How The Shaheen Bagh Library Of 50 Books Became A Symbol Of Public Participation

“Bombs and pistols do not make Revolution. The sword of Revolution is sharpened on the whetting-stone of ideas.” – Bhagat Singh

We are in the middle of a major health emergency, with the outbreak of the corona pandemic and the country going through a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. With our collective efforts, physical distancing and social solidarity, we hope to win this battle. The Government has been quite pro-active in dealing with this pandemic, and this was quite evident in the early morning of 24th March, when the Delhi Police cleared the Shaheen Bagh and Jamia protest site, which observed protests against the CAA-NRC-NPR for over 100 days. The Delhi Police argued that it was necessary in light of ensuring a successful lockdown for the safety of protesters from the deadly virus. However, with all the wall paintings, graffiti, murals, slogans whitewashed and defaced, only the police can explain how these were enabling the spread of corona!

People were deployed by the police amidst the coronavirus lockdown to remove wall art and graffiti at the Shaheen Bagh protest site. Image source: Twitter

The Shaheen Bagh movement was a women-led historic non-violent satyagraha. The dadis of Shaheen Bagh inspired many to stand for justice and truth, to protect the idea of India they believed was at stake. As reputed scholar Benedict Anderson defined a nation as an “imagined political community”, Shaheen Bagh was a site where a secular, democratic, and sovereign Indian nation was reimagined. People would come and express their solidarity with the protesters at Shaheen Bagh, which drew attention from all around the globe.

People in different capacities participated in the struggle. At the protest site, one such initiative was the setting up of Fatima Sheikh-Savitribai Phule Library on 17th January. The date marked the death anniversary of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar from the Dalit community, and we chose the date to commemorate the memory of Rohith, who fought against institutional discrimination in the Hyderabad Central University and caste oppression.

On 17th January 2016, Rohith Vemula committed suicide with a banner of the ASA, and left behind a searing note talking of unfinished dreams and how he felt his “birth was his fatal accident”.

The idea behind naming the library after Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule was to celebrate the legacy of these women reformers who have played a pivotal role in shaping Indian History. These two feminist social reformers championed the cause of women education and social justice. As the Shaheen Bagh movement was being led by women, we could not think of anything more apt.

The thought of doing something of this kind hit us when many people, including elected representatives from the ruling party, ridiculed the anti-CAA protesters as brainwashed, misguided people who didn’t know what this Act was all about. It was then that we decided to set up the library to give intellectual support to fellow protesters and bust the state-sponsored propaganda.

The library started at the Shaheen Bagh Bus Stand with our personal collection of over 50 books. We soon created social media profiles and appealed for book donations. We didn’t expect a huge public response, but to our surprise, people started calling us from different parts of the country – some from even foreign countries – inquiring about the library and expressing their interest in donating books.

As of now, we have more than 1,500 books, which goes on to speak about public participation that made this library bigger and stronger! Women protesters would come to the library, sit, read books, and talk about events unfolding around the world. This was the success of our initiative, if nothing! The Shaheen Bagh movement is a watershed moment in the history of post-Independence India.

Women came out of their houses to assert their identity and their right to exist. It busted various myths around the idea of poor Muslim women, of which the BJP claimed itself a savior by bringing the Triple Talaq Bill. The women showed that they can fight their battles on their own, and need no custodian. similarly, there are many other takeaways from the movement.

On 17th March, we decided to temporarily shut down the library due to the corona outbreak. The memories are still afresh and during this ongoing lockdown, we are trying to stay connected to readers with storytelling and poetry recitation sessions on our social media handles. The Delhi Police might have cleared the Shaheen Bagh protest site, but it lives in the memories of people who cherish the Indian Constitution and democratic values. Once this lockdown is over and we come out stronger from this healthcare crisis, we will decide on our future endeavors.

Image has been provided by the author.

In words of Bertolt Brecht –“In the dark times. Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”  – we would also like to add, “There will also be reading. In the dark times.”

Featured image has been provided by the author. 

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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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