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How Majoritarianism Silently Promotes The Oppression Of Minorities

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The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States serves as a stark reminder, that slowly but surely throughout the world, conservatism is winning over liberalism, by turning the institution of democracy into a misinterpreted practice of majoritarianism.

The illusion that democracy represents the wishes of the majority is not only a misunderstanding of the democratic process, but it instils a false belief that the majority’s opinion is somehow superior. This ‘democratical-induction’ argues that if a majority shares a belief or an idea, it is somehow better, or more likely to be true. A little further on this line of reasoning leads to the belief, that given the superiority of majority-validated ideas, majorities have a higher place in society and are thus more entitled to make decisions that affect it.

Evidence of how deeply rooted into our psyche this belief in the superiority of majority viewpoints is, can be observed in the behaviour of both children and adults, specifically in their need (and subsequent action) to be socially accepted.

Positive social interaction is a basic emotional need, and it usually comes from peers that share our interests or ideas, imparting a sense of belongingness. Curiously, this positive social interaction, being more rewarding than conflict (ideological or social), paves the way for communal reinforcement, the social phenomenon where an idea is continuously asserted in a community, irrespective of its empirical validation. Social conformity together with communal reinforcement ensures that a vicious cycle of ideologically-induced social conformity is maintained. Although not directly, such ideologies can have devastating impacts on the socio-religious freedoms of the non-conformist sections of society, which in most cases, also happen to be its minorities.

Communal reinforcement of ideology becomes most dangerous when ideas are phenomenological, and hence beyond the reach of empiricism. Religion serves as a prime example. The interpretation of religious scriptures is highly subjective, and hence beyond empirical validation. Many different interpretations of the same scriptures give rise to various sects and sub-sects that are clearly discernable among the major religions in the world. However, in the contemporary era, none of them have been the subject of as much debate or faced as much criticism, as the Islamic doctrine (the Sharia). Although most people believe that the majority of Muslims are peace-loving, non-violent individuals, we are also afraid and angered with the actions of its extremist factions, such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh that operate throughout the Middle East, Africa and in parts of the West. They operate on the simple but dangerous ideology of enforcing conformity by means of force. Their modus operandi has three fundamental steps.

Step 1: Assertion of the Divine Will. It begins with a claim that their interpretation of religious doctrine is the ‘truth’ and represents the ‘divine will’. Conveniently, this divine validation places their doctrine beyond the realm of both logical reasoning and social justice. It is simply argued that the human mind is too frail to understand the divine law, making it a futile pursuit. Furthermore, the need for human-reason based validation of religious doctrine reveals an inherent distrust in the divine, a sign of weak/absent faith.

Step 2: Nonconformity is Blasphemy. The next step is to label anyone with a different ideology as a blasphemer, and blasphemy is a corruption of religious doctrine. A disagreement with another human can be resolved, either on a personal or juristic level. Blasphemy, on the other hand, is a sign of complete disrespect and disregard for divine command, and hence God Himself, and such blatant disrespect calls for extreme punishment.

Which brings us to Step 3: Blasphemers shall be executed. Blasphemy, according to this doctrine, is a corruption and needs to not only to be stopped but completely eradicated, so as to prevent innocent victims from succumbing to it. The ‘eradication’ of the enemies of God is not only socially accepted; it is encouraged. This reasoning logically justifies and incites everything from suicide attacks to mass executions.

However, most of us would agree that the majority of Muslims are peaceful, and they disagree with the actions of the extremists. But there is a difference between the three steps of reasoning and their physical outcome. Although many might disagree with the action, they do agree with one or more steps of the reasoning outlined above. We are not willing to accept that popular religious doctrine represents, at best, an interpretation of the divine will, as it is based on our understanding of scriptures.

Furthermore, an ideological disagreement with a minority prevents the majority from understanding their point of view, which they believe to be wrong, and hence also prevents them from speaking out against such discrimination. A not-so-distant example is the execution of celebrated musician/singer Amjad Sabri, a member of a religious minority in Pakistan, although the gunning down was performed by religious extremists, the majority have abstained from a criticism of the act, because they disagree with both the shooters and the victim. This selective abstinence translates to a silent approval. Therefore, even in the absence of mass religious policing, mass support of a particular religious doctrine is enough to silently allow the extremist fringe to annihilate nonconformity, advancing their cause, whatever socioreligious or economic agenda that might be. Multiple iterations of such events enable the formation of an oligarchy headed by the extremists, who are no longer a fringe, minority.

Although it might seem like a problem limited to Islam, examples abound where a majority’s disagreement with a minority have empowered extremist fringes. The murder of a man by villagers on the false accusation of possessing beef in Dadri, India also saw an outcry, from vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. However, eating meat (not only beef) is still largely looked down upon in India. This ideological disagreement has prevented an all-out condemnation of such events, silently empowering local ‘gau rakshaks’, many of them justifying murders based on the accusations of beef-possession (that also includes buffalo meat). The murder of 50 people at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida, was followed by criticism for the ‘inhuman’ act of murder. And yet, we still covertly discriminate against the LGBT+ community and brand them as ‘unnatural’, preventing us from understanding their views, and being more inclusive.

Curiously, biology does its best to challenge majoritarianism. Genetic recombination is a biological mechanism that shuffles the DNA code during reproduction, preventing the next generation from being exactly like its parents, or each other. Furthermore, during fetal development, a small amount of randomness affects how different neurons connect to each other, introducing a small but significant difference in the brain’s overall pattern of connections. This ensures that during birth, each person’s brain is slightly different. This neuronal bias affects both the perception and the interpretation of perceived objects.

Neurologically, we all perceive the exact same thing slightly differently. This difference in interpretation is necessary for ideological evolution. Having only one interpretation or one opinion would never lead to the questioning of the majority-validated ideas. If everyone would agree, no established idea would ever be questioned or changed. Albert Einstein unravelled the mysteries of space and time because he saw the world differently, just as his predecessor, Isaac Newton did before him. These examples resonate well with Henrik Ibsen’s idea, that “a minority may be right, a majority is always wrong”. To enable the perpetual evolution of human thought and reason, there is a fundamental need for differences in opinion.

Therefore, it is the duty of the majority to protect the fundamental rights of the minority, by acknowledging their right to think differently, even though they may not agree with the reasons/arguments behind such thoughts. Only such a practice can inculcate a healthy society that ensures social equality and justice for all. In the words of Mark Twain: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

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Image source: Hindustan Times/Getty Images
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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.

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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.

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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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