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Why Are Some Young Women Afraid To Call Themselves ‘Feminists’?

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I don’t think [Quantico is] a bra-burning feminist show where you’re like, we hate men, but we have really strong male characters, too,” said Priyanka Chopra in an interview last year. She is one of India’s leading pop culture icons who has countless young women looking up to her, and here she was, publicly dissociating herself from feminism despite stating that she believes in female empowerment. Even though she later embraced the term in another interview, there was no doubt about the kind of impact her earlier statement might have had on impressionable young girls still figuring out their politics.

Similarly, we’ve seen and heard young women from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds hesitate to call themselves feminists, or be wary of associating themselves with the term way too often. It’s become a refrain in our popular culture – fellow actor Parineeti Chopra followed suit, so did Lisa Haydon, who made some incredibly problematic statements by equating feminism with a rejection of men, marriage and babies. Taking off from these and countless other examples, many women (especially those who are young and impressionable) keep distancing themselves from the term, keep forming the wrong ideas about it, keep refusing the label despite claiming to believe in equal rights for all. And that is highly disturbing.

Why Is Calling Yourself A Feminist So Hard?

There are certain patriarchal misconceptions and myths that society fosters about feminism. There is continuous misinformation being spread about the idea through sexist memes on the internet, which not only attack women who dare to defy conventional ideas of womanhood, but paint feminists are people who hate men, burn bras, reject marriage (and even heterosexual relationships), and sometimes even call them “anti-national” – almost as if a woman who speaks up for her rights goes against the fabric of nationalism.

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Image Source: Hanley Seng/Facebook

There aren’t many spaces, both online and in the real world which provide awareness of education about what feminism really is. There is a lack of proper and unbiased gender and sex education, or sensitisation from the school-level itself as a result of which so many women end up relying on the patriarchal myths and inaccurate online narratives which paint feminism in a negative light.

There is also the misconception that feminist theories and ideas are purely academic or are the domain of ‘activists’ and ‘social justice warriors (which are again supremely problematic stereotypes), and that particular myths continue to be perpetuated when these ideas aren’t made as easily accessible to a layperson from a young age.

Due to all of this, women end up thinking that feminism (and being feminist) will end up ‘antagonising’ men.

For young women, their feminism is precarious because it places possible heterosexual romance at risk by marking them as ‘anti-men’, or so they perceive,” observes academic and feminist scholar Shilpa Phadke, and does so with great accuracy. Women, from a very young age are so deeply conditioned to seek male approval that they often subconsciously tailor their personalities and beliefs in order to seem desirable to the male gaze.

Ironically enough, this reliance on ‘male approval’ is what feminism itself tries to address and counter, but it becomes a reason for young women to shy away from feminism. Even women who do have a significant exposure to education by virtue of their economic or social privilege continue to be uncomfortable associating themselves with the term because of how ingrained the prejudices against it are.

But even those who have managed to break the conditioning; who have managed to understand the term and even realise how problematic the stigma surrounding the term is, often find it difficult to own the term explicitly because of how often sexist hate is directed at them for it. ‘Feminist’ becomes a slur, a means to put a woman down for daring to speak up, and not everyone finds the courage or strength to tackle that head on.

But Is The Term ‘Feminist’ Actually Problematic?

While many are too conditioned, repressed, or ignorant to recognise the implications of the term, many women also have legitimate objections to the term ‘feminist’.

The Feminism vs. Equality debate is an endless and convoluted one. There are those who argue that if feminism really wants equality, then it shouldn’t be defined by a term that refers to a particular gender. While a lot of us side with the one half of this debate – that ‘equality’ is too broad a word and denies the specific problem of gender (which is what the movement started out addressing) – there are also many who side with the the half that thinks the term ‘feminist’ isn’t inclusive enough. Feminism isn’t just about gender equality, but also includes within its ambit issues surrounding sexuality, class, caste, race, disability, mental health, and so on and so forth. Therefore, if not ‘equality’, many argue that the term ‘intersectionality’ better represents these concerns than just ‘Feminism’.

The word ‘feminism’ itself has uncomfortable historical connotations, because the movement began with cis, white, and heterosexual women, and often excluded narratives from women of colour, queer women, trans women and so on. It was initially a movement which was fighting against the man vs. woman binary, but now that feminist thought and criticism has developed and become more nuanced and inclusive over the years, many reject the term because of its earlier associations.

While this is, on many levels, a genuine criticism against the term, it comes with its problems too. The word ‘feminist’ has a socio-cultural relevance that cannot be entirely dismissed. Years of social and political movements have gone into making it what it is today – for the rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of colour and so on. To deny it completely would mean to annul its achievements, which is something we cannot afford to do.

How Can We Be Loud And Proud Feminists Then?

Perhaps the first and foremost step towards embracing the term is to engage with the ideas and concepts first. It’s not easy to unlearn generations of conditioning and prejudices, but with better gender and sexuality education and awareness, it is definitely possible to do so. We have to make feminism accessible to young girls, whether it be by sensitising them about issues from a young age or by encouraging them to speak out when they experience oppression or see it around them.

As for the contested connotations of the term ‘feminism’ – that’s a debate which continues to rage on. But to truly find a solution to that question, we need to first spread awareness about what feminism is, and have young people engaging with these ideas and debating them.

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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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