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Witch-Hunting Then, Slut-Shaming Now: No Country For Bold Women

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One knows of the witch-hunting practices in medieval Europe and the Salem witch trials. But, witch-hunting is a thing of the past, a bad memory that’s locked up in the depths of our history and forgotten.

The 21st century is regarded as the age of women empowerment, independence and equality, right?

As the old adage goes, history repeats itself; and it often goes unnoticed by people living in the present.

Slut-shaming refers to stigmatizing a woman who seems promiscuous or provocative by the larger society. It seems to be a modern-day parallel of witch-hunting.

Most people hunted down during the Salem witch trials were women since witch-hunts were all about oppressing and persecuting the powerless. In 1692, 14 out of the 19 people found guilty of and executed for witchcraft, were women.

Salem Witch Trials

Men rarely faced these trials, but when they did, it was because they either questioned the existence of witches and thus, were accused of heresy and tried for it; or because of their acquaintances with these women. The few Puritan men who were accused of witchcraft were either the husbands or brothers of the alleged female witches.

Society believed that women who have babies, raise children, manage domestic chores and remain subservient to their husbands, were good Christian housewives. Any woman brave enough to venture outside these norms was accused of witchcraft and was usually executed.

Powerful men, magistrates, judges and clergies, enforced these rules in early American society. The story of Eve and her sinful apple, humanity’s first sin, confirmed their beliefs about women being the vessels of the devil.

witch hunt salem trials
Women who were considered to be witches had to stand trial for the same in USA’s Salem, during the late 1600s. Representational Image. Photo credit: Picryl.

In one instance, two Connecticut women accused of witchcraft were described as “confident and determined, ready to express their opinions and stand their ground when crossed.”  This bit proves that women who were ambitious, spirited and “set on their ways” made for the perfect victims of these witch-hunts.

Times have changed, and the idea of witchcraft underwent some patriarchal distortion. Women became the ambassadors of witchcraft. Female tropes or archetypes like the femme fatale, seductress, siren, mistress and vamp, were shown to be independent, strong women. They were demonized in the media and labelled as a social evil, a threat to civil, human society even.

Slut-Shaming Strong Women

The urban society claims to treat women as equals but continues to stigmatize the idea of a liberated woman. Women owning their sexuality is still seen as a moral crime in our society. We often label independent, free-spirited women as sluts. Writers, journalists, activists, politicians, scientists and women in power are labelled as sluts by their contemporaries.

Women are often labelled as “sluts” for merely voicing their opinions. Representational Image.

Slut-shaming goes way deeper than we realize. It makes a woman a social outcast. It increases the threat of sexual violation of women. The so-called “sluts” are fetishized and seen as mere objects of pleasure. While men are applauded for having an active sex life and often praised for being a Casanova, women are shunned and accused of moral degradation by their peers for the same.

The taboo around sexual experiences of women and the idealization of the sexual purity of women arises from an intense desire to control women. This same desire led to witch-hunts in medieval times. Slut-shaming impairs potential opportunities for women and defames them on public platforms. In a nutshell, it murders the very soul of a woman.

So, is it not a modern-day parallel to the bygone practice of witch-hunting? Women are being ostracized and threatened for not accepting the rampant sexism, which is the core of our society.

When Nietzsche said, “When a woman has inclinations, there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs,” and when Saul Bellow said, “Women are rails on which men run,” these men summed up everything that is wrong with our society and the way it views women.

Slut-shaming is, what I would like to call, intellectual witch-hunting, and it is still very much prevalent in our “progressive” urban society.

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.

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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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