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Interview – Jasmine George

Picture of activist Jasmine George

Jasmine George is a TEDx speaker, lawyer, and a sexual and reproductive health advocate from India. She is the founder of Hidden Pockets and currently curates conversations around sexuality and other fields. She is passionate about using alternative means in law and technology to explore sexuality. She has been working with diverse minority groups and has been working on changing the narrative around pleasure, access and technology. As Jasmine says, “Even in the planning process we have been saying that we have to keep access as the main focus, and figure out how we can ensure that when we are talking about access, it is about access for all, for everybody, for any kind of body, for any kind of person, for a person coming from any kind of financial background, or age or identity group. What happens, and this we know from sheer experience, is that despite having different kinds of hospitals, say in the public health sector, or having one-stop crisis centres only for women, these are not yielding desired outcomes. It is basically because how people’s lived realities affect their access to services or rights is not considered.”

Thank you for this interview Jasmine, and for your time, energy and insights.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Jasmine, the project Hidden Pockets, maps a city on factors that include different kinds of urban infrastructure with a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health, and identifies what is referred to as pleasure pockets.  What are pleasure pockets and why is it important to focus on them?

 Jasmine George (JG): Pleasure Pockets was started in response to the Nirbhaya incident. What we noticed was that after the incident, there was a lot of focus on CCTVs and safety. We at Hidden Pockets don’t agree with employing that lens for looking at cities. We’ve always thought about a lens that needs to be access focused, and then we thought, why not push it further and look at the city from a pleasure perspective.  So that is how we took up this angle of pleasure pockets, and we started asking people: ‘What are the pleasure pockets in your city?’ ‘Which are the places in your cities that you like to go to?’ We are going to do a campaign around this next week. The term itself, pleasure pockets, is a little complicated, and most of us are still not used to using the word pleasure, we still don’t have a definition for the word pleasure. There are still very different, intriguing answers because everybody defines pleasure in their own way.

Over time, we’ve taken the concept of pleasure pockets from the city to the body also. We ask: ‘Which are the pleasure pockets in your body?’ We’re basically taking the idea of pleasure, and using the idea of pockets, as different parts (of a whole), and you can apply this to any space and any dimension. When we started, we had a campaign around single women and pleasure pockets in Delhi, you can see it online, and we were mapping it, to see visually what it looks like in a city, and we saw that everybody gave us South Delhi, and only malls. This was in the initial days, when we started the campaign. So we realised that there is this stereotype around pleasure, around single women. We started pushing it further, and began doing walks in the eastern part of Delhi, or in locations like Mehrauli, or Chandni Chowk in North Delhi. We did public night walks, where we organised walks with groups of women. This was a way to deconstruct, to disrupt, to ask questions and get people to think about pleasure.

In general, when we ask about pleasure from a city perspective, it’s always about safety, and when we ask from a body perspective, it’s always sexual. After we have some more conversations or push a little bit more, then some people say they ‘like walking, but not in India’, or ‘I do like reading’. We have to push for these answers, they don’t come naturally. Reading and walking may not be the first responses you’d get. I think this is because of the way, or context, in which pleasure has been used in the media, or generally, in conversation. 

SA: A WhatsApp number is provided by Hidden Pockets where people may message for information and sexual and reproductive health issues. Have people been writing in to this service? What is your observation of the responses coming in to this number? What are rights issues you see emerging or reflected in these responses?   

JG: We have a huge response to this number and we easily get between two to three hundred messages a month, from across 25 cities in the country. Right now, the languages are Hindi, English and Malayalam. We started with providing services about location of sexual and reproductive health clinics, but now we have expanded to include legal, medical and psychological counselling on sexual and reproductive health. The WhatsApp number works as a referral helpline. Amongst service users we have observed that there is a big chunk of single women asking for abortion services, and a lot of them have no idea about MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy), not just those from the smaller cities, but those from the big cities also. Knowledge of laws is pretty minimal. The thing we realise is, there is a lot of conversation around the right to have sex, but what to do after sex or during sex, this knowledge is not there. So also, there is very little conversation about contraceptives, and we do a lot of talking around use of contraceptives and the best methods of contraception. With abortion, we do a lot of counselling around it, because that’s something that is rarely done.

We also have a lot of men asking for counselling, saying ‘this is what my partner is going through and how can I help her’, so definitely we see a lot of men who are concerned about the reproductive health care of their partner. They don’t know how to go about this, they Google and they find a number and they start talking, so then it’s a longer conversation. We do feel that these are good spaces for intervention, these are good spaces for having deeper conversations, because it’s not as if we’re just providing services and we’re leaving, we do care about them. In a way, we become their friends, because they come to us in a crisis and some of them take time and keep chatting for six to seven days. It’s a chat service so they feel extremely comfortable talking to a stranger, and then we connect them to a health provider in their city.  

In general, that’s how things have been. I feel that definitely, with regard to young people, there’s a need for dissemination of not just information, but also what to do with the information, because I feel that there is a lot of rights language that is being used, but how to go about accessing those rights, I really don’t see it happening. That is why they keep coming back to us on the helpline, because it feels like a very lonely process and one feels very scared. Nothing around has really changed, and young people, they feel a bit helpless, so I feel our helpline really works well for dealing with that. When I say young people, I mean as young as 29 years old, and even they are clueless about laws! You will be surprised by how a person from Delhi, who may be 29 years old, single, might have no clue about sex, sexuality, and reproductive health, and might be easily grossly overcharged by a gynaecologist in a private clinic who tells them that ‘an MTP is illegal’, and things like that.

SA: Issues of safety, sexuality and inclusion are human rights issues that impact diverse populations with varying needs and circumstances, across thematic areas such as disability, caste, class, aging, and childhood and youth, amongst others. What would you identify as key to a planning process that takes a rights based approach to constructing safe, inclusive and sexuality affirming spaces across such thematic areas and populations?  

JG: At Hidden Pockets, what we have been trying to do is to adopt an access perspective, and that we have learnt from the disability sector. Our main focus is always access, so for example, if a young person is going to access the service, what are some of the needs of that young person that require to be fulfilled? If a person in a wheelchair is going to access a service, then what are some of the needs that have to be fulfilled? We have the services, we have the laws in place, we have the good intentions, but it’s just that most of us have not been able to access rights and services, so ours is a clear justice angle. At Hidden Pockets we work in a sexuality and justice framework, where we believe that if infrastructure is not ready, if we don’t have public health policies, we do not have enough financial backing, there’s no point in talking about rights alone. Even if we have a rights language, we won’t be able to implement or access our rights. So from a justice framework, access becomes the point for us. Even in the planning process we have been saying that we have to keep access as the main focus, and figure out how we can ensure that when we are talking about access, it is about access for all, for everybody, for any kind of body, for any kind of person, for a person coming from any kind of financial background, or age or identity group. What happens, and this we know from sheer experience, is that despite having different kinds of hospitals say in the public health sector, or having one-stop crisis centres only for women, these are not yielding desired outcomes. It is basically because how people’s lived realities affect their access to services or rights is not considered. You don’t reflect on: How does an adolescent engage with an adolescent friendly health clinic? Or, how does a rape survivor engage with a one-stop crisis centre? Or, how does a single woman engage with a public health centre for accessing abortion services? So definitely access is something we have been working on, and the building of a justice framework where it’s not just about getting the service, but something more than that, your wellbeing, your care. How can the human being as a whole feel a sense of wellbeing after getting the service and after ensuring that her health is okay?

SA: Wellbeing, that is a crucial point to reflect on, thanks Jasmine. On another note, please share your experiences, or some examples, of the re-structuring of urban spaces in India to support acceptance of diversity and counter exclusionary and discriminatory practices. 

JG: This is a huge question! Let’s take the night walks; it wasn’t planned as something to address this inclusion issue to be very honest, it was to reclaim spaces. It was a simple idea, reclaim spaces and reclaim the time. Why can’t people go walk at night? We started doing ‘Reclaim the Night’ walks, we still do night walks in Bangalore, we used to do it in Delhi, we used to do it in parts of the city where people don’t like walking, we have done this in different cities, Jaipur, Ahmedabad. The idea is that streets across different cities can be made pleasurable, if only we ensure that there is access for everybody, people from different classes, castes, different kinds of bodies; that’s the only way of going about making spaces more accessible. At Hidden Pockets, till date, we look for public health centres. Why? Because we feel that the government is responsible for providing services, and for us to even hold our government accountable, we have to keep engaging with it. For this, changing even the way we look at public health systems, changing the way the middle class, or educated people engage with the public health system, hold it accountable, still keep pushing for more public health … this is important. We have audited public health centres in 12 cities across the country where we have shown proof that there are good places, that there are affordable places, we don’t have to spend so much money just to get an abortion which is our right, which is our health care issue.

With regard to urban spaces, we are also pushing the way we look at development not just from the perspective of ‘we just need malls’, but of asking for better health systems, better roads, spaces that anyone who wants to access – women, people using wheelchairs, using sign language – can access, including access to information. Access for all of us. Even when we say spaces, its not just physical spaces, but also, since we work in the online and offline spaces, both, so physical and digital spaces. Here WhatsApp becomes a personal number, becomes a personal space. People feel safe on WhatsApp, they do not prefer meeting, because that is how confidentiality works for them.

It has been interesting. When you provide diverse options, you make things more inclusive, and you ensure that there are less discriminatory practices. I always feel that it’s a lot of learning along the way, it’s a question of methodology and process. We’re also unlearning, looking for alternatives, and that’s something that at Hidden Pockets we’re always trying to figure out. 

Even with something like CSE, Comprehensive Sexuality Education, we work through audio podcasts, because most members of the communities that we work with are illiterate, but they have a good sense of language. We don’t do text, we do radio, and in regional languages. That’s something we’ve been trying to do, when thinking of how to speak in a language that people are comfortable with and which they will speak, instead of us going in with a language that we are comfortable with! So that’s how we work with visually impaired girls who prefer audio, and who enjoy audio, and we bring in a lighter element, we bring in fun. When we started Hidden Pockets, that was the idea, that sexuality has to be fun, sex has to be fun, it has to be light. I understand the politics, but politics can also be fun. When young people come to us, they come in the middle of a crisis, and we are able to provide them with care, we are able to speak the language of wellbeing. The lightness is something that helps them crack jokes with us, helps them to return to us, helps them create that bond of friendship. These are some of the different methods that we have tried to incorporate which have helped to create a space that is a little lighter in the current scenario.

SA: Fun is a wonderful element to bring into this discussion. So, as a last question, in a 2016 article for In Plainspeak, you directed attention to humour and rights, saying ” We fought for our right to humour, we couched it in freedom of expression, and it became a matter of rights for a citizen. The right to satire; the right to criticise; the right to mock a system.” Do you think humour survives, as an expression of resistance or a commentary on contemporary human rights issues? How important is it to maintain humour in the toolkit of a rights activist today? What can it do for the activist, and for the field of gender, sexuality, and reproductive health?

JG: Shikha, I appreciate this question, I really like it, it is a lovely question! I genuinely believe humour is the only way to go about handling life in the current setup that we live in; humour which is subversive, which is satire, which is sarcastic. This has been done across generations, across time. Humour has always survived. Humour has been the lifeline for a lot of writers. In the piece for TARSHI, I had in the back of my mind, Milan Kundera’s book, ‘The Joke’, about the political resistance in the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, and how satire was the only thing that writers worked on, it was the only way that they could survive.

This is something I’ve also learnt from the sex-workers’ community, from the community of trans persons, from the LGBTQIA community, people we’ve worked with, friends from the community.

It’s about the sense of lightness, the laughter, that in spite of everything that is going on, we still have our selves, and we can crack jokes and life can be a celebration. As a political tool, humour helps you push your own boundaries. I’m a lover of literature and I believe in looking at literature for alternatives or for imagination, where something more can be provided. Comedy as a literary tool always provides us with an imaginative space from where we can speak in a language that is transgressive. I mean, look at the whole idea of flirting, of seduction, it all has the elements of humour.

There is something I’ve learnt from our clients on that WhatsApp number, that they are way ahead of us, they know the language, they know their rights, they want more! And they’ll keep pushing us for more. So there’ll be times when you may feel burnt out or tired, and those are the times when you have beauty, love, you have humour, to keep you going. You need it. It’s not easy. Yes, I think humour is a good tool to have. 

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Cover Image: Jasmine George

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