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Uncle, Please Sit: Our Activism Needn’t Be ‘Pleasant’ Just So Older Men Can Find It Palatable

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By reducing Greta Thunberg to a gullible 16-year-old, being used as a pawn by the “ultra-left” to peddle their ideas to the world, critics are committing two follies at once: infantilising Thunberg by robbing her of her agency to express herself, and resorting to the ‘red scare’ to dismiss ideas they don’t agree with. By implying that Thunberg (an environmental activist) and Pol Pot (a communist dictator responsible for the Cambodian genocide) are similar in terms of the ideas that they represent, Sandipan Deb draws an unjust comparison by cherry-picking evidence to suit his irrational fear of left-leaning values. On the other hand, Manu Joseph makes an equally ridiculous comparison between Thunberg and Bill Gates (tech whiz and billionaire philanthropist). He hints that Thunberg appeals to women because she relies on “drama and exaggeration”, while Gates appeals to men because he is “a strategic, masculine solver of the problems of a weak, miserable world…” Joseph unnecessarily creates a false binary, to pit two people fighting for the same cause, against each other.

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 23: Youth activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on September 23, 2019, in New York City. While the United States will not be participating, China and about 70 other countries are expected to make announcements concerning climate change. The summit at the U.N. comes after a worldwide Youth Climate Strike on Friday, which saw millions of young people around the world demanding action to address the climate crisis. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Deb mentions Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, in particular, her “feral rage, the doomsday sermon delivered with messianic zeal…” Why should she or other young women be obliged to behave any differently, just so that older men such as him can find their message palatable? Maybe he would prefer that she crack a few jokes to lighten the mood or smile every now and then to ease the tension? We reject these notions of performative pleasantness that is expected of us just so that the privileged lot aren’t inconvenienced.

A still from Game Of Thrones, where the said meme originated.

Joseph, on the other hand, is confused by the choice of a ‘Game of Thrones’ meme (in which a young woman is saying: “uncle, please sit“) which young women are using, to “insult middle-aged men” such as him, who happen to be critics of Thunberg. He is confused because the uncles on the show “get a lot of sex from young women.” Uncle, please sit. This is exactly the kind of pervasive, sexist attitudes that such young women are trying to fight in the first place.

Detractors put the spotlight on the fact that Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism to tell the world why she should be receiving ‘special care’, instead of advocating for a cause that she strongly believes in. Deb says that “she has admitted to suffering from” these conditions. She didn’t “admit” to anything, as though it were a crime to have a developmental and/or a mental disorder. Rather, she asserted herself and said that she views them as her “superpowers“. Receiving the right kind of support to deal with one’s mental health is just as important as being able to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in order to achieve something one is proud of, and both needn’t be mutually exclusive. Individuals with diagnoses of a mental nature shouldn’t be hidden away from the rest of the world like they are oddities. It shouldn’t be up to the rest of us to dictate how we think they ought to make responsible choices about their lives. Joseph believes that activism is “a flea market of human frailties.” Even if this were the case, vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of. Paradoxically, speaking about one’s vulnerabilities at the cost of ridicule requires immense strength.

These detractors have also tried to invalidate children’s anger at grown-ups for their failure to adequately fix the problem of climate change crisis by calling them “well-off” school children who are using this as an excuse to roam about the streets, click selfies, eat pizza, and publicly abuse their parents. The irony of such a critique coming from the likes of Deb, who is an alumnus of elite institutions such as IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta, hasn’t escaped me. It is also reflective of the discomfort that some adults display when they are held directly accountable for their shortcomings.

Critics have accused “Thunberg and her well-fed handlers” of not caring about “what a momentous difference an electric or gas connection makes to the life and future of a poor family.” This is a misguided belief on their part because she has repeatedly said that developed nations, where the standard of living is high, should take the lead in cutting down on their carbon emissions. In her opinion, developed nations should bear the brunt of this burden so that developing nations such as India or Nigeria can keep investing in the building of essential infrastructure, to better the lives of their citizens.

Climate strike in Hyderabad. Source: news18.com

…with a child being the bearer of their propaganda, adults can be shamed freely if they criticise anything she says”, remarks Deb. I think adults should also be mindful of the fact that they are talking about a child. Instead of criticising the media, which may have given undue attention to a white person’s activism (in comparison to activism by brown, black, and indigenous bodies), insulting Thunberg’s appearance, demeanour, disabilities, and motives as though she isn’t a 16-year-old, is childish. Critics aren’t used to seeing a young girl (on the cusp of womanhood) fiercely champion a cause that challenges their commonly-held beliefs. The veneer of intellectual disagreement serves to hide the coarse misogyny behind it. Growing up, a lot of my interactions with my extended family were rooted in similar patriarchal values. I have had plenty of experiences dealing with older men who would use disparaging labels such as “bossy”, “masculine“, “unmarriageable“, etc., to put me down instead of countering the merit of my arguments, when I had an opinion contrary to theirs. This toxic culture encourages young girls to speak only when spoken to, and even then to meekly nod their assent to what is said to them. Girls and women who rebel against this norm are seen as anomalies… anomalies who need to be taught better than to speak up for themselves.

Young people have the most to lose should something drastic happen to the living conditions on planet earth. The reason so many youngsters are on the street, protesting about the climate change crisis, is because they want to be the stakeholders of a better tomorrow. Those who benefit from the status quo can never be expected to lead the fight to change it. Let the adults grumble about how young people are good for nothing, while young people continue to consolidate and became an unstoppable force!

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images
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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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