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Constructing ‘Indian Women’ – An Example Of Brahmanical Patriarchy

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Towards A Non-Brahmin Millennium, a book by V. Geetha and S. Rajadurai, in its introduction depicts how the non-Brahmin Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu in early 20th century was denounced by Brahmanic patriarchs of the Home Rule Movement who are also seen as “the freedom fighters” of India.

When the non-Brahmin manifesto was released for public debate and scrutiny in December 1916, Annie Besant, editor of New India (NI) and patron saint of the Home Rule Movement, denounced its contents and stated intentions in strident terms. She characterised the manifesto as “mischievous and unpatriotic” and claimed it had been authored by “short-sighted narrow-minded” people whose chief objective was to “denounce the work of the National Congress and the Home Rule Movement.” Her close associate in the Home Rule Movement and a prominent Madras notable, C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, was also inclined to dismiss the non-Brahmin manifesto as unworthy of serious political consideration. We see here how the Brahmins could not be called an enemy of democracy nor could the caste system be termed inherently inegalitarian. For argued Ramaswamy Iyer, the caste order in its constitutive phase was founded on principles of comradeship and Brahmins had never quite forgotten that this comradeship was the “fundamental basis of the caste system.”

How could women not be targeted who were a part of the Dravidian movement? So, according to an “Indian lady”, reformers wanted Indian women to be a “good superwoman” excelling in every field like a professional. She is actually going to be professionally a housewife. A few “lower castes” who tried to use Sanskritisation for their upward mobility had to face the Varnashrama Dharma – “Brahmins are only born and not made”. Hence, from these few examples, we now have some idea of how Brahmanical patriarchy was ingrained in the process of making independent India.

Here is where Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s “Gender in the Making of the Indian Nation State” is helpful in understanding the construction of the category “Indian women”, the cultural emblem of India. The critical concern here is – who are these Indian women? Of course, they are exclusively Hindu, brahmin, upper/middle-class, married, ‘fertile’, able-bodied “women. Chaudhuri brings out how women have been addressed both in the making and running of the Indian nation state. Both the national movement (first) and the Indian state (later) imagined the role of women.

These are: First – women as agents and recipients of development. Second – women’s equal participation as equal citizens of the state; and third – women as “emblems of national culture”. These factors of the national movement were germane to the making of the nation. Hence, it can be seen how women were and still are politically used first “for the nation” and later reduced to recipients of male-centered development. They are supposed to be domesticated, traditional home-makers, submissive and sacrificing. It was seen how women who were earlier co-partners in the freedom struggle, were after independence, confined to the private space as domesticated beings (though these women largely were from upper castes).

The need for a historical past is an extricable part of the modern nationalist consciousness which has to summon a legacy stretching to an ancient, time-immemorial past. Therefore, the story of the Indian woman can begin with her status in the Vedic period.

India entered modernity and capitalism through colonialism. The Indian nation states are modern and hence, women’s question has to be understood as part of the modern democratic project. Modernity with the corollary processes of capitalism, recast women as creatures of domesticity where being a housewife was and is a full time and “natural vacation!”. The 19th century idea was that the status of nation ought to be gauged by the status of women. Since Indian women lived in pitiable conditions, Indian men felt berated by this inability to attain heights.

In the recasting, we had the construction of middle-class domesticity, much on the lines of Victorian England, that defined the normative Indian woman as gentle, refined and skilled in running a ‘home’ with the simultaneous assertion of ancient Hindu past and culture virtues (what typical middle-class non-Dalit women are). But the intensification of the national movement gave rise to new ideas of development, equality, socialism, etc. Women were now into political action. This altered their ‘traditional’ role and at the same time, the issue of cultural pride for a colonised society continued to be of great importance. It was in this complex crucible of colonial encounter where lay the seeds of women as markers of culture, or women as dependent housewives or independent workers.

During this period, efforts were made by various sections of society to uplift the status of women. However, they were rejected by the state. E.g. Ambedkar’s Hindu Code Bill was seen as a clear threat to the caste system in India as it promoted inter-caste marriages which would have resulted in breaking down of the hierarchical caste system; the Women’s Role in Planned Economy report, which aimed at property rights for women and the rights of women as housewives and many more radical recommendations. These efforts were in relation to women as an “individual” with which the Indian state always had an uneasy relationship. Both of these were against the Brahmanical values of endogamy and women as ‘homemakers’.

Thus, if one looks at it critically, it can be understood how this was not just public patriarchy, but public Brahmanical patriarchy, for whom, the idea of Indian women is non inclusive of Dalit, poor, women of minority religious groups, women who wear “western clothes”. The idealised picture of “Bharat Mata” wearing a saffron/white saree itself is faulty and does not represent the Indian women in reality and reinforces patriarchy. Hence, homogenising Indian women obscures the differences that exists within women in India due to which not just the identity of the privileged Brahmin Hindu women dominates over the rest but it also excludes and marginalises them at various levels in various spheres of society. It is essential to deconstruct this idea of Indian women which does not represents all women in India.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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