Gender Equality

Q&A with René Sharanya Verma, rising star and feminist thought leader from Delhi

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René Sharanya Verma has a powerful voice. She’s using entertainment and YouTube to break down age-old taboos. Earlier this year, her open letter rap to Honey Singh at the Delhi Poetry Slam went viral and already has over one million views. Clue reached out to learn more about her thoughts on misogyny, menstruation and what she’ll do next…

When did you first get frustrated by the misogynist “norms” of your environment? Was there a pivotal moment you can recall or was it a gradual realization as you grew up? From womb to tomb, the ‘feminine’ body is subjected to policing, surveillance and censure—possibly out of the attendant anxieties that subversion of the normative presents. There are gross transgressions of inviolable human rights: sex-selective infanticide and foeticide, violence against persons identified as queer and trans, dowry death, sexual abuse, domestic violence that are underreported and wished away as remote and distant to the ‘urbane’. But patriarchy operates in covert and overt ways. It is reified, recast and enabled through human and institutional interactions. It is more difficult to wish away micro-aggressions that we encounter everyday, be it body-shaming, questioning a woman’s sexual proclivities, queer-phobic and transphobic slurs on Facebook posts and Reddit threads.

I’ve grown up seeing misogyny and cisnormative ideals flung at me from billboards, in movies, on the streets, in places of learning, in trial rooms of clothing, even within my friend circle(s). Most of my school life, I was simmering and seething, not knowing what to call my political stance or not having access to texts and media that could provide deeper clarity. It was only when I entered college as a history student and as a member of the gender studies cell, that I realized how history is more than a practice of documentation. It is also a process of systematic omission. It is only when I took cognizance of absences, of reading stories from the margins - in terms of sexuality, caste, class, gender and race - that I realized my own privilege, complicities and the possibilities and challenges that my intersectional identity presents. Identifying as feminist was liberating for me, and was just the beginning of an engagement with issues that irked and distressed me. “Identifying as feminist was liberating for me, and was just the beginning of an engagement with issues that irked and distressed me.”

How was your first period? What advice would you give to young girls approaching menarche? I got my first period when I changed schools, which was as much tumult as I could handle back in the day. I expected it to be grand, to celebrate my rite of passage, but it was remarkably discrete. I remember being greeted by a brown, lowly stain, unlike the glorious red I was tutored it would be, and when my mum asked what was taking me so long, I exclaimed that it was the ‘birds’. Soon, ‘birds’ was code for menstruation around my house. Luckily, my mum is a gynaecologist, and she provided a succinct explanation of what was going on. I got over the euphemism and shame bit rather quickly. Also, as someone who’s had irregular menstrual cycles (always the rebel) on account of PCOD, I had to grapple with issues of self-esteem, stress and accepting my body the way it is. My advice to young girls would be that contrary to the curious looks in the classroom or the disgust and apologia that periods are associated with, it is the process of becoming. It is absurd that we spend so much time denying the existence of a phenomenon that made our existence possible. And in this silencing of biology, silencing what our bodies do and can do, we are constantly trying to wash away the iron and shame and ourselves. My advice to anyone out there fretting over their period is that you are beautiful and you are enough, and in the words of e.e. cummings, “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” “My advice to anyone out there fretting over their period is that you are beautiful and you are enough, and in the words of e.e. cummings, ‘it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.’”

How can we change the way people look at the menstrual cycle? By talking about it. By making periods inescapable. By destigmatizing the woman’s body. History has had a curious relationship with menstruation. There are communities I’ve read of that celebrate menstruation as a sign of a woman’s vitality, while others suggest exclusionary practices during the menstrual period. This flux between repulsion and curiosity stems from the need to rationalize biology, to further control. There have been some great movements across the world, be it the Pads Against Sexism movement, spearheaded by Elone Kastratia, or slam poems. We had similar movements in Indian cities like Kolkata, and closer home, the movement by impeccable and inspiring students at Jamia Milia, which was met with harsh opprobrium from the campus authorities. We also had an inspiring protest movement in Delhi University called ‘Come and See the Blood on My Skirt’, which not just touched upon ensuring universal healthcare for women, but also sought to bring in issues of queer rights, gender-expansive notions of womanhood, and social justice. This change must be supplemented from within. Sanitary pad companies are now more attentive to the social realities they operate within. Working with Sofy on the #imnotdown campaign, I realized that there is a long way to go, but it is important to initiate conversations that are no longer shrouded in euphemism or ignominy. There are brands like Saathi in India that are providing low-cost, locally manufactured pads to women in rural areas. Ultimately however, it boils down to the individual. I’m tired of feeling like an international criminal every time I go to a pharmacy, and to ask my friends for a spare pad in hushed voices in college corridors. I’m appalled by periods being a prohibitive, impure phenomenon, one where a woman is not allowed to enter the kitchen, or places of worship. I’m distressed by news pieces where young girls cannot go to schools for five days because schools do not have functional restrooms. Many of my friends feel the same way, and I’m glad to add my voice to a large conversation of claiming the right to be. What kind of reactions have you gotten from your videos? To my utter (and admittedly pleasant) surprise, I’ve got overwhelmingly positive feedback for my work. I’ve received so much love and support from people across the world, teachers, students, peers, my family, and even luminaries in the field of entertainment and feminist activism. It’s been delightful and humbling. There have been some terribly inarticulate and tangential negative comments, most of which are misogynistic, body-shaming abuse, which in my opinion, just reaffirm the message I’ve tried to convey through both pieces. I’m glad that there have been so many people who’ve found that my words resonate with them, and who’ve defended what I believe in. A lot of people have hailed me as brave and courageous, which is an honour. It’s also made me think. We live in a world where a woman walking out alone after dark is an act of protest, where voicing an opinion is an act of courage, and where defying clothing restrictions is a revolution. But from the heartening response that I have received, and the increased sensitivity to issues of gender and sexuality from all quarters, I think we’re more prepared to dialogue and deliberate. We might have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. “We live in a world where a woman walking out alone after dark is an act of protest, where voicing an opinion is an act of courage, and where defying clothing restrictions is a revolution.”

At Clue, inclusivity is one of our company values. What do you think the world will be like in 5-10 years for LGBTQIA+ people? I believe it is crucial to not essentialize the LGBTQIAP+ as a homogenized unit. We need to account for a diversity of aspirations, political objectives, and civil rights, without denying a shared history of oppression and alienation. I think there is increased engagement with queer politics, transgender rights, in legislature, different media, academia etc. We must remember however, that there are people battling very real problems in different corners of the world, who belong to different castes, classes, races, speak different languages and practice different faiths. These identity effects must find mention in promoting intersectionality and a more inclusive and egalitarian space for dialogue. There are some amazing role models for queer and gender nonconforming individuals to look up to. As the head of the Gender Studies Cell in my college, I consider myself lucky to have interacted with such activists, speakers, students and scholars who are passionate advocates of queer rights, feminism, poverty eradication etc., and who are tirelessly working to create queer-friendly spaces and hate-free zones. I too, hope to have a part in creating a world where love does not breed fear, where bodies are no longer brutalized, policed and fit into rigid, mutually reinforcing gender binaries and where we are truly free to find ourselves. Did you ever imagine your voice would transcend the Delhi Poetry Slam? What will you do next? I had chanced upon the Delhi Poetry Slam event by sheer accident, and boy, was it a happy one. I never envisaged the proportions that my piece would assume, and that I would get a platform to share my opinions on issues that I feel deeply about. I’m incredibly blessed to receive very supportive and well-informed audiences for my work. Ever since, I have worked with NGOs like Jagori on a piece called ‘I’m Out Tonight’ which I performed on Women’s Day, created a rap with news channel NDTV to celebrate the freedom to love, and written a spoken word piece engaging with masculinities at a college conference. I’ve also been working on undergraduate papers, most recently, feminist readings of Disney films like Pocahontas and Frozen. In the near future, I plan to work towards a double major in Film Aesthetics and Gender Studies. Ultimately, I aspire to work on feminist film theory as well as create screenplays, fiction and documentary films.

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