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Yes, Women Can Do Stand-Up Too. You Got A Problem With That?

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The beginning of 2018, brought me towards the end of my one-year sabbatical period in which I was to solo-travel, get fit, try consulting and writing as a career, and do stand-up comedy. I was approaching the end, and I had eluded myself from every other open-mic invite on Facebook. Unlike what a lot of seasoned comics say, I always knew I wanted to do it; not because I am an extrovert who loves attention and thinks highly of her sense of humour. I am in fact, an introvert who would never go up a stage for anything unless necessary. But I always had things to say.

After day-dreaming for two years and binge-watching every stand-up that surfaced online, I finally saw hope to perform stand-up in the name of Mahila Manch, a brand new group in my city, Ahmedabad. Mahila Manch came about like a haven for upcoming female stand-up comics led by Preeti Das, who until then, was a friendly acquaintance and an older-sister-figure I looked up to, and co-founder Shefali Pandey, a technology entrepreneur. Another highlight, the series was quirkily called ‘The Period Show’ because it was to happen once a month. Yet, I thought, “Oh, these people will be too elite. I don’t want to go there.” This is how I skipped the first show.

For the second show, I somehow gathered the courage to write to one of the members. They welcomed me with warm hugs, without a single question on my content, no restrictions on what to say and what not to, just plain trust. The show had a theme, but I was not coerced to follow it. It was my first time, and it was literally at a generous friend’s drawing room with 65 visibly-squeezed people. The anxiety of stand-up can be crazy.

Preeti Das performing in a drawing room. Show called ‘The Climax’.

“I have hosted an event with 20,000 people with Shankar Ehsaan Loy and did not feel a thing while doing stand-up comedy in front of 150 people for eight minutes, and my mic was visibly shaking,” says Aarti Boriya, one of the core performers and a radio jockey. Today, we are a group of five women from Ahmedabad, all from different professions and background. Apart from Preeti, Shefali, Aarti and I, there is Vidya who is a researcher. Apart from Preeti Das, none of us are professional comedians, so for us, ‘regular people’, getting such a mouthpiece in itself is an exhilarating experience.

In the past six months, we have covered a range of topics from LGBTQ, Rape, Alcohol, to Female Sexuality, Orgasm, and Body Shaming, catering to over 1,200 people in Ahmedabad with about 15 new performers, mostly females.

In our attempts to do comedy, we even make sure we don’t indulge in overt male bashing or make sexist jokes against men. This is unlike what we see a lot of popular male comedians doing out there. Also, in the Youtube-age, while every comedian around wants to put out their YouTube videos and somehow go viral, we practice restraint. Some of our own content makes us vulnerable. For example, in our shows, Vidya shares her excruciating and awkward experiences about being queer in this country. Laced with dark humour, her show provides a completely different take on womanhood. Vidya is, in fact, her stage name. For her safety and comfort, we can’t allow photography or videography during her performance. She can’t be tagged on FB either.

We don’t charge for tickets yet because we never saw the idea as one for profit making. But somewhere, this decision also comes from the inherent doubt of whether people will pay to watch us perform, and what if it reduces the number of the audience? That’s not something we want. At the end of each performance, little kids of the team members go around with a hat and seek money from the happy audiences. No compulsion. Besides that, I have been an entrepreneur myself, and I know how it feels to be the only woman in a room full of men. And I notice the same thing in comedy. Out of 11 performers, at times, I am the only woman. It doesn’t deter my confidence but it does make the process slightly intimidating. Although, thankfully, I have never had a bad, heckling or angry audience experience.

Location is another challenge. It changes every month because not every venue owner is comfortable with our topics- sometimes the name, sometimes the context. Not everyone may want to offer their space for free. One week before the June show, our co-founder Shefali Pandey got a call from the venue owner saying they didn’t want us to perform anymore because we had named our open-mic as ‘Achhe Din. Achhe Jokes.’

Sometimes you get into trouble for nothing.

The whole weekend went in running around, hunting for places, frantically calling contacts but almost everything was booked. The content was hardly political or even aimed at a particular political party. It was an open-mic, an open event without any topic. But the hysteria around it surprised us. We did not change the title. Finally, a generous dance studio embraced us with open arms.

As far as the Period Show for July is concerned, we know that most people have appreciated the title ‘The Maa-Bahin Show’ which attempts to reclaim Maa-Bahen, it is not a swear word. It has been long used as one. Some people think we shouldn’t have used it.

On the July 29, we did our first auditorium show, graciously supported and funded by Univation, Ahmedabad. The show went well, 300 people showed up, and people thought it was a one-of-a-kind event. We invited comedian Pooja Vijay from Bangalore, who thought it was great because not only there was such a big crowd for such taboo topics but also the warmth and camaraderie that we had for each other. She wishes more women doing stand-up comedy support for each other. Although, Mahila Manch still gets questions and comments like, “Are you all lesbians?”

“You feminists are too damaged, hence the rant.”

“Obviously you get so many people, only because you are women.”

“Is this activism or standup, first decide then let us know.”

Newspapers don’t want to write about us, and media houses don’t want to cover us. Nevertheless, we know that it will be wrong to say that we are just five women at odds with the world. Challenges are many, but we have constantly got support, and love from the most unexpected people in gracious ways.

The Maa-Bahin Show Poster

This article was first published on Women’s Web.

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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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