Gender. Sexuality. Masculinity. Patriarchy. Love. Sex. Desire. Fantasies. LGBTQIA. Youth. Policy. Marriage. Technology. Collectives. And the list goes on.
That was an extremely overwhelming and exciting week of my life, 15 to 21st April, 2019; the week I coordinated the Yuva, Yaunikta aur Adhikar course. I had never attended any such residential course in my limited work experience of one year, leave alone coordinate one. So you can only imagine the myriad of emotions running through my mind the entire time! One the one hand, I was extremely excited while on the other, I was feverishly hoping that nothing would go wrong.
15th April evening, the participants trickled in one by one into the hall for an introductory session, their experiences as vibrant as the spring blossoms outside the hall. Hailing from twelve different states, the participants worked on various issues that included curriculum development, grassroots community work, early marriage, sexual and reproductive health rights, mental health and issues related to transgender communities.
The use of photos for introduction gave us an initial insight into each of their lives, a little beyond the usual and mundane introduction of citing names and the organizations that they are from. While one narrated a story of how she fought and smiled through different ups and downs of her life, including standing up against her own early marriage; another narrated the experience of breaking all gender stereotypes in spite of constant mockery and taunt by those around them. Everyone had a story to tell. And more than that, they were so brave to tell their stories to a bunch of strangers that they had just met. Now that I think it, I guess it was in fact easier because we were all a bunch of strangers. It is interesting how sharing stories and emotions with strangers can be such a catharsis sometimes. You feel a real connection at that moment with the people around. It may last, it may not. However, in that moment, it’s all that matters- creation of a safe space.
The next few days were packed with sessions, readings, activities and energizers. Basic concepts on gender and sexuality were covered, with emphasis on intersectionality of gender, sexuality, patriarchy, masculinity, and so on. Because it was a first experience for me as well, I got to learn so much. It even triggered many moments of reflection on so many aspects on my life.
Growing up, I was always this tall and lanky kid with short hair, often bullied and ridiculed by being called names. I enjoyed sports and crafts, baggy t-shirts and dresses, all at the same time and never really identified any of it either as a boy or girl thing. I grew up feeling isolated and like I did not belong anywhere. While filling out the examination form, I always made sure no one saw me tick next to the OBC category. I had been conditioned to feel ashamed about it. Over time, I slowly understood about social norms, gender expressions and the expected markers to fit into a certain gender or any other category. Society conditions you in such a way to fit into set markers since the day you were born that even a slight deviation from it made you feel out of place. The names never really bothered me. These expectations bothered me. For a child who is not familiar yet with concepts of patriarchy, gender, sexuality and binaries, it is confusing. It can even be devastating. Because there are no conversations around these issues, so many people have it worse. And that is not fair.
I think one of the main objectives of this course itself is to make as many people possible, aware of these things; to approach different aspects of life with a lens of gender and sexuality; and to look at people beyond certain categories and in a non-judgmental manner. There were questions raised after the sessions on gender that since we have now understood gender and gendered roles, are we supposed to go fight with everyone for whatever they say? I may be completely wrong but from what I have understood so far, I think it is important to understand that learning about concepts of gender, sexuality and gendered roles does not necessarily mean we fight and strain our relations with everyone, or overthrow everything we have right now overnight. Instead, it also means that we should be constantly aware of the social structures we are embedded in, and be empowered enough to find spaces for contestations and negotiations. Every small amount of change is some amount of change. More importantly, and especially after listening to several experiences and narratives of the participants, I felt that we should become more conscious of the language and words we use; making sure it is not exclusionary, full of judgment or stereotyping someone.
These conversations always carried on beyond the planned sessions. Since it was a residential course and all the participants were staying at the venue, there was a lot of interaction in the evenings, even carrying on till the wee hours – games, dancing and singing, activities, discussions, and sharing of various experiences from the field. I believe this peer learning supported in further building a space for many to share their personal experiences, so much as to comfortably share with each other one’s wildest dreams and sexual fantasies during a session on love, sex and desire.
This edition of the course also focused a lot on young people and their rights. Reviewing different policies that were related to young people, we see the construction of the idea of an ideal youth. No lens of gender or sexuality. No desires. No messiness. No differentiation among the needs of young people coming from different classes, castes, religion, gender or sexual identities and so on. Who will look out for these youth? As activists, we work on a daily basis with young people and rarely do we go through policies that are related to them. This particular session was designed keeping these issues in mind.
The sessions on technology and pornography were well received by the participants, as it helped in broadening the understanding on their linkages with patriarchy, masculinity, markets and capitalism. Consent was also discussed in great details, and beyond the binaries of just yes and no. I think it is important to understand the messiness that comes along with consent, like the other kinds of messiness in our day to day lives, and acknowledging the need to have a conversation about that is so important.
The participants provided a sense of support to one another as non-judgmental listeners while personal stories and experiences were being shared. Acknowledging that importance and the need for it in everyone’s lives, the last session planned was on collectivization and the need for support groups at the grassroots level. While it was important for conceptual understanding of theories on gender, patriarchy, masculinity and so on, how this understanding is carried forward to the field is of utmost importance. Standing up against a set norm or issue can be difficult and isolating for many and this is where support groups come to aid. As we listened to one another, discussed and debated over the last few days of the course; it is important to have that support at the grassroots too- a support group- a safe space for anyone who needs it.
Thereafter, parting ways was emotional. We had all known each other only for 6 days. Yet, with all the vulnerable moments and rich experiences that were shared with one another, there was a sense of belongingness. It felt as if there was never a time when one of us did not know the other. I guess that is one of the many beauties of these residential courses.