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Women Today Are Living In The Terrifying Dystopia Of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

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First, they came for the Tribals and the Dalits, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Tribal or a Dalit.

Then they came for the Sikhs, Christians and Muslims, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Sikh, Christian or a Muslim.

Then they came for the Communist, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

(Adapted from Martin Niemöller’s poem written during Hitler’s Nazi regime.)

Recently as I was reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, I wondered if it was correct to call the novel dystopian? The fictional story seemed too close to reality for comfort; too many women in India, and around the world, live these realities every day.

When Women Are Seen As Property And Not As People

Offred, the main character in the book loses her identity when the oppressive Gilead regime comes to power. It all started quietly when women were fired from their jobs and barred from holding bank accounts. Offred became dependent on her husband Luke. After the regime had taken over, Offred became a handmaid and her name was changed.

The handmaids had no other identity except for being a womb on two legs; their only role was to serve men and reproduce. Offred and other women in the Gilead universe owned nothing – they were the owned ones. Handmaids were the property of the commanders who would discard them once their turn was over or their purpose (of procreation) was fulfilled. It reminds me of several things, including the immense pressure on Indian women to marry or face the repercussions of societal stigma and shaming. It reminds me of the Hindu wedding ritual called ‘Kanyadan’ which literally translates as giving away of the virgin, to the man who marries her – indicating that she is a ‘thing’ to be ‘given’ away, a property that gets transferred to another owner.

The mindset is reflected in our language as well; daughters are often referred to as paraya dhan or another’s property/treasure. Her worth is measured in her ability to obey commands, her ability to run the house, and procreate, especially, a male progeny. In fact, in India, a husband can legally rape his wife, implying that a wife is only as good as her vagina and her consent, emotions or health, are irrelevant. Her identity doesn’t matter because globally women, by and large, adopt their husband’s surname after marriage. In fact, in some communities in India, a woman’s first name is also changed after marriage, to imply her transference to her husband and his ownership over her.

When Love Becomes A Crime And To Love Becomes An Act Of Rebellion

Is it too far-fetched to say that the lives of real women bears an uncanny resemblance with the life of the fictional character, Offred? Her choice, love and desires do not count. In the story, Offred’s love for Luke, her husband before the regime, or her desire for Nick, her secret lover when she was a handmaid, is not for her to decide.

Does it not remind one of the scores of honour killings in India and South Asia, or of Hadiya who is facing harassment, threats and house arrest simply for daring to choose her own life partner? There is an inability to love fearlessly and unabashedly – without parental and khap/societal pressure, bullying and harassment of the anti-Romeo squads, accusations of being victims or collaborators of love jihad, and without the fear of persecution from the authorities. Do these real threats to women’s autonomy and agency not make all women Offreds?

When Women’s Bodies Become A Battle Zone For Waging Moral Wars

Offred, and other women in the Gilead regime had no access to health services except for checking for defects and to assess if they needed to be ‘discarded’ or not. Women had to go full-term and give birth even if those were stillbirths, because abortion was not available to them.

In the real world, in 2017, emergency contraceptive I-pills are banned in Tamil Nadu, India, on moral grounds. Women in Indiana, United States are punished even for a miscarriage. Women in countries like El Salvador and Mexico face a jail sentence for murder if they have a miscarriage, and women in countries like Ireland and Italy die because they were denied emergency abortion services (as the fetus is more important than the woman herself.)

Women in India are often denied abortion services because of a clause hidden in our law, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act), which suggests one must be married to avail abortion services in case of a contraceptive failure. This affects many abortion seekers who are vulnerable and left at the mercy of service providers and their discretion, which decides whether she receives or is denied safe abortion services. These are a few of the many examples of how this patriarchal world make laws, policies and health practices to control women and deny them agency and autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality. Medical science and gynaecology is no exception and even there women are viewed as an incubator while their larger health issues remain ignored and under-researched.

When Women’s Clothes Become A Sin

In the Gilead universe there exist others, such as, the Unwomen (whose lives don’t matter), the Marthas (the servants), the Wives of the rich and powerful, and the Econwives of the poor; I should perhaps rephrase this and say that none of these lives matter and all women are treated no better than a vagina or a womb. Each of these categories of women in the Gilead regime is given uniforms to ensure their modesty and classify them according to their utility in society.

The handmaids like Offred wore red gowns (to emphasise their reproductive function) and even the headgear ensured that they do not look at anyone, not even at other women and vice versa. Friendships and attachment between women were discouraged, while jealousy and rivalry were encouraged, especially between the wives and the handmaids; desire and romantic love were entirely forbidden.

This mirrors the countless times women in India are told to cover their faces, dress modestly, or are forbidden to wear jeans or leggings, (even fatwas have been issued against women wearing jeans). Globally, the highest blame for sexual assault against women has been singularly placed on their choice of clothing, even though this has been proven fallacious time and again.

When Women’s Independence Becomes An Offence

In the Gilead universe, women who defied social norms and took over the control of their own lives became the Jezebels. The sex workers, the ‘sluts’, the single women, the witches, the lesbians and bisexuals, the ones who challenged hetero-normative orders, the ones who claimed their own person-hood – all were branded Jezebels.

Just like in our society, sex workers live in the red light districts and brothels, hidden away, ghettoized and isolated, as these out-caste women are considered too impure for the rest of the society; there is always the threat that they will corrupt other women. The single women in India have it little or no better, as women in India are not considered fit to live on her own. There is a Hindi proverb that goes, “akeli ladki, khuli tijori ki tareh hoti hai (a single girl is like an open chest of treasures)” which highlights the threats to a woman who decides to live alone. They face judgement and stigma, they are considered to be loose and available, tempting and provoking men to violate her.

Therefore, women who decide not to marry, or choose to divorce and live on their own terms, often have similar experiences of either being unable to rent a place, face harassment or are simply asked to leave. They are considered too dangerous and abhorred just like the Jezebels.

When The Real World Resembles A Novel, It Is A Wake Up Call For Us

The world we have inherited seems dangerously similar to “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The rising right-wing fundamentalism across the world is further pushing women’s rights back and whatever gains have been made so far seem to be under attack.

In India, it is increasingly common to read about the Hindu mobs lynching Muslim men and not sparing children too. It is common to hear calls for bans because something hurt someone’s caste/religious sentiments. It is increasingly common for there to be attacks/trolling against women, using extremely foul language, including death and rape threats.

Leaders of the ruling regime have attacked the Indian Constitution and called one of the foundations of our democratic system, ‘secularism’  a lie; these are all signs that it is time to speak up and act now. These current trends are regressive and pervasive, they are present in our cultural norms, laws, politics, policies, and scientific discourses. They reinforce the idea that some people, including, women are lesser beings. These developments reinforce the idea that all women are Jezebels, Unwomen or Econwives, and we are all ultimately Offreds.

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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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