Thursday, November 26, 2015

The open discussion on menstruation is #Happy To Bleed's biggest achievement

Started by a college student, the campaign has chipped away at the structures of patriarchy that remain in place in India.
Photo Credit: Facebook
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We usually do not speak about it in polite company. Yet, not only was the hashtag #HappyToBleed trending a few days ago, but the issue was a discussed during prime time on a mainstream news channel and endorsed by anchor Rajdeep Sardesai.

It is the M word – menstruation.

Menstruation has become a subject of open debate largely thanks to 20-year-old Nikita Azad. Earlier this month. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board that manages the Sabrimala Ayyappa Temple in Kerala, had justified keeping menstruating women out of the shrine. Azad reacted by starting a counter campaign, urging young women to hold placards or sanitary napkins reading "Happy To Bleed". She started a Facebook event for this purpose and a related hashtag on Twitter.

The campaign is novel because we never discuss menstruation so openly. It’s often spoken about in private – between women, between mothers and daughters, between sisters – but never in public.

We grow up not saying “to menstruate” or “I’m menstruating”. Instead, girls will say they have their “chum” (a strange term). At most, they might say “period”. The old-fashioned will say “menses”. In Marathi, you will indirectly say it is that time of the month.

But that time of the month is not a time for celebration. You don’t jump with joy when you start to bleed. Far from it.

Difficult experience

What I’m about to narrate is probably a familiar story. When I began menstruating, I was horrified. I didn’t know what was happening to my body. I was irritated, angry and depressed on being told that this was not a one-off, a medical condition that would be “cured”. It was a permanent condition that would affect me every month, or rather every 28 days.

“Not fair”, I told my father, who had more patience to discuss these matters than my mother, who thought I was an argumentative brat. “I wish I was a boy,” I wailed. “At least then I wouldn’t have to suffer this nonsense for the rest of my life”.

My understanding father countered: “But boys also have problems. They have to shave every single day.”

“Yes, but they can grow a beard to avoid shaving. I have no such option,” I said with a sense of defeat. My father had no comeback and decided to leave the matter there.

So menstruation is not a happy occurrence for girls. It is frustrating, inconvenient and happens far too often. Sometimes there are cramps before it comes. Often there is pain when it comes. And it’s messy.  It hampers your movement, changes your walk, and makes you self-conscious. Don’t tell us that the latest sanitary napkins or tampons have altered this reality. It has only allowed us to manage the situation better

But Nikita Azad and her supporters are absolutely right in asserting that what happens to their bodies is not dirty and impure. It is a fact of life. And they are not apologetic.

There is little comfort in knowing that it is not just Hindu temples, but other religions also place restrictions on menstruating women. Why? And what logic justifies this sustaining tradition? This is what is being asked today.

It’s truly bizarre that the Sabrimala priest should suggest that a machine be invented to check whether a woman is bleeding before she can enter a temple. A man of religious dogma is turning to science to enforce illogical tradition: it must be a first.

Positive movement

#HappyToBleed may disappear after a few weeks, but it’s what the hashtag represents that we need to understand.

Feminists have campaigned through the ages for the rights of women over their bodies. This meant fighting for the right to abortion, the right to use contraceptives, the right to healthcare that extended beyond the reproductive organs, and the right to feel comfortable in our skins. Feminist campaigns have been anchored in the belief that just because men and women are biologically different, women cannot be treated as lesser beings where the difference is used to whip them into submission and into accepting secondary status.

What is notable about many of the recent campaigns by young women is their ability to turn this basic belief into one that projects their own confidence and comfort with who and what they are. In many ways, launching a campaign like #HappyToBleed and posting pictures of themselves holding up sanitary napkins containing the hashtag demonstrates that today’s feminists are as confident and creative as women in the past. They have the added advantage of new technologies and new platforms that allow for different forms of campaigning, which they use to their benefit.

What is also noteworthy is that they see these campaigns not as a gimmick but as a way to challenge what lies beneath – the P word, or Patriarchy. Nikita Azad was at pains to explain that her campaign was not about temple entry for women but "a protest against patriarchy and gender discriminatory practices prevalent in our society".

Every such campaign chips away at the structures of patriarchy that remain in place in India. The structure is in no danger of crumbling just yet. But if enough young women learn to question and challenge regressive attitudes, perhaps there is hope.
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Sunday, November 22, 2015

What do elections mean for women?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 22, 2015

In a post-poll survey, The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) said there was no clear correlation between the women’s vote and the Grand Alliance’s dramatic victory.
They were everywhere. Women in colourful saris, smiling broadly, proudly displaying their voter IDs, standing in line to cast their vote. Once the dust settles on Bihar 2015, these images of Bihari women will linger.

But there are many questions. What was behind those smiles? Were they proud to be voters? Were they pleased that the act of voting made them visible? Had they really decided independently on their choice of candidate? Why do elections appear to mean so much to some women who appear otherwise to be virtually invisible to politicians, media, and society?

Many in the media concluded that the high turnout of women voters contributed to the victory of the Grand Alliance in Bihar. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) was more cautious after its post-poll survey, saying there was no clear correlation between the women’s vote and the Grand Alliance’s dramatic victory. In any case, how can we know for certain how many women voted for which party?

What the CSDS survey did conclude was that it was younger women and poor women who were most enthusiastic about voting. And they voted mostly for the Grand Alliance. More than that, by turning out as they did in large numbers on polling day, they reminded us yet again that despite all its problems, democracy is alive and breathing in this country.

How did this happen, this engagement by women in a process from which they had largely been excluded? Politics in most parts of India had been a male game. Of course, there were women but they found their space by virtue of their association with a powerful man and rarely on their own terms.

The change began with the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992 that devolved power to local governments. It allowed for an increasing number of women to contest for seats in local bodies because one-third was reserved for them. In Bihar, it was Nitish Kumar, now once again the Chief Minister, who set off a trend by increasing reservation for women from one-third to half in 2006.

Even if we presume that half the women who stood for elections and won seats in panchayats and nagar palikas did so as proxies of their husbands, that still leaves a substantial number of women who knew what they were doing. What is also interesting is to see how those who initially accepted being proxies gradually began asserting their own agency. In fact, it was in Bihar that I saw this when I spent time with a woman mukhiya of a panchayat in Nawada district. Unlettered, a widow, and completely new to politics, within one term this woman had grasped the essence of what was expected of her. After her first term, she won again from a general seat.

The sad part of this story is that while women are voting and participating in panchayats and urban local bodies, their numbers are still miserably low in State Assemblies and in Parliament. That is evident in the results of the 2015 Bihar elections. According to data on the Election Commission’s website, only 25 women were elected out of 243 elected representatives. Of these, just under half, or 12 women, are from Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) had only five.

Perhaps one should not read too much into this. It is interesting, however, that while interviews with women during the election campaign suggested that the majority of them rated Nitish Kumar’s rule much higher because he was perceived to have enhanced safety for women, the RJD appears to have done better in choosing women candidates who could win.

Win or lose, the essential point of reservation, or encouraging more women to enter the political fray, is to accept that women have an equal right to participate in governance. If the scales are weighed against women’s participation because society lays down that they remain at home, there has to be active intervention to encourage them. That is why we need reservation. But just greater numbers of women in elected office will have little meaning unless the process of participation accommodates men and women as equal partners.

This is what a photograph of the new Cabinet of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which went viral on social media, demonstrates. It underlines that it is feasible and completely normal to have a Cabinet with an equal number of men and women. When asked by a reporter to explain, Trudeau replied, “Because it is 2015!” Exactly. That is something we need to hear here. Working with women as equals is not a favour that men bestow on women. It is how the world should work. It is how the world can work.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Girls just want some space

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine,November 8, 2015

With her shock of flaming red hair, you cannot miss Mona Eltahawy. This gutsy young Egyptian journalist, author and feminist, was by far the most striking presence at the recent Tata Literature Live in Mumbai. But more than her appearance, it’s what she said that struck a chord.

As a journalist and an activist demanding democracy and freedom, Mona was one of the thousands who flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. But the promise of freedom was never realised. Worse, as Mona said, “During the revolution in Egypt, men and women came and fought together. But once it was over, women went back to being oppressed.”

Mona was one of several women at the receiving end of physical and sexual assault at the hands of the police. But what disappointed her more was the attitude of some of the men who were also part of the uprising. “We had the Mubarak in the Presidential Palace and the Mubarak on the street. But at the end of the day, we were left with the Mubarak in the bedroom.” She called this “the trifecta of misogyny”.

Mona Eltawahy’s realisation that public spaces, including those considered “sacred”, were not safe for women began when at 15 she was groped in Mecca while on the Haj with her family. What began then has now become her passion as she speaks and writes about women’s rights. She has been pilloried, threatened and trolled on Twitter and social media for her views, especially after her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution was published.

Mona’s take on women’s right to the public space is shared by women everywhere, especially in our part of the world. Women access public spaces in groups, or as part of families. But the right to just be; to enjoy a public space without being asked questions or harassed; to walk, to read, to lie on a bench or a beach; to just stare into nothingness; to hang about without any ostensible purpose — something that men do all the time — is denied to the majority of women. Why?

That is the question that some young women in India are beginning to ask. Their numbers are small, a drop in the ocean. But just as it took only three writers — Nayantara Sahgal, Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi — to trigger a virtual deluge of protests against the climate of intolerance, perhaps even these small initiatives will find a wider resonance.

It began in 2011 when Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade published their book Why Loiter? In it they reported on studies on how women use public spaces. They noted, for instance, that most women would feel the need to access a public space only if they had a specific purpose — to go from home to school, or office, or to a shop. Seldom, if ever, did women think they had the right to just be there, to do nothing, to just hang around.

If women through the ages have felt angered at such restrictions, the majority have accepted them and perhaps even bought into the argument that ultimately it is “for their own good”. Young women are lectured about this all the time. Be back at such and such time, “for your own good”. Don’t go out after dark, “for your own good”. Don’t go out alone, “for your own good”.

Why Loiter? seems to have triggered off a form of rebellion among a small number of young, urban women. In Mumbai, some of them do organised “loitering”. They step out in groups after dark, go to places where women are rarely seen, drink chai or eat street food and just enjoy doing what young men do without any hesitation. Their experiences have been fascinating. They are sometimes stopped by the police and asked to go home. They are the objects of hostile stares from men. But these women will not give up.

Interestingly, the Indian campaign has found an echo across the border. So in Karachi and Lahore, #GirlsAtDhabas campaign has groups of young women eating and drinking at roadside dhabas where you see only men. Even more fun is the birth of women’s gully cricket in Karachi, where they play cricket on the street.

The latest is the ‘Pinjra Tod’ campaign in Delhi. Women students have protested against unreasonable hostel rules, where they are expected to return by 7 p.m. and be locked up after that. If in all other respects they are considered adults, why do colleges feel the need to keep their women students literally in a prison, they ask?

These questions are not irrelevant. They have to be addressed by parents, by teachers, by those who plan and run our cities. Many parents might see these campaigns as unreasonable, even dangerous. But in the long run, a society that literally incarcerates women because public spaces are not safe will become one where no one will feel safe.