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I Was Denied The Chance To Give A Speech Because I Chose To Wear The Hijab

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What does it mean to be modern? How many inches of clothes are required to be considered a modern, civilised woman? Is being trendy, attractive, fashionable, equal to being modern?

Well, I am quite intrigued by these questions. Because having my voice heard in some social spaces is getting more difficult with each passing day. The reason is quite simple: my attire never matches what people consider the norm for a modern woman. It’s as if I am not modern enough. I am confidently generalised as conservative, narrow-minded and old-fashioned because of the way I dress. And if I am so lucky, I may also get the tagline of being ‘an oppressed woman’, who is advocating for her own captivity. That sounds hilarious!

I experienced a situation when my teachers denied my request to wear the hijab during a small speech. When they found me to be quite adamant about wearing the hijab, they put forward a second option after a discussion: we will talk to your parents, we know why you’re worried. The question was just another way of expressing their notion, that women don’t choose to wear the hijab, they are forced to. It hurt me deeply and thus I replied: ‘No Ma’am. It’s my decision, not my parents’. I ‘chose’ to wear it, I wasn’t forced. And then soon, I was replaced by some other girl. As I left the hall, I kept wondering whether I am living in a secular, democratic nation or not.

As ‘terror’ is a highly profitable marketing tool in the world of media, some signs, clothes and even words having Muslim elements are brandished as terrifying and uncivilised. The ‘purdah’ (veil) or Hijab is one among such zillions of words.

If the word ‘purdah’ (veil) evokes in your minds, an image of fully clad women chained within four walls under the Taliban regime, Iran or Saudi Arabia; then you are gravely wrong. Because, Saudi Arabia is not the perfect political model of Islam and neither is the Taliban, as Islam calls for the separation of state and religion. Moreover, the state-sponsored morality of autocratic regimes goes against the Quran which states that “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:257). Thus, nowhere does Islam accommodate the concept of women being chained within the four walls of their homes as it is proved from its early history.

For me, the true concept of ‘purdah’ (veil) is that which asks both men and women to instil in themselves the values of modesty and righteousness. But, why do I say so? Because, in my opinion, the ‘purdah’ (veil) is not born out of a narrow-minded patriarchal society that subjugates women. The state of women at the time of arrival of Islam or Muhammad stands testimony to this fact. Girls were deemed to bring disgrace such that many ‘proud’ fathers of some tribes, buried them alive. Women were treated worse than animals. Yet, with the arrival of Islam, women were given the right to inheritance, the right to divorce their husbands, and the right to seek education. Women got the freedom to own their bodies and not be left at the mercy of male vulgarity, and thus sexual anarchy came to a sudden halt with a deep emphasis on values.

Moreover, as per my understanding, Islam categorically refutes the patriarchal notion that women must be morally responsible for the whole society. How? By placing the responsibility of hijab on men first, not on women.

“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do” [24:31]

This teaching was exemplified by the prophet Muhammad when a woman described as strikingly beautiful approached the Prophet to seek his guidance on some religious matters. Al Fadl began to stare at her because of her beauty. Well, noting this, Prophet Muhammad reached his hand behind, grasped Al Fadl’s chin, and turned his face to the other side so that he could not gaze at her.

So, rather than blaming Islam and making an easy loophole for the oppressive acts and ideologies of misogynistic clerics, autocratic regimes and the biased western media, it’s time that we tear apart their masks and see the vested interests behind their ‘love’ and ‘hate’ towards Islam. It’s time to revive the true Islam by remembering the history of Ayesha- from whom prophet Muhammad asked Muslim men to learn half their faith-the history of Umme Ummarah, the Muslim woman who fought bravely in battles and that of Fathima Al Fihri, the founder of world’s first University, the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Morocco.

At a time when women need to stand as a collective, a final word to some feminists: Every time you try to avoid my voice in your discussions, judging me to be a traditional, conservative woman, you are becoming a by-product of the patriarchal thought that “a woman is what she wears”.

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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.

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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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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.

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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)’.

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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.

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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 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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