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Why It Is Okay To Not Co-Opt The #BlackLivesMatter Movement In Indian Context

I’ve spent the last week in somewhat of a weird daze. I found it really hard to concentrate on anything, and spent hours scrolling through Instagram. On 9th June, my Instagram was a sea of black. Everyone I follow was either posting black squares, or asking people not to post black squares, or yelling about how posting black squares was ‘performative wokeness.’ My Instagram has been flooded, as has my news feed, as has every single lame-ass piece of marketing — right from Spotify to my vegetable delivery that says, “We must stand against injustice. We must fight racism.”

I didn’t post a square because I had lots of friends pointing out why I shouldn’t. Amongst them was a huge section of my Indian friends saying that it wasn’t alright to call out racism in the US when people have kept silent about racism and discrimination in India. At my old workplace, we called this “whataboutism”. Some people are dying, but what about this issue? We need to end torture, sure, but what about Kashmir? And it’s a fair point, but also, kind of not. If you’ve seen the debate for why we shouldn’t say ‘All Lives Matter’ — it’s a very similar idea.

Sure, all lives do matter, but right now, it is the African-American community who needs the attention, because Black lives are in danger. Their lives have been systematically targeted, and in America, there is a very specific history that has contributed to their oppression. We don’t need to co-opt it for an Indian cause right now.

It’s possible that toppling racial inequality will have repercussions on the world, India included. Our worship of all things White comes from the world power that influences every aspect of our culture. If we truly have racial equality in the USA, it is possible that it will also become the norm —much like the Nike shoes and Apple iPhones. Dismantling the structures of inequality in the US will have repercussions on white supremacy everywhere. But speaking out about Black lives when you haven’t said anything about other issues in India doesn’t necessarily make you a hypocrite.

Black lives have been systematically targeted, and in America, there is a very specific history that has contributed to their oppression.

By all measures, I’m pretty ‘woke.’ I have read all the anti-racist books that are now sold out online, and watched Ava Duvernay’s documentaries the moment they came out. I honestly felt just a tiny bit smug about my wokeness. I actively read Black authors and had difficult conversations with family and friends about racial and structural inequality.

I am an ally, but I didn’t use to be. I used to be the person who was a part of several racist conversations. In college, I made a racial slur at a bar once, until my now-husband sat with me calmly and explained why that wasn’t alright. I have actively taken part in them, not knowing any better, and kept silent when I should have called it out. I’ve also sometimes just not noticed.

In high school, I said something about a friend with darker skin, which still makes my stomach churn in guilt. I’m so ashamed of it. I had said those things not because I was an evil child, but because I didn’t understand that my actions were part of a much bigger problem. And why would I? I have benefitted all my life from white supremacy.

I speak English, have lived and worked abroad, and self-loathed my Asian skin. I have laughed at jokes in good nature that I didn’t fully understand. I have always been part of the problem. The way our world is currently set up, whiteness is an ideal to aspire for. Everything from the language we speak, to the food we eat, the news we consume, or the types of clothes we wear, are in some way, shape or form influenced by whiteness.

There is an idea that being white is better than anything else. It does not mean white people are bad. It means for thousands of years, the world has reshaped itself to favour white people. As Indians, we kind of half-benefit from this. Sometimes, this system benefits us as Indians, and when it does, we are 100% complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. When it doesn’t, we shrug at ‘racism.’ The thing about racism or any kind of oppression is that it thrives in secrecy.

There was an incident years ago when my sister and I sat down at a table in a restaurant in Europe, and the waitress took away all the cutlery, making it clear they didn’t want us there. I remember how painful and humiliated we felt. I’ve never been able to talk about it with my parents, because I know they would feel shame and embarrassment.

Somehow, the bubble of privilege of having a fair skin and money in India had popped in this strange place. When communities are oppressed, they lose access to the structures that allow them to use their voice. They start to collectively keep their heads down, and hide to keep quiet, because it’s easier than speaking up and drawing attention to themselves. I know this because I’ve been that person.

I am a Muslim. In India, the anti-Muslim sentiment isn’t new. I am a part of a community that is always at the bottom of the pyramid, and has been so for a very long time. A Muslim man once told me, “Being called a terrorist is just the reality of life for a Muslim boy in India.” A friend’s mother once asked me if I believed in God, and I blurted out ‘no’ before I could think. My sister once said it’s kind of like having a “green touch.” You get mutton-eating jokes and learn to laugh them off. I’m the unwanted, the wretched, the invader, and the loathed — but I am also not. I am rich and speak English, and I have been privileged for having fair skin in a country that takes pride in it.

I am the Muslim, you’re still okay with, because I’m not like “other Muslims.” I don’t have to deal with the humiliation and fear that millions of Muslims do, because they are Muslims in a country that is right now more divided than ever. The thing about discrimination is that it is humiliating and hurtful. It impacts people so deeply that they lose their self-worth. They start believing they don’t have a voice, that they don’t have anything good enough to say.

Problems with muslim community amid lockdown
I’m the unwanted, the wretched, the invader, and the loathed — but I am also not. I am rich and speak English, and I have been privileged for having fair skin in a country that takes pride in it. Representational image. Credit: Flickr

They keep their heads down, and when the angry white waitress takes away their cutlery, they don’t ask their parents why. Shame is passed down through generations, so you learn to hide, keep your head down and not draw attention to your Muslim-ness. I am not the perfect ally because I am often, by virtue of my privilege, far removed from the context. But I want to be a better ally.

It is only in recent years that I have made an active effort in saying that I am a Muslim, point this out to others, and do the work to take pride in it — I’ve been able to do this only now, when I understand that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Being able to do this has come after years of patience in safe spaces to discuss why I was ashamed of being a Muslim, and the time and space — to air my opinion and iron out the creases, voice my truth in a safe space, and confront myself that being thought of as less of an Indian has been a painful part of my childhood and growing up.

Maybe, just maybe, being able to speak up for Black lives will initiate the powerful process of questioning who you are. It allows you to have a take — a messy opinion that is spilling over the edges of family social circles, seeping under the rugs at casual drinks with friends, and plopping in hot, messy splodges across your social media.

It forces you to refine what you think, how you think, and question where it comes from. It encourages you to look within yourself and introspect. Most importantly, it gives you something to believe in, to stand by, to say, and the confidence to know that you can.

As Indians, our support and international solidarity is not to be undermined. We are at a critical point in time — as people of colour, we can bring a fresh wave of support to the movement. We can underline the issues of structural racism and white supremacy, and step back to create and honour Black voices.

Simply, we are stronger together. When we stand in solidarity with others, we pave the way to be able to speak up for other issues closer to home. We get better at speaking up with practice. We question our motives with a dialogue. We learn when we have discussions with people who are polar opposites of us. And we do so by being humble, willing to listen, open, and empathetic. Our smugness over our “wokeness” will get us nowhere.

Indian outrage has its place and we must commit to fighting oppression with everything we have. But dismantling the structures of inequality in the US will have repercussions for white supremacy everywhere. If you really are an ally, get on and do the work. I hope today, you call out ‘Black Lives Matter’. And I hope tomorrow, you look inside and question what you believe in. I hope one day ,your opinion runs like distilled water into a polished glass, measured, thoughtful and crystal clear. And one day, I hope you take that opinion and pour it burning-hot all over oppression, everywhere.

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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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