Arundhati Roy’s New Book Can Undo Decades Of Work Done By Intersex Activists

It was during my conversation with Dr Katrina Karkazis from Stanford University School of Medicine, best known for her book, “Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience”, that the topic of the acclaimed author Arundhati Roy’s latest book, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” came up. Like me, she too agreed that one of the book’s protagonists, Anjum, is a complete misrepresentation of the intersex community.

Renowned intersex activist Hida Viloria, the president of OII, USA states that,  “I noticed in an interview that she used “hermaphrodite” and then later used “trans” to describe the same characteristic. Very irresponsible of her as a writer to not research the character she is writing about enough to know what they are.”

Initially, Anjum is described as an intersex person and later on, she is said to be a Hijra. I am an LGBTQIA+ activist myself and I’m not averse to the Hijra community. However, being identified and misrepresented as what you are not and do not prefer to be identified with is absolutely wrong.

Imagine that you are female and you identify as being one. However, if people identify you as male, wouldn’t it upset you?

Sex is a seen as a ‘biological identity’ that is assigned at birth as ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘intersex’. Gender is a social role. There are innumerable gender identities and sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is what gender we are attracted to. But, in India, not many are aware of these differences.

Sangam literature uses the word ‘Pedi’ to refer to people born with the intersex condition, it also refers to antharlinga hijras and various Hijra. The Aravan cult in the Koovagam village of Tamil Nadu is a folk tradition of the trans women, where the members enact the legend during an annual three-day festival. This is completely different from the sakibeki cult of West Bengal, where trans women don’t have to undergo sex change surgery or shave off their facial hair. They dress in feminine clothes, still retaining their ‘masculine’ features and sing in praise of Lord Krishna.

Image Credit: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

In conservative and heteronormative Tamil society, trans women completely change themselves to fit a more cisnormative idea of ‘woman’. In the ancient times, even religion had its own way of accepting these fringe communities. The Nupi Manbis of northeastern India, the Bachura Devi worshipped in Gujarat and the Jogappa cult of Karnataka are other examples. There are even different kinds of dialects and languages that are spoken by these communities which differ from region to region. Like, ‘Hijra Farsi’ is the transgender community dialect, a mix of Urdu, Hindi and Persian spoken in the northern belt of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and ‘Kothi Baashai’ is spoken by the transgender community in Karnataka, Andhra, Orissa, and parts of Tamil Nadu.

They even have sign languages and typical mannerisms to communicate. The peculiar clap is one such, but they were very clear about intersex people and referred to them as Mabedi Usili and gave a distinct identity to denote them. Students from across the globe come to Srishti Madurai to know, learn about these diverse indigenous gender minority communities. And, when you see such an acclaimed author, who has an enormous base of readers worldwide, portraying the community in a wrong light, we are pushed back about 10 years. All our work towards spreading awareness about ourselves and that we are different from the Hijra or transgender community, goes in vain, just because one author doesn’t take into account the need to research her subject well.

Arundhati Roy cannot club these diverse communities into one and homogenise these varied communities.

Intersex people are known as Mabedi Usili, Antharlinga Hijra, Idailinga in native communities but Arundhati Roy simply misrepresented my community and sex identity. She needs a proper understanding of sex, gender and sexual orientation among native indigenous gender minority communities which has a huge diversity in Asia and its subcontinent.

Intersex people are not the same as trans people, but Roy failed to define and differentiate these differences.

She has all the right to frame a story, but, if one is writing about a certain community, they should research about it and get the facts right, at the least.

We have struggled so much, just to create visibility around the word ‘intersex’ and to establish our existence and identity. When progressive writers like Arundhati Roy misrepresent us, so many people will get a wrong understanding of our community.

I will give the basic differences between Hijra and Intersex so as to give our readers a better understanding of the terms.

Intersex is a sex identity whereas transgender is a gender identity. All Hijras come under the transgender umbrella but not all trans people are Hijras. Intersex people are born with ambiguous reproductive organs and/or may have several variations in sex characteristics, including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones. The Hijra community is one of the oldest gender identities in India and has their own language, traditions, rituals, and code of conduct. A few intersex people choose to identify as trans but that’s not the identity of our entire community.

Also, calling us ‘hermaphrodite’ is derogatory and we do not prefer people using this term for us. Why are you homogenizing our people?

The change or rectification the intersex community and activists seek from the author is that she can just add one extra page, address the differences between sex and gender identities, and clarify the differences between the intersex and the Hijra communities.

Tony Briffa, the world’s first intersex politician, former Mayor of Hobson’s Bay City, and member of OII, Australia states,“The conflation between intersex and trans is made by people who do not understand what intersex is. Intersex is about biology. Intersex is about being born with biological sex characteristics that are outside the medical norms for female and male. It is not about people who are born biologically one sex and have a gender identity that is not aligned with their biology. 

The misrepresentation by someone who proclaims to be an expert is a great concern. Of greater concern is her refusal to correct the misrepresentation when she is informed by reliable sources that her comments are wrong, offensive and damaging to a community.”

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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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