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Interview – Manak Matiyani

Manak Matiyani, feminist and queer activist, experienced in facilitating youth leadership for social change, is the Executive Director of the YP Foundation. His work focuses on sexuality rights, gender justice, violence prevention, and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights awareness. Manak has worked with diverse civil society organisations, grassroots groups, educational institutions, volunteer collectives and youth-led groups to deepen young people’s reflective and transformative engagement with self and social change. Manak says, “Earlier I’d give the analogy that we expect people to figure out sex on their marital night, now I’d say we expect them to figure it out in the middle of a drunken orgy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not moralistic or judgmental about drinking or about orgies. I just feel that people should know what they are getting into to be able to decide whether or not they should get into it and if they do, how they can stay safe and who they can ask for help.


Shikha Aleya (SA): Hi, Manak. Many thanks for taking the time and energy out for this interview. My first question is based on you describing yourself as a feminist. Please tell us something of the responses and reactions you have experienced over the years around this description. What is the sense you get from young people you engage with today, of the current approach to and understanding of being a feminist?

Manak Matiyani (MM):  I definitely identify as a feminist. That is very centrally my politics. It is my politics because at some point of time I realised that this is the most logical way to think about the world. Why would you not think in this way? I hoped that by 2020 we would have put this ‘I am a humanist and not a feminist’ conversation behind us but it continues to crop up in one space or another. This is why I feel it is even more important to have this part of my identity out there whenever I am introducing myself. This has been my entry into activism and the work that I do. I learnt feminism, first, as a value from my mother and her life. Then I understood it conceptually in college during my undergraduate English Literature course. And finally, I saw it in action when I came in contact with the women’s movements in organisations and autonomous groups in Delhi. Then understanding feminism by looking at women’s rights movements in India and learning from that space. Learning from organisations that are feminist and working on women’s rights gave me my first grounding in understanding human rights-based work in general. This then became the lens through which I was able to approach my own identity and resolve shame and guilt about my queerness. It helped me question why I should feel different and why the world should not be differently organised so that everyone can feel included and affirmed. 

 Feminism has been very important to my understanding of queerness through a political lens – it made me acknowledge the privileges that I have as a cisgender male even as I understood how patriarchy makes me vulnerable on account of my sexuality. In patriarchy, men are automatically assumed to be leaders. So I think men’s feminist leadership is in stepping back from leadership, and listening, and making space for the voices of other genders to be heard. Patriarchy is also within development interventions where we see overwhelmingly more men, and in activism and queer movements and pride march like spaces. As in every other space, it is harder for women and people of other genders to participate due to issues of safety, lack of mobility, discrimination, and many other factors. This understanding from feminism is very important and it is the way I approach a lot of the work that I do, professionally as well as in my activism. Giving up space, listening to people who are the most affected or most impacted and who should be at the helm of that particular movement, is something that I have learnt from feminism and brought into my own queer politics. This is why I put my being feminist up front. 

I get very different reactions when I say this. It is great to hear that there are schools and colleges inviting me to talk to young people because I identify as a feminist and I’m male, or just because I am queer and a feminist, and that’s what they want to talk to students about. It’s great that spaces like that exist. I feel overjoyed when I have young people in schools coming up to me and saying, “I am an intersectional feminist,” or “We have a feminist club in school and we were discussing xyz.” That gives me a lot of joy and hope.  

At the same time, I continue to watch many discussions around what the problems of feminism are from people who have a really limited understanding of feminism, limiting feminism to what their own minds can comprehend. That is also why I want to put this tag out there because I am willing to have a conversation with anybody who feels differently. I feel that the fact that feminist movements are learning, growing, multiple movements, really shows the world what kind of politics of growth, of learning, love, kindness, and human rights, are needed to work together. These movements bring a spiritual, moral, artistic and rights-based vision of the world that I hope to work towards and achieve . That, for me, is the feminist movement and how I understand my own feminism, feminist politics and queer politics.

 SA: That is so interesting, thank you. So, on to my next question. At around this time last year, in response to the draft National Education Policy (DNEP 2019), recommendations were made to the government by a collection of groups working on issues of gender, sexuality and education. These advocated an approach to support greater inclusion and awareness of diversity in education processes and institutions of learning.

MM: The YP Foundation was also a part of the group of organisations that gave recommendations last year on making the new education policy more gender inclusive. I strongly feel that institutions of education and the process of education and learning itself must enable young people to understand their own gender and sexuality, as well as more about diversity in the world.

An important point that your question itself brings up is that of taking a step outside of the curriculum, to make sure that the educational institution, the space of learning itself, is gender-affirming, that whoever is dealing with young people in that space is trained to address questions and the need that young people may have to understand these issues. This comes down to policies about inclusion, training of staff and students, positive discrimination policies and taking active steps to make it known that it is a diversity-affirming space.

The second point is, directly addressing gender within the curriculum. This means having a component which is specifically around gender and sexuality in the curriculum, whether it is part of the curriculum in general, or it is an additional layer, like the adolescent education programme has been in different schools, and it should be mandatory that this is done.

There is a lot of acceptance for doing this towards the safety of women and for positive gender messaging to boys. However, we need to take up this space that has been created and make it a curriculum that affirms diversity of gender and sexuality, addresses intersectional issues and teaches human and constitutional rights. This is a much larger and more comprehensive project than violence prevention and safety. It is one kind of a life-skills curriculum that builds young people’s sexual, mental and emotional awareness of themselves and others. While education on violence prevention and safety is needed, I think it is important that we have conversations that normalise the diverse expressions of gender and sexuality and that we encourage young people to engage with these conversations in a healthy and affirming manner. This will lead to a comprehensive understanding of gender, sexuality, harassment, violence, all of these issues. So having something directly on these issues is important.

 The third thing is that across subjects, language, examples, and aspects of the curricula are very sexist. Social Science, Moral Science for younger classes, Political Science, Mathematics etc. include a lot of gender stereotypes. Many organisations such as Nirantar, TARSHI, and others have been working on this for years. There is a need to engage experts to look across curricula and make it sexism-free. All of this needs to be addressed in the National Education Policy.

SA: Thank you, Manak. Continuing this line of thought, given the change of circumstances this year due to COVID-19, please share your sense of the emergent priorities in education that require an intersectional understanding and strategy using the lens of gender and sexuality. 

MM: In the context of COVID, the way education is being transacted and the way institutions are functioning has completely changed for young people with them having to be online for much longer periods of time. We will also take some time to figure out what it means for a young person to be in an online digital space together with others – if that is the expectation from young people who are at least online and connected. What does safety in such a space mean? What does privacy in this space mean?

Earlier, institutions could take the onus of addressing needs around gender and sexual identity-formation for young people. Now, the situation of studying from home in the work-from-home era makes us even more responsible for doing that kind of training and capacity-building with their parents and their families. They are the primary caregivers who will necessarily have to address these issues. Young people are dealing with a lot of these issues by themselves perhaps, alone, even while with their families. The need to start this conversation in multiple online platforms and finding ways of bringing them to families, among friends is more than ever before, as the school, as a central space for young people’s needs, is not the same anymore.

We just did an initial survey with young people to check what has changed for them due to the response to COVID. We realised that a lot of young people who think differently, politically, from their families, or those who don’t identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth, or with heterosexuality, are really struggling to be able to talk about it with somebody else. Their mobility, access to different spaces and to their circle of friends is now restricted. In this scenario it is very important that institutions take this into account and are able to address the need for this kind of space and provide it, and also try to engage with families and see if families can be more enabling and affirming of these experiences of young people.

SA: Thank you for your clarity. So my next question is in connection with the YP Foundation’s programmes on Gender and on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. You have pointed out, as in this interview on how the social sector is failing India’s youth, that young people across diverse experiences bring their own insights that need to be voiced, heard and responded to at the macro-level, especially so now. What are some of the strongest barriers that stand in the way of this today? How best should these barriers be dismantled? 

MM: There are a couple of systemic barriers that young people face in order to have conversations on gender and sexuality issues openly and without fear. One, of course, being the stigma around sexuality in general, which keeps anybody from talking about it, particularly young people. So, when an adolescent walks into a room and asks about sex, everybody has a heart attack. That’s the first problem. That then pushes any conversation about gender diversity, sexual diversity, anything that is not considered ‘normal’ or the norm, even more to the sidelines, to the margins. Young people, even now, grow up feeling that ‘this is only me’, ‘nobody else is like me’, ‘why am I wrong?’, ‘why am I like this?’, and ‘there is something inherently wrong with me’. And this taboo around sexuality remains in a context where almost all popular and public culture is highly sexualised. So, we are refusing to enable critical and analytical thinking for young people who are bombarded with content of all kinds and qualities. Earlier I’d give the analogy that we expect people to figure out sex on their marital night, now I’d say we expect them to figure it out in the middle of a drunken orgy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not moralistic or judgmental about drinking or about orgies. I just feel that people should know what they are getting into to be able to decide whether or not they should get into it and if they do, how they can stay safe and who they can ask for help.

Now, with internet connectivity, with many more references to gender and sexual diversity being available online, it is far better perhaps, for young people who are online, connected, and urban. For young people in rural areas, particularly young women and girls, this is still a lonely experience. In this day and age, it is shameful and almost criminal for us to condemn young people to have to navigate their sexuality and their identity without any help or avenues to find information. Even straight youth and adolescents don’t have a safe space or access to information to understand gender, sexuality, sexual awareness. If you’re not fitting into the norm that you see around you, it is even more lonely, stigmatising, and guilt-producing. This is one big problem. 

The other problem is that youth engagement seems to always be tokenistic and top-down.  With years of work by the women’s movement, it is now impossible to think of creating a programme or a policy where women are not consulted but we continue to see this being done in youth-focused policies and programmes. And, consistently in the area of education. While that is changing a little bit because there’s a big calling-out of the lack of participation of young people, it needs to go beyond tokenism. It needs to put young people at an equal level where they can have aware, informed and equal conversations with people who are making policies. Till that can happen in the realm of policies on gender and sexuality in education, I think we still have a long way to go in being able to address young people’s needs comprehensively and to listen to young people and learn from them what their needs are. 

That brings me to the third issue. Even when youth participation is well-meaning and deliberate, the category of ‘youth’ itself is very badly defined. Youth remains a single, unified, homogenous kind of category. It is important to inform even a broad programme or a policy with specific kinds of vulnerabilities, contexts, and experiences of young people to be able address these diversities. That’s not always done. We continue to think of young people as either an urban, able-bodied, cis, straight, upper-caste male or as a disenfranchised rural Dalit adolescent girl. Both these ideas are fixed in our imagination as binaries. They do not allow us to address the diversity of young people’s experiences or see them as people with agency, opinions, and the ability to make responsible and informed decisions about their own development. This is the idea we need to break.

SA: That is a lot to think about. Manak, looking at spaces such as home, family, social, digital, public, inhabited or traversed by young people; do you feel there has been attitudinal and behavioural improvement or change towards creating positive, sexuality-affirming, inclusive and safe spaces? How may this be expanded going forward now?

MM: It’s nice to answer this question now because I think after all these years, a lot of work has been done to create much more affirming, informative, and diverse spaces for young people to be able to figure out, navigate, and discuss issues around their own sexuality and gender, online and on the ground. It is really heartening that schools in Delhi, for example, are calling us to do these workshops and engage with young people on issues of gender and sexuality, directly or online. Even more heartening is that government schools are willing to take up sexuality education, something like the Child Rights Body in the Delhi government is recognising and saying, “Yes, we need this in school and we need help to scale it up, to provide it in many more schools.” This is the beginning of looking at a systemic approach.

Programmes like the Adolescent Education Programme, and policies, where organisations like TARSHI have made a huge contribution to pushing the needle, are bearing some fruit right now. Definitely there is more work that can be done in all of these areas, and I think online spaces are showing us the way. For example, Instagram, Twitter, a lot of these online spaces for conversation have come up. I also think there are many organisations, like the Youth Collective, that are doing very exciting projects to take this kind of conversation to spaces where it has not been had before. They are exploring ways of making the family space, or a holiday with friends more open to conversation around issues of human rights, social change, social reality, and definitely around gender and sexuality. The onus of having conversation on gender and sexual diversity should not only be on persons who are diverse or “different”. Everybody should have that conversation.

So, I think the next frontier for us, and I’ve said this in a couple of interviews recently, is the family WhatsApp group. To actually infiltrate the family WhatsApp group and create stuff that can start off these conversations over there, is what we need to do next. To give young people, or anybody else in the family, enough courage to send a message in the family WhatsApp group that makes the family a safer, more affirming space for its queer members to speak up and live their truths. In this age of WhatsApp proliferation of all kinds of random and sometimes incorrect information, I’d like to work towards giving people a filter for that information and make WhatsApp a bit more affirming and enabling by circulating en masse more positive information. I think that’s going to be the next big win that I absolutely want to have.

Apart from that, much of our work has been cut out for us for a long time – sexuality education in schools, connected and collaborative rights-based movements, healthcare for all, constitutional values. There seems to be a growing list of issues to add to that list every day.

Cover Image: Courtesy Author

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