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Rise Of The Angry Indian Woman Student: She Wants Freedom And She Wants It Now

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As you read these words, feminist history is being made in the campuses of universities across the country. The past few weeks have brought in an avalanche of movements led by and for primarily women students in institutions of higher education all over the country, protesting against arbitrary restrictions on their access and mobility. Punjabi University (Patiala), Panjab University (Chandigarh), Regional Institute of Education (RIE) Bhopal and RIE Ajmer recently saw women organizing themselves to collectively ask for an extension in the curfew and trash other discriminatory rules. They have braved administrative apathy, intimidation, and violent crackdowns to make their voices heard. Refusing to bow down to the repressive strategies of the administrations (which include false accusations, emotional blackmail, complaints to parents, witch-hunting and police/ABVP attacks), these young people are resisting draconian, patriarchal rules to lay the foundations for a very different sort of campus life for women: one that is richer, free-er, and safer, with the abolition of curfew at night and access to secure public spaces. In this fight, they are combating the security rhetoric advanced by the authorities to explain the surveillance, moral policing, and discrimination that women are subjected to in places of higher education.

Last year in September, students in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) were lathi-charged by policemen after they protested against both curfew and the administration’s problematic handling (or lack thereof) of a case of sexual harassment. This year, on September 23rd, students in BHU sought to commemorate the first anniversary of their movement. They were met with violent backlash from students of the right wing student organisation Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and brutal repression from the administration in terms of police cases, suspensions, and harassment. This March, women students in Jamia Millia Islamia successfully got the administration to extend their curfew. In May 2018, women students at Aligarh Muslim University broke open hostel locks to join protests against violent attacks on members of the student body by the Hindu Jagran Manch, an RSS affiliate. Earlier that year, they had won the right to freely move around campus till curfew time. This August, women students at Hidayatullah National Law University protested for a week against the curfew as well as administrative action regarding sexual harassment, among other issues.

As I write these words, I see news reports popping up regarding the resignation of their Vice Chancellor, which renders the student body’s recent hunger strike successful. Last month, women studying in Kottayam Medical College, Kerala, organized a candlelit protest that succeeded in securing extended curfew timings. Women in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University have been sustaining a struggle against a dictatorial administration, through songs, slogans, and conversations. Autonomous women students’ collective Pinjra Tod has, for the past three years, consistently demanded such rights from the DU authorities, by way of petitions, protests, press conferences, submitting potential ICC draft codes, etc. After frustratingly tepid responses from said authorities, Pinjra Tod has called for an indefinite protest next week against issues surrounding hostel rules, hostel allocation, hostel infrastructure and fee structure, and the establishment and running of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) in all educational institutions, to combat sexual harassment.

These collective struggles are serving to consolidate a politics of women asking women’s questions; a politics of empowering women to make decisions about their own safety, rather than infantilizing them and rendering them voiceless by covering them up and locking them in. These movements come in the wake of years of battle: years of struggling to convince (first) oneself, one’s peers, one’s parents, and the authorities that the issues highlighted by said movements are, in fact, injustices, suffered by women who exercise their right to receive an education. Thanks to maggoty rhetorics like that of honour, a practice as barbaric as locking women students up in their rooms is seen as par for the course. A student protester in RIE Bhopal put it beautifully when they said, “it actually took time convincing people that we were being deprived of our rights, so bringing people together itself was a victory”.

While the lived experiences and backgrounds of individual female students vary, these movements were born out of the rage that comes with seeing how female hostellers undergo a regime that is poles apart from what their male counterparts undergo. The former is objectively more cumbersome than the latter, and, more often than not, causes women students to feel like they’ve been robbed of their autonomy. In classrooms, we (usually, hopefully) have the right to be as radical and non-conformist as we want, in terms of intellectual positions. However, the minute we exit the classroom, women aren’t trusted to make decisions regarding their mobility and safety.

Movements like the ones we saw last month seek to demolish the notion that all the measures the authorities take to restrict women’s mobility and autonomy are meant for their “safety”. On the contrary, these are routes used to police women’s bodies and their minds, to curb their spaces, and to take away their individual agency by demanding that they be instantiations of the Brahminical ideal of the good and obedient woman. Women in hostels are usually constantly subjected to a refrain of “your being here is a privilege you’re enjoying, be grateful.” Where is this privilege though? Does it lie in leashing yourself to a timer every time you’re out in the evenings, and ending every evening with a panicked rush back to your cage? Does it lie in living under constant surveillance; living in fear of your warden ripping into you for everything from the length of your bottoms to the number of night-outs you take in a month? Women need no more privileges, really. What women need are rights.


Image source: Pinjra Tod/Facebook
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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