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The Curious Case Of Feminism: My Trysts, Mistakes And Insights

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I have always been up for asking the right questions—the difficult ones, the ones that make people uncomfortable, the ones where I seemingly come out as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’.

And this started when I was young. I was the third girl child born in a small town of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand to a highly orthodox lower-middle-class family that wanted a son. Trust me, I had no option but to question. All through my adolescence, I wanted to be a boy, I didn’t want to ‘look like a girl’, I dressed up like boys—with short hair and pants for attire, I was athletic and got into fights and displayed a whole lot of ‘masculinity’. Things started to change when my body started becoming different, around 13. Suddenly, I was told to ‘sit properly’, eat like a lady, behave like ‘other girls’, dress a certain way, not to participate in sports, keep myself in the house and speak softly.

Until I started working in the development sector, I considered myself a feminist, all too proudly. I got my information from poorly made cinema, biased newspapers, and the chaotic internet; and I boxed myself into this category. Only when I started working on the ground, with government schools, in the remotest villages of India, in some challenging districts of the country, I realized how I had it all wrong. I then dived into literature and history to bring myself up to speed and started engaging with experts and people around me who had insights to offer.

Therefore, there is a critical need for intersectionality in feminism, defining it in a nuanced way and right from adolescence—in our families, in our schools, in our books, in our history, in our newspapers, in our entertainment, in our colleges and workplaces.

Feminism has nothing to do with ‘bra-burning’ behaviour, being rebellious, hating men or for that matter being away from femininity and womanhood. Feminism cannot be (and I quote Urvashi Butalia) a static way of thinking. The feminist movements have also evolved a lot, right from when it started in the 1980s to now. The SlutWalks, The Pink Chaddi campaign, the POSH Act, and the recent #MeToo movement – are only a part of what feminism is about. And it is important to understand that, especially in a country like India where people’s social identities are diverse and are interlinked with income, business, and economy.

Feminism is against inequality, injustice, oppression, patriarchal norms.

Feminism is for equity, justice, equality, for all genders, for all human beings.

intersectional feminism
Photo: Arpita Biswas/Feminism In India

Meaning Of ‘Intersectionality’

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the law professor at Columbia and UCLA coined the term intersectionality almost 30 years back as a perspective or to simplify a lens that could be used to see how different forms of inequality are interconnected and play out in a social setting.

For example, there is a report to show how ‘White Women’ earn less than their male counterparts in the US. The same report also highlights how Women of colour earn even less than white women. Here, the identity of both race and gender are interlinked to create a certain level of discrimination and oppression.

Another relatable example – An upper-caste woman from a middle-income household vs. a ‘lower caste’ woman from a high-class family vs a trans woman from an Islamic state in an educational institution have different experiences based on their caste, class, religion, gender, and sexuality.

According to me, this lens to feminism has made/is making the movement a lot more inclusive, bringing together people from all genders, economic standards, races, religions, sexual orientations, immigrant status, educational backgrounds, geographical settings so that their voices can be heard. There is an increasing need for everyone to realize that one is experiencing life because of their multiple identities.

Because Personal Is Political!

I am a first-generation female Engineer in my family. The moment I got placed in a top MNC, my parents started getting marriage propositions from eligible men from the same community. Because it was difficult to find girls who had ‘Beauty with Brains’. This went on until I turned 25. I kept putting my foot down because I wanted to focus on my career and my relationships then.

Why do you think it stopped? Because I had crossed the marriageable age, and something was ‘wrong’ with me. I got married last year after I turned 28. There is also an unsaid expectation for married women to look a certain way, deliver on certain fronts as a new bride, and create off-springs at the earliest. These micro-incidents interlink my education, my location, my body, my relationship status, my caste, my career aspirations, my social circle, my gender, my sexuality, my desires into something extremely complex. And all of it makes me Nitisha, who can share her story on this platform.

There is no right or wrong. As human beings, we are the choices we make; and every individual has the freedom to make those choices. People need to start accepting that everyone has agency, especially women who are making these choices – if they are the ones making them.

Women are not a different species – we are a part of the society and it is a complex relationship. So, where do we go from here?

  1. Understanding our privilege – Nitisha is a ‘fair-skinned’, able-bodied, straight woman from the ‘so-called’ upper caste. This means that I don’t have to face some challenges other women have to.
  2. Listen to each other – It is my prerogative to listen to stories of people who experience life differently than I do and amplify them for the world to hear and take note.
  3. Practice feminism from a more inclusive lens – How can I include all menstruators when talking about periods poverty, what can be done to have ‘gender-neutral’ toilets in offices and public spaces, why does the union budget need a ‘gender lens’ to address its health policies, when can I take the step to question the pay parity in my organization’, As an entrepreneur how am I creating diversity in the people who are recruited?

The Global Gender Gap report was released by the World Economic Forum in 2019 and mentions how it will take 100 years to achieve Gender Parity worldwide. And it still misses out on acknowledging the Gender is not limited to the binary anymore. So, we have a long way to go.

And I feel very confident in saying that we are on the right track. It took 90+ women to report Harvey Weinstein and 5 years of court proceedings, but he has been found guilty of rape.

It might come slowly and with a lot of hard work and effort, but feminism will come for sure.

And as Nivedita Menon says in ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’, “Feminism is not about that moment of final triumph but the gradual transformation of the social field so decisively that old markers shift forever. 

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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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