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The Story Of A Woman Who Has Been Fanatically Worshipped And Equally Hated

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By Shambhavi Saxena:

Up till the age of 10, nearly all my summers were spent at my paati’s (grandmother) house in Chennai, a city we still fondly referred to as Madras in those days. It was the very early 2000s, and the drive down from the airport was always an event for me, because of the rows and rows of billboards advertising cars and phones (apart from other things). And multitudes of these were invariably covered with images of the same matronly woman. I’d often seen relatives grumbling in Tamil at the very mention of her, but it wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand the full significance of the ‘woman on the billboards’. And what couldn’t be discussed even during my political science classes at school, has been encapsulated by Vaasanthi’s new book, “Amma”.

Subtitled “Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen”, it is a story of how sheer grit and a sharp mind got J. Jayalalithaa to where she is today – one of the few women Parliamentarians in India, having served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for five whole terms.

But “Amma” is very different from the news reports and even telecasts of Jayalalitha that we are so used to seeing. The book looks at its subject with a touch of humanity. It shows us a woman who is meticulous about her work and her person in equal measure. It shows us a woman who is deeply superstitious, seeking refuge in holy baths, appending ‘auspicious’ vowels to her name and more. It also shows us a woman in her moments of great insecurities, left in the lurch by her political mentor, fending for herself, and often relying on the dubious help of her aides. Even as we are presented with a Jayalalithaa who is as much a person as you or I, Vaasanthi makes sure we appreciate this woman for the political entity she has engineered herself to be. And in spite of her many failures, the book does not gloss over her significant achievements, such as her government’s timely response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated the South Indian state.

“Amma” has something of a tripartite structure, following Jayalalithaa from childhood, to her move into politics, and finally looking at her most recent years in public office. It is a lucidly written bildungsroman (fancy German for ‘coming-of-age story’), about a woman who has been fanatically adored and venomously reviled, in equal measure.

The book begins by highlighting Jayalalithaa’s contentious relationship with her mother Sandhya, and her film co-star and mentor MGR, who were both anchors to the two overlapping parts of her life – movies, and politics. While she was still in school, Jayalalithaa had to make the difficult decision to drop her plans for higher education to pursue her acting career. And back in the day, a woman doing film did not have it easy and was often accused of selling her body. But the switch to politics was none too pleasant for her either. For much of the initial chapters, the sympathies of the book lie solely with Jayalalithaa, whose inner turmoil is given plenty of room. However, “sympathy” becomes a little more complicated during moments like the time she was viciously and physically attacked during a chaotic state assembly. From this point on, Vaasanthi begins offering some biting critiques of her subject:

“From then on, Jayalalithaa sought to exploit this ugly incident to her advantage, with a concerted effort to play upon people’s sympathy and use the attack on her as a metaphor for attacks on a woman’s honour and modesty in general,” she writes, bringing the reader closer to the Jayalalitha that most people know of – the Jayalalitha of the many scams, of the corruption, of the fair-weather political allegiances.

The book goes into great detail on these and other instances that were so typical of her time in office. For example, there are numerous mentions of the reign of terror and sycophancy produced by Jayalalithaa’s ministry. Vaasanthi notes how she became “intolerant of criticism,” and how her ego began to cloud and corrode the freedom of the press in Tamil Nadu. It also doesn’t spare her lapses of political judgement, and the absurd prevalence of “Amma” brand colour TVs or fans or laptops in the state.

The book marks two decades of Jayalalithaa’s complicated but immensely interesting political run, and it’s an interesting time to reflect on it. After AIADMK-chief MGR passed away, the mantle fell to Jayalalithaa, and, as Vaasanthi notes, “A new cult of leader-worship had been initiated.” Much can be said about the deification of leaders in this country. It’s almost as problematic as the “maternal” role (the title “Amma” says it all, really) cast upon women like Jayalalithaa. But all of it does make you wonder – what is it about this woman that has captivated people for over twenty years? And this book just might set you on the path to that answer.

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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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