well explains the power religion has over people and the communities. It also justifies how religion has been used to perpetuate social inequality. The origins and evolution of Dowry goes back to Hindu marriage traditions. Stridharama, found in Hindu texts , is the money which the parents provide to their in-laws after their daughter’s marriage. We can get similar innumerable instances in every faith. In Muslim communities only the veiled women are deemed symbols for tradition, piety and culture. Any attempt to modify these traditions is seen as a move to assimilate and destroy their Muslim identity.

While discriminatory religious practice can create huge divide and dissent. Feminists and religious actors need to explore common grounds to reach a consensus on putting forward the development agenda. A religious sermon may be practically valid thousands of years ago but may not be suitable for the present times. We would all agree that with each passing day, we all develop new perceptions and broader understanding, in personal, professional and social life. It should be equally true for the social norms and cultural practices to keep pace with changing times.

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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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