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Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Made Me Question The Way We Express Dissent

More from Kunal Gupta

Any form of resistance on our educational campuses represents a voice against authority.

Without inspiring dissenting voices, our education will become indoctrination. When we resist, we aim to take control of our place in society. At the same time, expressions of dissent on our campuses have become stale, repetitive, and regularly invoke old slogans, as if to say that particular forms of resistance always persist. This turns our expressions of dissent into clichéd headlines that become spectacles for people who do not understand the need for our cause.

Representational image. Activists of NSUI protest shouting slogans against Centre Government and UP Government against the brutal lathicharge in BHU campus and the dictatorship of BHU administration at HRD Ministry Shastri Bhawan on September 25, 2017, in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images).

Borrowing ways of expressing ourselves from earlier instances of dissent isn’t harmful in itself, but when we borrow from earlier instances, we also repeat the mistakes they made. No form of dissent is perfect. We should not shy away from critically thinking about how we are supposed to be protesting just because engaging in dissent gives us a way of feeling empowered.

Repeating phrases from the past has one very important and effective result: it makes us think about the failures of our system. Most of our protest slogans echo demands and opinions that are meant to call for action, for example, “Down With The Patriarchy!”, “Refugees Are Humans Too”, “Menstruation Is Not A Sin”, and many others like these. At the same time, they also carry the potential to help us reflect on what still needs to be done on our part to push for better reforms and changes.

Invoking ideals is never enough. They may help educate people who witness our protests, but we also need to think about how to move beyond educating people so that we don’t create bottlenecks in the progress of our own causes.

This is why we should be wary of normalizing our expression of dissent. 

Chanting powerful phrases and relying on provoking rallying calls gives us a sense of solidarity and evokes empathy among the dissenting voices, but just this by itself is not the end that we seek. Dissent is not just a space for empathy and solidarity, but also for potential social and political upheaval. If we normalize protests, we undermine that potential.

Representational image. Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

From The Lens Of Queer Identity: Does Acceptance Imply Understanding?

One of the examples of such normalization is the LGBTQIA+ presence on our campuses.

The efforts at resistance and expression of queer identity have led to a greater acceptance of queer identity, but not to a healthier recognition of queerness and the spaces that queerness exists in.

What forms of queerness have people learned to accept, and what kind of interaction do people think is justified with queer people? Acceptance doesn’t necessarily imply understanding. The fact that queerness on our campuses has become a contestable space for people who have no experience with queerness attests to that.

An openly gay/lesbian person may also be trans, but issues like this often corner that person’s queerness, because their queer identity does not fit into those forms that have become openly acceptable.

Any conversation about queer identity will always invoke the concepts of binary thought, patriarchy, sexualities, and feminism all at the same time. These conversations always remind us of why it is necessary to allow queerness to exist and breathe. There is a need for accepting queerness, but underneath that need is the fact that there are instances of experience that need to be heard, seen, understood, and given the place that they deserve in the larger society.

Unfortunately, our definition of queerness has come to focus solely on gender and sexuality. The stakes of talking about queerness, therefore, remain limited to the liberation of non-binary gender identities and sexualities that are easier to understand and recognize.

But are we thinking about forms of oppression and violence that happen elsewhere within the struggle for LGBTQIA+ liberation?

Systemic forms of oppression like patriarchy and hetero-normative gender constructs are similar to other forms of oppression like caste, colour, and exclusion based on religion and nationality. These categories create queer identities that are difficult to recognise because of the many different social forces that shape them.

Moreover, greater acceptance of queerness does not mean greater acceptance of lower-caste queer identities, or of inter-caste and inter-religion queer relationships.

If we take our forms of protest for granted, we run the risk of neglecting those who also hold a stake in the cause that we are fighting for, because we may not recognize the form of their struggle.

Queerness is not just about gender and sexuality. It is now seen as a symbol of resistance and dissent in the face of systemic oppression, which it always has been.

Are we thinking about forms of oppression and violence that happen elsewhere within the struggle for LGBTQIA+ liberation? Representational image.

Understanding Dissent

Expressions of resistance themselves do not empower us. They simply express an act of opposition, without allowing for much nuance in expression, and nuance is needed today. This need has been demonstrated by the LGBTQIA+ struggles regularly. We need to make our expressions of resistance more nuanced, and therefore open to the use and benefit of all intersections of the queer community.

Nuance in resistance is necessary now more than ever because of the significant decline in the tangibility/physicality of protests. We have come to believe that being able to express our dissatisfaction and to show our anger at the injustices that we suffer will give us the results that we want. But this is a deeply flawed, incomplete, and ignorant approach to dissent. The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected our ability to mobilize freely and express dissent.

We can normalize the current situation as much as we want to for the sake of our sanity, but the truth is that this pandemic has raised the stakes of protests today more than ever. We are more aware of the reality of our bodies and the need to keep them safe.

With this awareness also comes a growing desire to be visible, to be allowed to claim those resources and spaces that make us feel safe and assist in our overall liberation. People with relative privilege, who can claim visibility even in these abnormal times, cannot expect others to be able to do the same. Expecting everyone to be able to empower themselves, in the same way, is highly unethical.

The whole point of dissent is the empowerment of those who are disabled by authority in terms of their right to expression, visibility, and safe existence in society. These people are not just those who can speak up, but also those who cannot.

Is The Threat to Our Bodies Inescapable?

Physicality goes hand in hand with visibility. The more visible you are, the more physical and tangible your existence feels as an individual. But physicality can become a crushing burden when you cannot express yourself, the reasons for your struggle, and the nature of the spaces and resources that you need. This comes back around to the need of having nuance in our modes of dissent and resistance.

Our protests may be helping us say what we need to be saying, but other people with stakes in those protests may not feel seen and taken into account. Complex identities do not always get the attention that they need and deserve, which leads to their isolation from a cause that affects their existence. The state in which our bodies exist has therefore become a marker of the cause and the state of the cause that we stand up for. A body that is visible but isolated reflects a cause that does not engage with society ethically, and this is the state of almost all of our causes today.

Students protesting against AUD Administration
This pandemic has raised the stakes of protests today more than ever. Representational image/ Protest held on 7th September outside Ambedkar University.

It is imperative to allow for differences within the collective expression of dissent.

Going back to the example of queer identity, the struggle against patriarchy is not just a struggle against patriarchy. It is a struggle against orthodoxy, against misogyny, against heterosexism, against sexism based on colour, against the phobia of trans- and homo-sexualities. Each of these problems exists on our educational campuses today, not only in the context of the LGBTQIA+ identities, but each of them by themselves too, and they affect each other.

If we engage with any one of these issues, we must keep in mind that there are other people with stakes in that issue, and that should make us think of how we can effectively benefit everyone, thereby ethically benefiting all the causes related to ours.

Doing this, though, has become increasingly difficult.

Our campuses are being increasingly immunized towards dissent and forces of resistance. From campus politics between parties like ABVP and AISA to student protests against campus issues and bigger social issues, there has been an increasing sense of being watched and regulated. Not just that, but students are sent to prison and suspended from their colleges for engaging in expressions of dissent.

One almost feels like protests have been tamed and turned into performances that are not supposed to question and critique.

People who are ostracized for their identity and beliefs on a regular basis do not deserve to suffer in prisons for being who they are.

Our modes of resistance are not supposed to be dictated by forces of oppression. Under these circumstances, how can we allow forms of discrimination and ignorance to affect matters of justice and reform?

Protesting For the Future, But In the Present

The coronavirus pandemic has clearly raised the stakes of dissent. Now, when there is almost no physicality in our protests, the desire and the need to be visible is greater than ever. Multiple forms of dissent will always exist, even against one form of oppression, and the struggle against patriarchy is just one example of the complexity that we need to understand and be sensitive towards.

This pandemic will not remain forever. It will give way to easier times. But we should not let that blind us to the fact that the way we protest reflects the state and validity of our cause. We cannot go on with older methods and expressions of dissent. In a world where the very existence of our bodies is under threat, physical, tangible modes of protest take for granted things and factors that we don’t completely know and which we have no control over.

As powerless as everyone is today, for most of us, it is only a matter of time. For most people, powerlessness is a fact of life.

This is why we need to rethink our approach to dissent: to make space for difference in solidarity, a space that has not existed on our campuses for too long. And to be able to do that, we need to fight, today, against the immunization of our campuses. The fight for change begins with the fight for the present.

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 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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