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Did You Know That Your Everyday Cusswords Are Casteist, Misogynistic And Exploitative?

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Three years ago, in the last year of my high school, a girl friend of mine casually remarked to me – “Patriarchy has taken away the right to our own bodies too; even the slangs make it seem like a woman’s body is the origin of honour.” For a much less informed me, the insinuation that “harmless” slangs were in some way aiding and abetting the exploitation of women, came as a rude shock. It led me to embark on a process of exposing my beliefs and thoughts to rigorous objective evaluation.

One of the first things that I discovered on viewing the usage of slangs through the lens of objectivity was that a majority of the cusswords used in popular perception were demeaning to women. The premise of a slang rested upon the basis that a woman’s body was a site of honour and promiscuity or sexual independence on the part of the woman was thought to desecrate this sacred notion.

Photo: The Kathmandu Post/ Representational image.

In the process of hurling abuses, one individual usually addresses the other party by a certain slang whose meaning usually varies between the vilification of the latter’s mother or sister.

The idea that demeaning someone’s mother or sister on the basis of their sex life is not only misogynistic but also feudal and medieval in character.

Note that this vilification usually happens when a woman exercises her right to bodily autonomy without paying heed to the patriarchal rules and regulations. In the case a woman’s consent is violated, there seems to be much less or no outrage at all. The hullabaloo over live-in relationships and deafening silence over the prevalence of honour killings is a case in point.

However, it is not just women that are attacked though. As it turns out, you can be lashed out at not just of your choices but also identities. A number of slurs used in general parlance seem to hinge on the notion that identifying as a trans person or not adhering to the binaries of gender identity justifies ridicule.

Any and all practices that do not adhere to the binaries are made fun of, ridiculed to the point that it legitimizes the institutionalization of discrimination against such marginalized communities and individuals.

The second observation that I came across was a more subtle one – usage of slangs that were casteist. It is common knowledge that a lot of cusswords have casteist origins but more often than not, the excuse forwarded for such usage is that these words are caste-independent, used only to point out certain unhealthy habits.

For example, the word “Bhangi” is often used by privileged individuals as a cussword to demean others who don’t adhere to cleanliness norms as set by them. That the community is marginalized, forced to risk their health and lives is often ignored in a discussion about the semantics of the word.

Essentially, it comes down to the dehumanization of an entire community on the basis of an ascribed identity. Regional variations in castes give rise to different cusswords but the premise of the slang being casteist stays the same.

Recently in news, was actress Kangna Ranaut’s tweet equating the film industry artists to “bhands”. Even notwithstanding the irrational nature of the tweet itself, the slur used to denigrate the artists is a casteist term. It places the blame on a community that has been marginalized historically, thus furthering the narrative of casteism, even more.

Likewise, there is the extremely popular word “Pariah”, often used to denote a boycotted individual/institution/state in general parlance. However, the origins of the word are again rooted in a caste-based society. The word can be sourced back to the pariah community, traditionally a clan of drummers, who are considered to be on an extremely low rung in the perceived hierarchy and consequently, excluded from all social spheres.

The question that arises now is whether all of us using slangs are misogynist or casteist.

The answer to this lies in our consciousness of its usage. Sure, not all of us know the origins of each cussword or use it with a malicious intent to demean women but it is imperative that we understand the politics of semantics. A seemingly harmless slang leads to the institutionalization of misogyny and enables patriarchal & casteist structures.

So, the next time you have a reflexive urge to use a cussword, pause for a moment and think about the connotations and implications. It is the least we can do to start a process of correcting historical wrongs.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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