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I Am A Hijabi Feminist

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I began to wear my hijab when I was in class 6 with an intense desire to obey Allah. With the passing of years, my curiosity to know my religion grew and the more I learnt about it, the more I wanted to follow it.

So one fine day I told my parents that I wanted to wear the burqa. My parents thought that I was too young to bear the burden of stereotypes on my shoulders, but this didn’t stop my desire to wear one. Each time I saw a burqa-clad girl, my desire to adorn a burqa only intensified. When one fine day, I told my parents that I wouldn’t walk out of the house unless they bring me a burqa, the journey of the abaya-clad girl began. I embraced it as my identity, not knowing that soon enough, my identity would be questioned by this judgmental society.

When I remember that day, my heart aches. It was a bright sunny day, but for me, it turned out to be gloomy. In January, 2015, excited to be the anchor of the farewell program, I stepped inside the school auditorium but was soon stopped by a teacher and taken to the principal’s office for committing the grave sin of wearing the hijab inside the school premises.

I was given two options by my principal: To either take off my hijab and then conduct the farewell program or to continue wearing it and leave the anchoring. I chose the latter. Surprised by my decision, she went on to humiliate me. Calling me an illiterate who needed to be educated. As I tried raising my voice, I was soon silenced and later convinced by my teacher to conduct the farewell program.

Image Credit: Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

I remember how deeply traumatised I felt back then and as a literature student, now when I think of it, I can’t help but relate it to Draupadi’s disrobing. I have realised that the right to wear the hijab does not belong to me alone, as many young girls are willing to wear it but are stopped by the divisive stereotypes thrust upon them. I remember that when I had adorned my abaya, it gave many other school mates the courage to wear it too.

I ones asked a friend that if she had not known me and would have seen me outside the doors of our school, what would she think of me. She replied, “Restricted in all possible ways. To put it short, oppressed.”

When in reality, the hijab/burqa stands for freedom. The freedom to practice one’s religion, symbolic of our obedience to Allah. It means modesty, it is an outer manifestation of our inner modesty. There’s a very common misconception about the hijab that it has only been imposed on women when in reality, men too have been asked to follow a set of clothing principles such as wearing a loose-covered outfit and growing a beard. Apart from modest clothing, the hijab is also symbolic of modesty when it comes to the social world. For instance, these days when women often get gazed at by men and we don’t like those lustful gazes, that’s when the hijab ordains men to lower their gaze and vice-versa.

Hijab is not oppression for women but a symbol of empowerment. Today, we live in a society where women are subjected to sexualisation and objectification and that’s where the hijab de-sexualises women. It gives them recognition for who they are and not for what they look like. Today, women are subjected to inferiority complexes because of what they look like or if they don’t meet the standards of beauty set by patriarchal society. The flourishing makeup industries prove that, or to be more precise, fairness creams. According to these industries, for a woman to look confident and be liked by men, she has to look good, she has to be fair, she has to be slim, etc.

We have seen enough objectification of actresses in item numbers or their movies, wherein to be liked by the audience, they either have to dance to the item numbers or wear short outfits, which they may or may not be comfortable in. Hijab forces others to look beyond the external and to focus on the internal.

Wendy Shalit, the writer of  “A Return to Modesty, Discovering the Lost Virtue”, writes, “Hijab is a symbol of empowerment and feminism wherein the woman not only accords herself self-respect but also demands it from others. To put it in simple words: “I am only showing you what I choose to show you. And the only people who get to see the special parts of me are the people who I wish to see those special parts of me. For everyone else, look at my personality, my identity as an individual, my identity as a fellow human being,” says Attiya Latif in her Ted talk.

This rhetoric of oppression has come from the west, from the time of colonisation. Leila Ahmed, in her book “Women and Gender in Islam”, writes that when in the 19th century, the British and the other colonisers came to Muslim countries, they looked for a means to justify their colonisation and the only way was to label their traditional culture as regressive. And yes they made the hijab their target.

Lord Cromer, governor of Egypt, used to tell women how oppressed they were and how he wished to free them. When in reality, Cromer turned out to be a patriarch, wherein he used feminism as a weapon to oppress women as he raised tuition fees of girls’ schools. He also labelled medicine as the occupation of men and midwifery of women. Even more shocking is that he was the leader of the Men’s League against women’s suffrage in Britain.

Attiya Latif states, “Western feminists tell Muslim women that they can’t conceptualise their own feminism, and instead adhere to theirs. When in reality, feminism is a diverse movement where women of various cultures and religions can determine equality for themselves.”

Take my example, I am an aspiring journalist and I believe that my burqa does not obstruct me from following my passion. As we all know, France banned the burqa some years back. I call this violence against women. Recently, after Trump’s victory the hate crimes against Muslims have increased, says a survey and Muslim women, who choose to cover up, have been the target of such hate crimes. I ask all these patriarchs: When will you stop this objectification and targeting of women?

However, society is not all bad as there have been some beautiful changes. #I will ride with you is a campaign with more than 150,000 tweets as Australians show support for the Muslim community. World Hijab Day celebrates the spirit of women who decide to take on the journey of modesty.

To all the people out there, I have only one thing to say. Stop defining us, stop labelling us, don’t tell us who we are, and what we are like. We have a voice to define ourselves, so please stop calling us this and that and let us decide who we are and what our hijab represents. Learn to acknowledge, accept and respect the differences. So please don’t tell us that we can’t be both a hijabi and a feminist. After all, I am a hijabi feminist.

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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.

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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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