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Pakoras And Sexism: What Weddings Are Like For A Desi Feminist

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By Anonymous:

Going to an Indian wedding these days is like re-watching your favourite 90s Bollywood film as an adult – lured in by the nostalgia and familiarity, you expect it to be fun, but once you look closely, you realize that it’s fraught with benevolent sexism, homophobia, and way too many problematic elements. I, a single queer woman in her 20s, am yet again its chosen victim.

I came for the free food, I tell myself as I am forced to smile and make small talk with relatives who are as nosy and unrelenting as ever. “You have grown up so fast,” says an overzealous auntyji (a sentiment that never gets old, even though you’re 23), “But you have put on some weight, no? Maybe you shouldn’t eat so many pakoras.” She follows this up with laughter, although the scrutiny in her eyes is clear. She’s sizing me up as a potential candidate for rishtas (ironic, considering how surprised she was at my having ‘grown up fast’) and is testing out the extents to which I fit into her version of ‘ideal sanskaari woman’ – but to her dismay I haven’t even ticked half her boxes. I’m not ‘conventionally’ thin, I have body hair, I have male friends, I drink and smoke, I live away from home…you get the drift. Considering that I’m one of the few women in my family who do these things, these auntyjis are perennially stumped when it comes to me. It’s not their fault entirely because it’s ultimately patriarchal society that has conditioned them into glorifying a certain ideal of desi womanhood, but I like to quietly rebel anyway. “But aunty,” I say with mock surprise as I very visibly pile up my plate with more food, “the pakoras are the best thing about this evening, don’t you think?

Do you have a boyfriend, beta?” another aunty chimes in even though the first one has been barely quelled. This is the trick question to end all trick questions, because there is no right answer. If you say yes, word will spread in the entire clan and aspersions will be cast upon your moral character, but if you say no, they will despair your impending spinsterhood and push you towards rishtas with renewed enthusiasm. But considering we’re at a wedding after all, I saw this coming, so I’m ready to maneuver this curveball. “What if I have a girlfriend?” I ask, tongue firmly in cheek, but also simultaneously trying to gauge their reaction to me possibly having a same-sex relationship. As expected, they take it as a humorous rhetorical question and laugh along, but the laughter is somewhat uncomfortable. Yep, the internalized homophobia is showing.

As I finally extricate myself from the horde of aunties and head towards the mandap, where the bride and groom are halfway into getting hitched, some of the rituals I observe don’t really sit well with me. Kanyadaan for instance, seems really archaic and patriarchal, almost as if the daughter is an object the father is ‘giving away’. The mangal sutra also disconcerts me, because why should only the woman bear these physical markers of the marriage while the man doesn’t have to? Is this, yet again, a patriarchal invasion of the female body?

My thoughts are interrupted, however, by the loud uncles behind me who, under the influence of alcohol, are merrily cracking sexist joke after sexist joke. I have enough sense of self-preservation not to engage them in conversation, but that doesn’t stop me from overhearing the things they are saying. They are passing judgement on the bride’s physical appearance (we are from the groom’s side), talking about how she’s “too chubby” and “too short” and is wearing “too much makeup”. For the thousandth time that night, it strikes me how the women are almost always getting the sore end of the deal. No matter however many sacrifices they make, society still finds a way to put them down, whether it’s because of their choices or because of something as trivial as physical appearance.

I walk away from the mandap and on my way, encounter my cousin and her boyfriend. They are trying to sneak away for some private time, and try to enlist my help because of course, the family can’t find out she’s dating a boy of her own volition because they’re dead against it. After all, shareef girls don’t date, do they?

My cousin’s five years younger than me, and (other than having a secret boyfriend) fits into the standard definition of sanskaari pretty well, and yet, she’s a kindred spirit – a rebel in her own right as she tries to brave patriarchal policing and claim agency over her own sexuality. As I help them avoid the prying eyes of the countless judgy relatives around us, I wonder for the second time that evening how my family would react to a relationship of my own. If consensual heterosexual relationships like my cousin’s get rejected because they are outside familial permission, whatever will happen with a same-sex relationship?

Thankfully, the rest of the wedding goes by without much ado. The wedding vows are complete and the requisite amount of tears have been shed, the food and alcohol has all been consumed and the dances have been danced, and it is finally time to wrap it all up. Though this particular ordeal is now over, the rest of the wedding season is still ahead of me, and there will be lots more of this to endure. Weddings may be the celebration of the coming together of two people, but for people like me, they often are about fending off sexist and homophobic relatives and helping fellow young women challenge the patriarchy. But hey, at least the pakoras are great!

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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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