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The BHU Protests And Reviving Indian Feminism

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The future’s in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change

~ Winds of Change, Scorpions

Feminism cannot be contained in books or in films. It cannot be confined to the braveness of fictitious characters in novels and movies. Feminism is our lived realities. It comes alive when we stand up to the misogyny and call out sexism. Feminism is when students protest in universities and their parents begin to realise the worth of their daughters’ fights to dismantle patriarchy. Feminism is when the powers are caught unaware at the vibrant protests, rising in the very heartland of India ushering in a period when they cannot get away with idiotic statements like “boys will be boys” that supports and strengthens the rape culture, anymore.

In 2012, there was a wave of protests against rape but the dialogue fell short as it failed to address the rampant patriarchy that supports rape culture. But the recent protests in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) feel different. The protests were led by young, capable women, mostly from the orthodox heartland where the patriarchy is often stifling and in your face. These protests have breathed fresh life to feminism in India and we feel hopeful about the future.

By now it is common knowledge for those of us following the news that what unfolded in BHU was a classic example of systemic failure in dealing with sexual harassment. In an ideal scenario, those who were guilty would be booked but instead, in this case, the university authorities decided to witch hunt and victim blame and shame those who were allegedly harassed. There were several gross misconducts that occurred and should be discussed in the backdrop of rampant misogyny and related gender-based violence in our educational institutions.

Firstly, the university’s reluctance to call the crime by its name and making it somewhat lighter by calling it ‘eve-teasing’ implied that some felt that harassment is socially acceptable. While, undoubtedly teasing itself can lead to fatal consequences for the person at the receiving end, it is also a reminder that a culture that worships a deity who regularly stole the clothes of women to harass/tease/molest them, will predictably support such acts and beliefs. This is also a reminder that language determines our beliefs and vice versa, and together they determine our approach to everything, including gender issues and related violence. So far, the Indian approach has a lot left to be desired with examples like BJP MP saying that Chhattisgarh girls are becoming ‘tan-a-tan’ and other politicians who make sexist remarks.

Secondly, the universities’ ‘protectionist’ policies that have glaring disparities in the access to public spaces and utilities among men and women, including the ability to use the library at night or stay connected through mobile phones, does a great disservice to women scholars. On a deeper probe into such gendered protectionist policies, we understand that it only protects patriarchy and serves the interest of misogyny by enabling men to falsely believe that they are somehow ‘superior’ to women.

Thirdly, the use of disproportional, brute state force on students who were only demanding for a safer university campus and a sane educational environment raises several questions. In what situation and scenario is it okay or allowed to target students protesting a crime, while, at the same breath we also insist on calling ourselves a democracy?

It also brings back horrifying memories of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2009 when a similar incident occurred on the campus. Four men with connections or perhaps sons of men in power (whose identities remain a mystery and different news reports gave different names of the four men), entered the campus, attempted to molest a female student and even threatened a security guard with a gun. Students united to protests against the act of entitlement and misogyny but the state used forces to protect the identity of the accused and unleashed unspeakable violence on them, including, lathi-charges and tear gas shells.

My personal experiences too corroborate the systemic failure to provide gender justice in India. In 2008, I had an experience of harassment in the Delhi-Kolkata Rajdhani and when I tried to report it, the authorities warned me saying that “good girls don’t report such cases.” I insisted on reporting it ignorant of the fact that nothing will really come out of it. Next year, when another such incident happened, the police out-rightly asked me why was I out that late in the night to watch a movie, implying that women should avoid watching night shows or going out at night if they want safety.

Of course, I ignored their implications and the case itself as by then it was clearer than the day that no action will be taken even though I had given them a car number to trace. However, unfortunately, such incidents are neither rare nor uncommon and every woman I know or I have met has a number of such scary experiences. In fact, at times, we joke among our friends that it is quite a wonder that we are even alive! And when our jokes are this dismal, one can only imagine the extent of the daily dismal negotiations we have to make as women.

However, such pathological conditions cannot continue and what we witness now is the rage against it. From JNU to BHU, we are getting really tired and we will no longer sit quietly and let it pass. We will not do it for the sake of our family and their honour, for our husbands or boyfriends and their brittle egos, for our universities or institutions and their prestige because we have had enough, we are angry and this anger shall not be contained anymore. We shall break out in many more protests and struggles to reclaim the spaces and the hours and refuse to be confined.

We will stop fearing or caring for the labels that society gives us, in fact, we will gladly be known as ‘bad’ if that means to fight for our freedom, dignity and to be treated as equals. Our struggles are also bound to spread and grow from bigger cities to smaller towns, from towns to villages, from universities to farms. Our struggles will unite unlikely allies, from English speakers to non-English speakers, beyond caste, class, gender and sexuality, sex workers, labourers, the homeless, and women in conflict zones –  because a feminist world is truly inclusive and seeks dignity for all.

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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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