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From Kalki Koechlin To Aditi Mittal, This New Book Features India’s Most Powerful Feminist Voices

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‘We don’t want to be your Madonna, and we don’t want to be your whore. We don’t want to be your ghar ki izzat, and we don’t want to be your office ki shaan. We want to be us. Start seeing women as human beings. That would be awesome.’

This quote from an interview with Aditi Mittal, in the book Feminist Rani, co-authored by Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant, summed up my experience of reading it and identifying myself as a feminist. Things like agency, consent, equality in our public and private lives seem as common sense. And yet, women around the world continue to be relegated to the sidelines, sexually harassed, paid far less than their male counterparts across professions, shamed for the bodies they inhabit, judged for their actions… the list goes on, really.

Feminist Rani is a collection of interviews featuring the likes of Kalki Koechlin, Gul Panag and Rana Ayyub, Gurmehar Kaur and Malishka Mendosa to Shree Gauri Sawant and Tanmay Bhat. These are people who have advocated for gender equality and women’s rights through their work. Most of the interviewees identified feminism as the freedom to be themselves, to live their most authentic lives. What is the biggest challenge that keeps people from achieving something so fundamental in present-day India?

Shaili Chopra, also the founder of SheThePeople.TV, one of India’s largest digital storytelling spaces dedicated to women at work, feels that speaking up for themselves and having people believe in them is not a part of most women’s lives.

She says, “Our normative values are patriarchal and discriminatory especially when it comes to freedom of speech. The women interviewed tell us how they live on their own terms. And hopefully, the narrative of the battles they fought, how they overcame them will inspire and fire new thoughts in all those who are silently internalising and dealing with stereotypes and discrimination.”

The idea of the book was seeded in the events organised by SheThePeople.TV. Issues like feminism and fashion, body shaming, safe spaces, inclusive spaces and others were discussed with eminent speakers. The book is a culmination of the many on ground shows. Meghna Pant, also the author of several tomes of fiction, adds that the book exists because the need exists. Because unlike the West, India’s feminist history is widely undocumented, undefined and unknown.

“It’s unclear when feminism in India even began. Did it begin in religion where Indian goddesses, such as Durga, Saraswati and Laxmi, are as equally revered as the gods? Did it begin in the sexual agency of The Kama Sutra? Was it when Raja Ram Mohan Roy abolished Sati? Or when Sarojini Naidu asked for women’s voting rights in 1919? Or when Mahatma Gandhi started the Stree Shakti (women power) movement? Or when Savitribai Phule fought for caste, education and social upliftment? How can we women of India know ourselves when we don’t even know our own history, which has been conveniently documented by men? Isn’t it time we took ownership of our stories and weaved them into the history of our nation? Feminist Rani is the outcome of such repression, an answer to understanding gender issues and the role women play in modern India,” she informs.

Reasserting Aditi’s earlier point, Meghna points out that women in India exist only in binaries. She is either an abla nari or krantikaari, a devi or dayan, a virgin or a whore. This book provides context and definition and discusses everything from rape to body shaming, trolling to motherhood, sexual agency to female friendships. It debunks the stereotypes associated with the word feminism and provides a fresh interpretation. The book advocates gender equality without making it preachy or trying to be palatable to the naysayers.

“Feminism is not about preaching to the converted. It’s about inclusion, intersectionality, and accessibility. It includes everyone: women, men, children and the LGBTQI … anyone who is human! In India, 1 in 3 women are victims of domestic abuse, every hour a woman is killed over dowry, and every 14 minutes a woman in our country is raped. Feminism in India is therefore needed to defend the social, political, economic and cultural rights of women, especially in rural areas where women face ghastly social inequality and discrimination. How can these numbers alone not sensitise a human being? In fact, I don’t understand why someone would not want to be a feminist.”

Meghna Pant and Shaili Chopra

The internet is like a common thread between most of the people featured in this book. While for some, it has been a tremendous cause of empowerment, the others have been viscously trolled and threatened on the web. I ask the authors how the internet can be effectively used to champion the feminist movement.

Shaili says, “I believe, in the recent times, the internet has pushed for feminism to thrive. From the wildfire-like #MeToo movement and its spread around the world to women led marches, to content focussed on women, to skilling and empowering women, the internet has opened new opportunities and new skills.”

Meghna adds that while social media and the smartphones have enabled women to speak out against discrimination and harassment, these tools have not altered their reality. Women still face hostility and doubt if they speak out. They feel that it’s always easier to remain silent – “What can be done by women, by men and by institutions to break this culture of silence and inaction? What call-to-action should be taken? How do we use social media for positive impact? How do we counter violent and extremist narratives online? The book answers these questions, using real-life examples like Rana Ayyub’s brilliant comeback to trolling.”

In the context of women championing the cause of feminism, popular activists like actress Asia Argento (one of the leading women behind the #MeToo movement) and New York University Professor Avital Ronnel were recently accused of sexual abuse. Does this put the feminist movement at a backfoot?

Shaili thinks that we need to stop making one or two examples or reasons for an overhaul of the feminist movement. She asks, “There have been hundreds of men who led Ponzi schemes but did that put a question mark on all men on Wall Street? We have had cases of impropriety but are those men behind bars? Let’s not, use a magnifying glass at a time when Argento’s story is out.”

The authors believe feminism and the feminist movement need to flourish in India. The question is, will it? Because it is really not about one person’s definition of feminism against someone else’s. And it will take consistent efforts of women supporting women, men supporting women so as to deconstruct mental barriers to our understanding of feminism.

Shaili admits, “I don’t expect a loud thud of change , but I do feel this will be a silent revolution, one progressive woman at a time.”

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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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