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My Story Of Growing Up Queer And Non-Binary In Karachi

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By N for Cake:

When living in a big city like Karachi, one tends to come across all sorts of things. But the expectation to conform to what society wants and fit into neat little boxes (whether it be your sexual orientation or gender) really messes with the substance of what one finds.

You see, I am non-binary. Essentially, that means that I don’t relate to or connect with the conventional definitions of being a ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ It is both a personal label and an umbrella term, but I tend to use it somewhat in both senses for myself. However, the lack of open discussion regarding being non-binary made it that much tougher to figure out how much this term applied to me.

To start with, I grew up in a joint family system. And while in some cases that would mean that there are more people to shove gender roles down your throat, fortunately for me that didn’t happen. See, I lived with my father’s side of the family and on this side the women were known to be fiery and determined while the men were meeker and relatively more sedate (very binarist, I know). So growing up I saw my paternal grandmother and aunt being successful and treated with respect, and my mother and another aunt who were stay-at-home-moms were also equally respected.

Visitors at Mohatta Palace, Karachi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a child I didn’t really register it but there certainly is a benefit to living in this kind of variety, because at a deeper level I became aware that the roles played in the household and at work aren’t necessarily better suited to one gender over another. Though, it wasn’t as though my family recognised gender roles and consciously avoided them; it would be more true to say that my grandmother set an example, both by working hard and having a no-nonsense personality, that ended up preventing certain mindsets from really taking hold in the first place.

So while I escaped family pressures to be “girly”, the media I was surrounded by more than made up for it. It was very rare for me to find any characters I could personally relate to because “girls” were always reduced to mere love interests, or sexualised to the point that you wonder why being a girl has to be so uncomfortable and restrictive.

Having been inundated with this limited and claustrophobic version of being a “girl” I decided I wanted to rebel against… well all of it.

My father really loved watching James Bond movies, and by extension so did I. However, I never wanted to romance James Bond (or his Bond Girl for that matter), I wanted to be James Bond. Because at that point the only girls I could relate to were “The Powerpuff Girls,” and that was entirely rooted in how it was a show centered on how cool these three girls were, despite being so different from each other and having no outright love interests.

So I began shaping my identity around what wasn’t considered “girly”. I took an interest in playing sports and watching wrestling. For most of my childhood I used to wear shirts and jeans for special occasions like Eid, when it was expected of little “girls” to wear colourful shalwar kameez. Amusingly, despite wanting to consciously be as non-feminine as possible, I still played with Barbie dolls and loved shows like “Winx Club.” I even enjoyed wearing my mother’s heels and using her makeup. Thinking about it now, I’d say that I engaged with a mix of “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” because I had enough room to pay attention to what I personally liked as opposed to only focusing on what society wanted me to conform to.

And as I got older I did continue to cling to my dislike for using gender to put people into boxes, but I also refined these views as my understanding of feminism evolved. But in my A Level years (basically some time last year) I began to realise how I am, in fact, quite queer. I began evaluating my gender. But at the same time my identity was rooted in breaking all the norms girls were expected to follow. Not to mention the fact that the world isn’t the most accommodating to those who aren’t cis. There came a point where it felt uncomfortable to keep denying it and I began engaging with the “queer” side of the internet to learn more about terms that describe gender. In the end, I discovered that bigender was the term that resonated with me. And within that scope the two genders I related to were “female” and “non-binary”.

After accepting the truth of it, I spent a lot of time going back and forth with this because I suddenly wasn’t a girl anymore and my sense of self needed to be reimagined to suit that. The big question remained though, how would I reimagine my entire identity?

Thankfully, due to the internet, I was surrounded by positivity and reassurance regarding my gender, which gave me the support I needed to straighten things out. With time it began hitting me, more and more, that the best way to challenge what is expected of one gender is to question why a binarist dichotomy exists in the first place.

Port Grand, in Karachi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And as the pieces fell into place, everything began making sense. A lot of sense. It was like the answer was right in front of me all along yet up until now my eyes were closed so I had no idea. This epiphany ignited something within me, where I began analysing what aspects of femininity appealed to me and what aspects of masculinity appealed to me. The answer as it turns out is that I actually like “feminine” things and no longer had a “reason” for consciously rejecting them.

Even though in a more general sense I personally see both “masculine” and “feminine” as gender neutral, it is pretty liberating to base my whole identity on what I actually like as opposed to being influenced by what’s around me, whether I’m conforming or rebelling.

And I won’t lie, as someone who’s very securely located in the closet, it does make me feel uncomfortable to think that people will look at me being at ease with being feminine and perceive it as “You finally became a girl.” But this is one of those things I know I’ll be able to work through with time. I mean, I’m only 19, and I’ve only been at this for around a year, so I’m in no rush to be at peace with everything. This is part of why I didn’t really worry when “bigender” (at least how I defined it before) didn’t seem to fit as well it used to. I stick to non-binary for now for convenience, because going with the flow guarantees the most ease and comfort.

All in all, while the journey has been demanding and daunting, I’m glad I took the initiative to reflect over who I am. And sure, the world has a long way to go before it’ll fully accommodate those who aren’t cis, but we’re getting there. And in terms of myself I’m just relieved I got the room to explore who I was instead of spending my life feeling as though something just wasn’t right.

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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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