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Rana Ayyub: The Hero We Must Teach Our Children About Instead Of Cape-Wearing Males

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Misplaced Heroes is a consequence of the act of glorifying men with swords and guns, more than praising and giving space for representation to people who make a significant impact in the world with their pens and ideas.

I don’t think we understand the importance of celebrating the right kind of heroes enough, especially in front of kids. In most cases, heroes are strong, fair, tall, armed superhumans wearing capes, and mostly male (barring convenient transgressions). Now, fiction or not, when we weave such characters into the collective consciousness of the masses, we tell people what to expect from the world, and more importantly, what to expect from whom.

I grew up reading stories in which women were mostly the ones who were being saved, “the damsels in distress”. When you read something over and over again, you grow up believing that it is but the truth. It is ingrained into the collective conscience and thereby solidifies gender roles.

So, “the damsels in distress” were imaginary characters in men’s world. These men who were suffering from a saviour complex created women and put them in complex situations only to be saved by their “knight in shining armour”. These men satiated the kind of needs their ordinary selves could not fulfil in real life. These fantasies are estranged from the truth, but it leads to so many women believing that they will be protected from the world by their “knight” who is often a drunk that can’t walk straight past 11 pm.

In most cases, heroes are strong, fair, tall, armed superhumans wearing capes and are mostly male.

So many women have stayed in abusive relationships because they think their abuser will protect them better from the world: a world that they have grown up to believe is ugly (which it is). However, what they don’t tell us is that we are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves. It is not just about believing that a man will save us. Most of us even expect colleagues, friends and parents to protect us. It is not bad to expect the people we love to protect us, but it should be reiterated to us in our childhood that we are our own saviours.

No one else will save your life with the same passion as you. And this change in consciousness can be brought by unlearning and placing the right kind of real heroes who get up and make things better for themselves and the people around them.

Gujarat Files by Rana Ayyub is a piece of investigative journalism. I am no one to decide the validity of the facts in the book. For that, the Supreme Court is there. However, on my part, I could not help myself but be in awe of this 26-year-old woman who disguises herself as a Hindu, in what was perhaps the most religiously polarised state in India, to carry out a sting operation on top government and police officials over strange “terrorist” encounters and the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots.

I am 22 years old today, just four years short of what she was when she took on his brave project for Tehelka. I don’t know if I’ll ever have this much courage in life (not to forget, I still have the religious privilege in this country that she doesn’t).

I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of anxiety she must have gone through to bring out the truth she believes in. I kept thinking, while I read this book, “What if this book was made accessible to millions of children in the country?” It could be made available, perhaps, in a different format, but basically to propagate the idea of different kinds of heroes that exist and exist so bravely in our worlds. Not so. We are clueless about these heroes. Besides stirring a political scandal, I think it would inspire little girls to dream big and dream strong.

To go to a strange city all alone and attempt to save the ‘damsel in distress’ a.k.a. the democracy of this nation, is not exactly something girls are encouraged to do and yet, some who are more rebellious than others do it anyway. This paves way for everybody else. Rana Ayyub is one such example.

Sometimes, when I have anxiety attacks over the fact that I am aspiring to be a journalist in a country where the freedom of press is a joke and anybody who asks relevant questions is slammed with serious charges, I think about the 26-year-old Rana as Maithili and that gives me the strength to go on. That is the potential of real heroes.

This person, in blood and flesh, is a journalist. I didn’t even know about her until a few months ago. I got to know about her from her interview with an international organisation called RSF during the launch of the Press Freedom Index 2020. I was not surprised, since this society has always done its best to hide its boldest female voices.

In a seminar on Academic Social Responsibility earlier this year, I thought it was important to mention that in my interaction with 13-14-year olds of this country, I have realised that they have no idea about people who have brought ground-level impact in our country. They have no idea who Savitribai Phule is. There is only a small paragraph in our history books about BR Ambedkar.

Rana Ayyub. Image credit: Getty Images

We are told there are caste-based reservations but aren’t told why. In classrooms, we are not taught about the bravery of Aruna Asaf Ali. We are truly estranged from the realities of people in our country. Our academic social responsibility does not end in unlearning our conditioning but lies also in spreading what we learn through the power of words. This is our only tool in this battle against systematic oppression.

When equality and equity as concepts are not taught in our classrooms, how do we suddenly expect children to grow up and practice them? Our syllabus lacks representation. Our reading list lacks representation and even our cinema lacks representation. So, a child who grows up in such a black and white world suddenly sees different colours, it does not know what to make of it.

When children don’t see themselves in their heroes, they further alienate themselves from their potential. They feel they cannot do it because they don’t have the same colour of skin, they don’t share the same realities or even the same gender. We think only someone with certain qualifications can bring change because only people with quintessential characteristics have been shown to bring change in mass media which has been affecting the minds of people to think only in binaries. It is the need of the hour to break away from this herd mentality.

What the mainstream has been telling us is far away from the whole truth. We all have the power it needs to make the change we want to see in the world. One month back when I read The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth, another story (although partly fiction) about a male investigative journalist going after a war criminal, I loved the story. It was interesting. But it did not ignite a spark in me. It did not motivate me because I did not see myself in Peter Miller, the white male journalist. For however brave he might be, our realities were still very different. That is the potential of relevant heroes.

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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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