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Opinion: “The Lockdown Is An Excuse For Moral Policing Young And Queer People”

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Sigmund Freud: brilliant, flawed, and a misogynist, postulated the theory of ‘projection’– the mental process by which we attribute to others that which is in our own minds. I’ve found it a useful concept, working in mental health, to understand why we sometimes think, feel, and act the way we do. India has, however, in making sense of COVID-19, taken projection to a whole new level. We have projected our fears, anxieties, biases, and prejudices onto a pandemic. I wish it weren’t so.

A potent example is how we’ve used social distancing to justify the ‘namaste‘ and rationalized ingrained discriminatory practices (such as untouchability) as having a basis in hygiene: a hoary, old chestnut if there ever was one. And of course, migrants, Muslims, and the poor were postulated as the problem and source of contamination– they lend themselves so well to being the ‘other’.

Representational Image. Courtesy: The Quint, 26th December, 2017.

It shouldn’t come have come as a surprise that a moral lens was used to examine the social interactions and movements of young adults, particularly those that live, however transiently, outside heteronormative families and marriage.

Students were turned out of hostels at blindingly short notice and asked to go home; never mind that home may be far away, non-existent, or not a safe space for the person concerned.

Restrictions on movement and interaction also meant that people were cut away from their families of choice– the third alternative to families of origin and procreation that Indian sociology is yet to fully embrace. Cafes, theatre, art festivals, libraries, street corners– spaces existing outside of work, academics, and home were cut off too.

This is not a critique of the public health measures that were implemented in response to the pandemic.

That is a topic (or thesis, even) for another day. However, it is important to realize that safe spaces, and particularly queer safe spaces were cut off for many. The axe on socialization fell everywhere, but it fell heaviest on spaces frequented by young people: students, and among them, queer folk. Places where young people could be themselves and meet others- in relative freedom from stigma and judgement- have been taken away.

Print media abounds with advice about the inadvisability of dating and non-committed sexual relationships. Advisories are placed on meeting anyone outside one’s household. The moral overtones of these are that it’s alright to be with your parents, spouse, children, and in-laws, but not anyone outside these circumscribed heteronormative relationships. One would think the infection is sexually transmitted rather than airborne.

Anyone can infect just about anybody else. Husbands can infect wives, and parents can infect children. So why are the curbs then being placed on non-heteronormative relationships alone? Humans may discriminate, but surely the coronavirus sees no difference between straight and queer, cis and trans, monogamous or polyamorous?

However, this isn’t merely abstract theorizing. India has adopted the moral policing overtones of the restrictions with alacrity and used them to deploy casual misogyny and slut-shaming. Young, unmarried people in any residential are viewed with suspicion and the neighbourhood laps up the opportunity to keep an eye on who’s coming in and who’s leaving our houses– our supposed personal and private spaces.

Gatekeepers of the community knock on our doors at periodic intervals to inform us that parties or using substances or dating are forbidden. Never mind that young adults and queer folk are just as likely, if not more, to comply with healthcare regulations than the community at large. The support here is often far, few, and fleeting, and one must be one’s own caregiver.

Many people have been struggling with mental health problems during the Covid lockdowns (Picture: John Devlin)
Students were turned out of hostels at blindingly short notice and asked to go home; never mind that home may be far away, non-existent, or not a safe space for the person concerned. Representational Image. Courtesy: John Devlin.

The coded messages that are being delivered now are eerily similar to those delivered before the pandemic. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t party, don’t go out late at night, don’t date, don’t come out of the closet, don’t have sex before marriage, and so on. Disease control, therefore, seems to depend on doing what our ancestors preached all along– adopting Indian, heteronormative, Hindu, upper-caste sanskaar. And the good Lord knows, society abounds in kangaroo courts and keepers of the law.

The voyeuristic interest in the lives of young folk, and speculation on their sexuality and possible queerness isn’t new. Society has always been interested in what transpires in our boudoirs. These are the same coded messages that have been delivered to most of us, all our lives. Confirm, don’t question, don’t deviate from the norms. It’s just that COVID-19 has provided them with a convenient excuse to regulate identity and sexuality. And in doing so, India has quite successfully projected its cultural neuroses onto the pandemic. The infection sweeping the world has proven that the traditionalists and conformists were right all along.

I’ve had two female friends being shamed for having a handful of people over for birthday dinners this past year after regulations were eased between the first and second waves. Never mind that the guests were from the same residential community or that they wore masks and did not cause exposure to the neighbours. Never mind that this isn’t any different from married couples who have had relatives come over for their housewarming in similar conditions and precautions taken.

What I suspect drove public outrage was the fact that these were women, living alone, who decided to have other men and women over to share a meal with on their birthday. Speculation ran strife about the kind of immoral going on that may have perpetuated and at the possible debaucheries. It was a meal. The problem wasn’t the pandemic, then. It was the possible inability to regulate their sociality and sexuality. The slut-shaming epithets that they had to face would, I suspect, not have been delivered to men in their place.

Of course, pandemic morality isn’t new. We’ve seen this kind of moral policing, slut-shaming, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia during the Syphilis and AIDS pandemic as well. Those, at least, are sexually transmitted diseases. What’s our excuse this time around? All humans breathe. Even queer humans.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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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.

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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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