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Ripped Jeans Or Minds? 5 Ways India Expects ‘Good Women’ To Behave

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It’s been bizarre the last few weeks on the political front where we had misogyny on full display instead of social development.

Take the recent remark by the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, who described a woman he’d seen in a flight.

“Jab unki taraf dekha to neeche gumboot they, jab aur upar dekha to ghutne fatey they, haath dekhe to kai kade they… Bachhey do saath me unke they. Maine kaha behan ji kahan jana hai… Delhi jana hai, husband kahan hai… JNU me professor hain, tum kya karti ho… main ek NGO chalati hun. NGO chalati hain, ghutne fatey dikhte hain, samaj ke beech me jaati ho, bachhey saath me hain, kya sanskar dogi?” 

(She was wearing boots, jeans ripped on the knees, and several bracelets. She had two children traveling with her. Her husband is a professor at JNU. You run an NGO, wear jeans ripped at the knees, move about in society, children are with you, what values will you teach?)

CM Saab, with all due respect, what were you doing ogling at women in the flight in the first place? And why are you poking your nose in someone else’s parenting values? Are you a parenting expert? Or are you an expert on all women’s affairs solely because you are born a man?

A few days later, we had Dilip Ghosh, West Bengal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, who made a condescending below-the-belt remark on the state Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee.

“People don’t want to see her face; that’s why she’s showing her broken leg. She is wearing a saree that covers one leg and shows the other. Never seen someone wear a saree like that. If you want to show your leg, then wear Bermuda.”

After public outrage on his comment, he justified his statement that a woman in a saree flaunting her leg is not a reflection of the Bengali culture.

“Being a woman chief minister, we certainly expect from her some decency that goes well with the culture and tradition of Bengal and with the values of a Bengali woman.”

Shri. Dilip Ghosh! Do you publicly rebuke your peer male politicians for not following Bengali culture as well when they walk around displaying their legs to the world? Or is Bengali culture to be upheld by its women alone?

I don’t think Bengali women would agree with you, including your political opponent Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra, who rightly questioned,

“..And these perverted depraved monkeys think they are going to win Bengal?”

But it’s not just women politicians vying for power that are the target of hate and control, but laywomen like us as well—every single day. I’m not even talking about the big life decisions about marriage choices, career moves, or financial issues here. I’m talking about similar salty remarks and inane restrictions on trivial things like wearing ripped jeans.

Here’s sharing some of my lived experiences as a woman in this post.

1. Smile Till Your Cheeks Hurt

I remember this backhanded compliment from a relative on a profile picture I’d uploaded a few years back.

“Beta, you have such a pretty smile. Why put a picture where you look sad? Remove it and add a nice picture, which shows off your beautiful smile.” 

“But I am not sad. I like the picture, and I’m keeping it.” I replied.

It’s funny how a non-issue becomes an issue. Like a profile picture where you’re not smiling translates to “You’re sad.” Even if I were sad, why hide it from the world?

It’s a deeply problematic expectation for all women to be wallflowers. As if our mere existence and purpose in life are to add beauty to the world around us with our pleasing appearance and personality. Women are not expected to show sorrow, rage, or even a neutral expression on their faces.

Talking about smiling reminds me of the next weird assumption.

2. Selfies? Shame Shame!

two women clicking a selfie with their phone
Representational Image

Posting selfies indicate flirting and vying for male attention.

Who knew? I didn’t until someone advised me not to post selfies as it may give the wrong impression. I’m a respectable married woman and a mother, after all.

Even before smartphones, and the trend of selfies, I’d take pictures of myself on my camera and post them on social media. I hadn’t posted pictures for men earlier, back when I was single and ready to mingle. And no way am I going to stop posting pictures of myself post marriage and motherhood, merely because it may give the wrong impression to someone who I don’t give a damn for in the first place. It’s another thing altogether that I’ve outgrown selfies. But you get the drift, right?

Speaking of selfies giving off the wrong impression post marriage and motherhood brings me to the following stupid assumption.

3. Marriage Symbols – For Display Purposes Only

Representational Image

Symbols like the Mangalsutra are seen as a sign of ‘ownership’ by other men.

Remember weddings where the bride is expected to pile on gold like she’s a walking-talking Joy Alukkas jewelry shop? Apparently, the display show doesn’t end at the wedding ceremony.

I remember distinctly this incident in the first week I joined work in my mid-thirties after nearly a decade-long corporate sabbatical. A twenty-something male colleague who must have just finished college, and thought of himself as some stud boy came up to my desk. He felt this overpowering need to give me a dress down on how married women should look.

He asked me why I wasn’t wearing toe rings, mangalsutra, and bindi like other married women. I told him we didn’t follow such customs, and besides, I was wearing my wedding ring. The guy wasn’t convinced and somehow wanted to drive home the message that I was misleading the office men with the lack of marriage symbols on my body.

I asked the young man to concentrate on better things in life than on what I should be wearing. A married woman or not! It’s also the next discussion point.

4. Clothes – Here’s The Dress Down

Similar to the ripped jeans restrictions, I’m sure all of us must have been told what’s inappropriate to wear for a decent woman. It can be anything from sleeveless tops to skinny jeans to chiffon sarees and shorts.

This incident happened when I was in the US and a public park with my daughter. A random Afghani woman came up to me and struck a conversion. I was in a regular casual half-sleeved t-shirt and jeans. At the end of our conversation, this woman gave me unsolicited advice.

“Why don’t you wear full-sleeved shirts?” 

I didn’t bother to retort but found it amusing that even my forearms can turn people on and hence must be covered from sight.

Another piece of advice is to wear a dupatta when you go outside. I’ve never understood the logic of a flimsy material like the dupatta to conceal your breasts. On the contrary, it draws attention to it. Is that the perverted logic behind wearing a dupatta in the first place? It’s ridiculous to see women in shapeless nightgowns with a dupatta who attend to the doorbell or venture out in their apartments. Apparently, all these paraphernalia like dupatta are meant to show the world that you’re a decent and respectable woman.

More idiotic advice is not to wear bright lipstick especially or wear flowers on your head, lest you look like a woman from the red-light district. After a certain age, you are expected to dress sober, and hence, brightly colored outfits, for example, are out of your league.

5. Conduct – How To Be A Good Woman

Representational Image

The way women sit, if its cross-legged or with their legs open, is also critiqued by society.

So, you’re not just judged on your appearances but also on how you conduct yourself. Good women don’t sit with their legs wide open or cross-legged. Good women don’t talk or laugh loudly. Please feel free to add to the list of what good women should and should not do.

Here’s another actual incident at a family wedding I attended without my husband. But I was there in attendance with my parents, daughter, siblings, et al. There I was, dancing like no one’s watching with my family when a creepy relative from the bride’s side got all the wrong signals. The man started pestering me to share my number for friendship and meetings later despite repeatedly denying his requests. So, dancing is also an invitation. Phew!

But did that incident stop me from dancing and being myself? No way!

Conclusion

Honestly, the list of being a good woman is never-ending. So, you’re better off not trying to be one in the first place. Do whatever the hell you want. You have one life to live to bother with trivial mentality, issues, and restrictions.

I have the best advice –

How about leaving adult women alone to do whatever they want to do with their lives?

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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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