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The Law In My Kitchen: Questions About Gender, Agency And The State

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The law in India never uses the word “desire”. There is no law of desire or vocabulary present in the state that talks about desire. However, this “term can refer to a gamut of things including gender, politics, culture, history, sociology and all the subjects that go into making law what it is”.

Desire acts as the bridge between the mind and body. The idea of desire builds a bridge between what we like to distinguish as the mind on the one hand and the body on the other. Desire is a term that allows us to expand a conversation that might otherwise be more restricted if we were to only use the terms “gender” or “sexuality”.

An important issue to discuss would be whether the questions of desire are private or public. To throw light upon the intersection of law with gender and sexuality, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organised a special lecture on The Law in my Kitchen: Questions about Gender, Agency, and the State by Dr Madhavi Menon, a professor of English and Director of Centre for Gender Studies at Ashoka University who works in the domains of queer theory, sexuality, desire, gender politics and identity.

Introducing the theme, Dr Rukmini Nair, Chair of the session, pointed to the intersectionality built in the theme of how the link between state and law was bridged towards gender and the kitchen via an agency. This points to the need for interdisciplinary conversation around gender and patriarchy in the modern state.

It becomes the goal of the academician to locate concepts and links for a greater audience empirically. Descartian vocabulary has given academicians today to make the claim the porosity of body and mind, best represented as “the mind has no sex”. 

Desire: From the Private to Public    

Privacy has captured the popular imagination. From WhatsApp’s privacy settings to the privacy judgment in the Retired Justice Puttaswamy case in the Supreme Court, there has been a lot of discussion around privacy. The critical question that we need to grapple with is — is desire private?

We are encouraged to believe that gender, sexuality and desire are all private matters. They are personal issues because they belong to us individually and because they define us fundamentally.

Dr Madhavi Menon expresses, “What’s interesting to me is that when we bring in a law to adjudicate a matter that is allegedly so private, what happens then to that notion of privacy? What happens then to that notion of something being so personal and individualistic and so fundamentally belonging to the domain of self? What happens to that domain once it is publicly pronounced upon?”

This contrast of private and public is spurious because we are constantly told what our gender and sexuality are or what they must be. Even if we think we choose our sexual orientation, that choice has to fit specific parameters publicly decided before we are allowed to be of a particular sexual orientation.

The Great Indian Kitchen
The Great Indian Kitchen.

Thus, this idea of gender, sexuality or desire being private is untrue. It is an idea that has been impressed upon us to induce shame and not talk about these things publicly. It hinders us from talking about these ideas of sexuality or gender to take up public space and own the public sphere.

When surfaced in the public sphere, these conversations would lend recognition to sexual identities that would be empowering and liberating at the same time.

The very notion of privacy is something to be sceptical about and most so about gender, body, desire and sexuality because not only have these realms never been private, but they have always been publicly sanctioned and dictated. Asking us to keep them confidential also asks us to keep them apolitical when they are arguably the most politicised versions of ourselves.

The law seems absolute, while gender and sexuality seem to be much more fluid. However, Dr Menon believes that law is more porous than complete and gender is more absolute than porous. Her explanation for the same is that the most common word associated with the law is “interpretation”.

The same absolute law can be interpreted differently by different benches of judges, which isn’t always a positive thing. Unlike in the U.S.A., where the Supreme Court sits as an entire bench for all cases that come to it, the Indian Judiciary assigns different benches to each case. The assignment of judges can be backed by political activity. This proves the porousness of the law.

The relationship between law and desire is another question that demands discourse. If they have been relegated to different spheres of life, i.e. the public for the law and private for desire, it’s important to look at the interaction between them. Dr Menon poses the question, “Is the relationship between the two only and always antagonistic, which is to say that law is always trying to control desire? Or is the law also enabling when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality and desire?”

The Great Indian Kitchen

The Great Indian Kitchen
The Great Indian Kitchen.

The movie The Great Indian Kitchen portrays mundane characters, every day and present. Their portrayal is kind, polite and wholehearted. It attempts to portray a universal story of a heterosexual couple by not attaching any name to the characters.

The universal portrayal shows the everydayness of patriarchy. The movie shows the hideousness and violence due to patriarchy present in every individual’s life. It makes the audience uncomfortable because it drives home the embeddedness of patriarchy through seemingly nice and polite characters.

The movie was rejected by major streaming websites like Netflix and Amazon. Produced in Malayalam, it is available on Neestream. It portrays two kinds of laws and their intersection law: social law and law, which is the embodiment of the state’s judicial power.

Social Law of Marriage

Family is considered to be a fundamental unit of society and a certain idea of marriage anchors it. This idea of marriage is heterosexual and tends to have its roots in a patriarchal structure. Though the state’s laws govern it, it is also given in society that marriage is a necessary ritual.

This patriarchy is noticed not just in rituals around marriage or traditions like a woman taking her husband’s name but also in the roles that a husband and a wife are expected to play after marriage. Marriage is a deeply patriarchal institution and it is essential that we, as a society, rethink the law of marriage.

The institution of marriage stands at the intersection of the public and private, portrayed by the movie successfully. It is meant to be a private affair between two people, at most between two families, but it is the most highly adjudicated institution in the country, which can be proved by the number of laws devoted to marriage.

“I’m interested in the question that how can we ask the law to take ideas of desire, gender and sexuality much more seriously than they currently do?”

Dr Menon throws an interesting question of what would happen if we were to get rid of marriage completely. She questioned if people would still be invested in the idea of marriage in a situation where the legal rights tied to it are done away with.

Law on Sabarimala

Sabarimala
Sabarimala.

In 2018, with a 4:1 majority, the Supreme Court of India ruled in the Indian YoungLawyers’ Association V. State of Kerela that women in the age group of 10 to 50 years would no longer be prohibited from entering Ayyappan Temple at Sabrimala. This is the law of the second nature that contains the power to discipline and demand obedience.

This judgment is portrayed in the movie as a breath of fresh air where women can break from cycles of violence and horror that accompanies her menstruating body.

Through her awareness of the Sabarimala judgment, the lead female protagonist turns to question the mundane and everydayness of patriarchy in her own life. The second bookend of the kind of law becomes a safety valve for the wife to make decisions that could be seen as rebellious to the milieu of familial patriarchy and marriage.

The Sabarimala verdict ruled that women of menstruating age can no longer be prohibited from entering Lord Ayyappan’s temple. However, the most baffling thing was that women worshippers of Lord Ayyappan sided with the argument that the Lord would not like it if menstruating women were given entry to the temple. Though the key intervention remains that women can no longer wait.

Gender Roles in Households

Misogyny and patriarchy have been internalised so much that women, in a way, forget their self-respect. They are unable to think for themselves and cannot perceive their value outside of gender roles. Dr Usha Mudiganti, Assistant Professor, School of Letters, Ambedkar University, points out that one automatically connects cookbooks to women.

Society inevitably thinks that all women can and do cook. Women also tend to feel the need to prove that they can cook.

The coupling of one’s gender with one’s ability to do work and the fact that one must perform the kind of work “suitable” to their gender is a deeply problematic idea. If a woman doesn’t know how to cook, she feels the need to justify the same. But if a man doesn’t know how to cook, he wouldn’t be questioned even once. 

The two laws can also be located in the conflict between the social laws and laws of the state. Dr Usha Mudiganti, while recounting her work on Beerngana, gives the example of Rani Lakshmibai. Herein lies a woman who performs the gendered male role to fight the law of the state, the law of accession to fight for her adopted son’s property rights.

She is a woman who has failed in her social role of providing a male heir to the throne and she fights for the right to be the mother of the next king. The unique performance of this act remains that she fights in the battleground wearing feminine garb, which becomes the location of blurring gender boundaries.

Dr Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, IMPRI

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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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