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Interview: Shruti Arora

A photograph of a woman’s face with a mural in the background. The woman has short black hair and a nose piercing. She is smiling.

This  interview on practices of building safe and sexuality-affirming spaces was originally published here.

Shruti Arora is a feminist trainer and researcher in the field of Gender and Sexuality. She has worked with Nirantar and is presently leading the Access Project at the YP Foundation (TYPF). In this interview, she shares her insights on collective practices of building safe and sexuality-affirming spaces for young people, in friendships and community, digital and healthcare settings. Shruti says, “There are very rare friendships that exist across identities. Some may exist, but acceptance may not be there. Homophobia and transphobia do not always allow LGBT folks to experience acceptance from friends. But I think those that are accepting, can provide safety and comfort. It gives one the strength and support to be the ‘misfit’ in a patriarchal world.

Shikha Aleya (S): Hi Shruti, and many thanks for this interview! Diving straight into the subject, TARSHI advocates for the creation of Safe, Inclusive, Sexuality-Affirming spaces, SISA spaces, safe from judgment and violence, inclusive of diverse identities, expressions and experiences, and affirming of one’s sexuality-related choices. Please share some of the particular experiences and insights emerging from your work on the relationship between safety and sexuality.

Shruti Arora (SA): I will begin with talking about my reflections from the community-led initiatives with young women in the age group of 16 to 24 years in urban slums in Delhi that TYPF has led. The initiatives focus on creating a safe and fun space for them and to facilitate discussions on issues related to gender, sexuality, dating, desires, family, friendships, mental wellbeing etc. There may not always be a fixed, prescribed curriculum to cover these issues but the larger objective is to build support, solidarity and ownership amongst the community members as a collective. It includes equipping them with information and skills to negotiate their safety within the household as well as in public spaces. Even though I do not lead this work in TYPF, in my limited interaction with the young women I think that this space gives them immense power and confidence in dealing with and coping with everyday stressors. All the girls talk about their brothers being allowed to loiter at night (much like the culture in middle-class families); on the other hand, their daily schedule includes waking up early morning to share the domestic responsibilities with their mothers or sisters before leaving for school. There is restriction by the family members of physical mobility, sometimes stopping them from coming to the TYPF centre as well, due to domestic workload. There is also the fear within the family that they may lose control over the girls. So I think collectivising and voicing demands to affirm one’s rights is a step forward.

As a middle-class woman, I may have the privilege of accessing a physical space to meet my peer/ support group, but not everyone has it. So I do think these community-led initiatives in lower-income settings are important. But sustainability has been a huge issue that TYPF has grappled with. There may already be another organization in the community to share resources with but for community-led initiatives, a shared perspective on Safe, Inclusive, Sexuality-Affirming (SISA) spaces is also important. Sometimes when the shared perspective is not there, that becomes a challenge. In one of the communities I know, there was a computer centre running for girls, but the girls were not allowed to use the Internet. SISA spaces are important not just for those few hours of the session, but also to think of more transformational practices in the everyday culture of the space. The usual tendency of the state as well the non-state actors is to become protectionist which is very different from the safe space that we imagine.         

S: In this digital age where online spaces allow a deep and intimate engagement with, and expressions of sexuality, how do you think safety should be viewed and issues of safety be addressed? By whom, and how?

SA: One thing that research and national level data do show is that there exists a huge digital gender divide in India. Literacy levels, gender, (dis)ability, location, availability, and affordability are key factors that impact one’s approach and access to digital space. This is just to say that digital space remains a male-dominated space. However, in my work I do see that young people across classes have much easier access to personal smart phones with Internet connection today in a city like Delhi. This is true for the low-income communities too. Google is also available in a few regional languages and in Hindi. More and more people rely on the Internet to get sexuality-related information (even though the first Google search will not always provide reliable content). Most young people are using social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram etc. to express themselves. Social media has allowed exploration of intimate or casual relationships, maintaining long distance relationships, expanding one’s network, being a social media influencer etc. Talking about social media influencers, Qandeel Baloch’s murder is a reminder of the severe kind of violence and backlash that can happen. Her videos were sexually explicit and public. That says that even though the Internet and technology have made it possible for women to use it to publicly express their sexuality, the patriarchal expectation of women’s sexuality being sacrosanct and in need of domestication remains.

Young women are definitely under severe scrutiny in the family for using mobile phones and the Internet. There is also a pressure on women to justify to the family why they need the Internet. For example, I can share the experience of a young woman who is active on TikTok and is a social media influencer. Her father is supportive and proud of her because she has huge following and has received recognition and appreciation for her work. But he also questions her as to how this is going to prove beneficial in the future in terms of her career prospects. So there are subtle forms in which women are still having to justify using social media. The conservative norms around using mobile phones and the Internet are shifting, but there are new norms that are being created. In practice, for reducing these barriers to young women’s access and from the perspective of safety, there perhaps is a need to understand the new norms and then have dialogues in the community on women’s presence in digital (and public) spaces. The social media influencer that I’m talking about, she has a strong network of friends and activists who support her in her work. She has reported against online trolling, harassment, body shaming etc. on TikTok. I would say in these cases TikTok is responsible for online safety of that individual, but community support for the individual is also empowering. There is always a risk of censorship of women’s voices, so community responses for an individual’s freedom of expression is important. The same would hold true for threats of leaking photographs, public shaming etc. related to private conversations between individuals. One may have the right to privacy as a fundamental right, but strong community support helps in actualising that right.

S: In a 2018 article that you wrote for In Plainspeak, ‘Friendships between women: Norms, intimacies and imaginations’, you have spoken of the “expression of gender and sexuality without fear, shame and self-censorship” and how intimate friendships between women can enable this.  Today, were you to expand this concept to friendships between individuals across a diversity of gender and sexual identities, how would this play out in a world where acceptance of diversity is crucial?

SA: There is an exercise that I had once participated in, in a training on Gender and Caste. We were asked to list down the name of our friends that we have across diverse identities such as, castes, genders, classes, religions and sexual orientation. The objective was to observe the differences and similarities along which friendships/ relationships exist and do not exist in society. There are very rare friendships that exist across identities. Some may exist, but acceptance may not be there. Homophobia and transphobia do not always allow LGBT folks to experience acceptance from friends. But I think those that are accepting, can provide safety and comfort. It gives one the strength and support to be the ‘misfit’ in a patriarchal world. I do not mean to romanticise friendships; they are not always a cakewalk. Confrontations, clashes and fights are equally part of friendships.

I am also reminded of Sex Education, the British web series that has a representation of friendships across gender and sexual identities. I liked the friendship that Eric (Black, gay boy) and Otis (White, straight boy) share (even though the representation is not about friendship between women). There is love, intimacy, betrayal, fight and drama in the serial. There is a scene in episode 5, season 2 when both of them go out on a camping trip with Otis’s father. After stormy weather and their tent collapsing, they end up spending the night in a hotel. With much excitement in his voice and eyes, Eric discloses to Otis that he once got a blowjob from their ex-classmate, Adam (who is White, son of the school headmaster and was known to be straight) and has been going out with him. Otis reacts angrily to this news as his perception of Adam is that he is a bully and too embarrassed to come out of the closet. Eric snaps back at Otis, tells him to not ‘therapise’ him and argues back to justify that Adam has changed for the better. The tension between them arises not only because of concern for each other, but also the difference in how Eric experiences pleasure and power in the blowjob as a Black, gay boy versus Otis interpreting it as bullying. Eric asserts himself and refuses to be ‘therapised’ that night. The next morning, they patch up when Otis expresses that it was concern for his friend that got him angry.

I mention this scene to elaborate on experiencing acceptance in a friendship across racial and sexual identity. There is mutual love, care and respect as well as arguments and fights in their world. Eric perhaps gets most of his strength from this friendship. But there are also identity- and experience-based differences. When Eric feels those differences, he snapsand fights back because Otis does not comprehend those feelings. Eric manages to convince Otis that Adam has changed but the point of resolution between them is not Eric’s feelings for Adam. There are subtle ways in which their identity-based differences become visible to some viewers.

I would also like to draw your attention to Eric’s snap. Eric’s snap is a snap that Sara Ahmed, in her essay, says matters. “Snapping might matter because a bond gets in the way of living a life, perhaps living a feminist life, a queer life, a gender queer life, a trans life.  It is important for me to note here that not all bonds are destructive; to sustain a life we need to sustain the bonds that sustain us.  A familial bond can become a source of vitality and strength, even shelter, from the harshness of a world.”I quote her because I think acceptance in friendships between individuals across gender and sexual identities would involve snapping. Sometimes it is snapping that becomes important for queer people to sustain friendships.

S: On a different note, in your audit report for The Access Project, on young people’s access to quality health services, there are clear listed recommendations for the government, the health facilities and for service providers. What would you say, overall, on the sense of safety, or safe space, that these services and facilities for young people are able to create for their clients and for their own staff? Given the current legal and social ground realities, what are the challenges here?

SA: Yes, the research audit that we had conducted led to giving recommendations to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare as well as service providers. To contextualise the study, I would begin by saying that the citizens-led audit is a powerful tool for social accountability. It was carried out to make decision-makers accountable to citizens for their entitlements as well as the claims and promises that the government makes in multiple forums. We had audited the sexual and reproductive health services provided at government facilities, and also at private facilities. It included counselling services provided in adolescent friendly health centres (AFHCs) under the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health Program (ARSH) and the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) which is the National Adolescent Health Program. When the RKSK program was being developed, the rationale for setting up AFHCs in the hospitals/ health centres was to easily refer young clients for counselling services from the gynaecology or paediatrics department. To talk about the current challenges, our assessment showed that there is a lack of counsellors in the system.

S: Counselling services being a core component of this program, Shruti, what is your understanding of why this area is under resourced?

SA: We have done a budgetary analysis of the program in Delhi. In the year 2016-17, the total approved budget for RKSK (Delhi) was INR 53.7 Lakh. This included the budget for facility based services, community level services, adolescent health counsellors, adolescent health trainings for service providers. However, merely 11.20% of the allocated funds were utilised for expenditure incurred under two sub-heads, facility based services and adolescent health trainings. There was 0% utilisation of budget for appointment and remuneration of adolescent health counsellors. This suggests that there has been a deferment in the appointment of the adolescent health counsellors in Delhi at the primary and tertiary level facilities.

The services in that case, are provided by the nursing staff. They are at best trained in discussing nutrition, anaemia and menstrual hygiene related issues. In rare cases, we found that the providers were trained in providing a safe space for young people to talk and ask questions. Those were providers who were younger in age, were not intimidating and could relate to adolescents’ curiosities around sex. For most of the other providers, they are themselves uncomfortable to discuss issues related to gender discrimination, sex, pleasure, or mental wellbeing.

S: Under these circumstances, what are the possible solutions you would suggest to change this situation?

SA: I think there needs to be a paradigm shift in the approach of the trainings and orientation for the service providers. Sexual health and mental health are stigmatised issues in society. As we know already, there is a strong fear amongst unmarried young people of being identified by community members in health facilities. So the service providers actually need to create a space that would welcome young people. Government programs may want to encourage young people to undertake counselling services, but it will be an uphill task to increase the footfall of walk-in clients unless the system is equipped to affirmatively work towards norm changing at the community as well as the facility level.

The health programs in the country have remained heteronormative in approach, and the service providers in the Adolescent Health Program have conceived adolescent girls’ health concerns only in the framework of “healthy future mothers”. For example, in terms of abortion access, it was found that young married women are discouraged by service providers to undergo a termination. The myth that abortion will lead to infertility is very much prevalent. There is also impingement by the service providers on the choices that are possible. Marriage and motherhood or the desire for it, ends up being an important qualifier to access the health services. Talking about training for the service providers, I think acceptance of premarital relationships and same-sex relationships is important. Unmarried and queer young people’s experiences with service providers remain the worst.

One can look at this from the lens of ‘sexual citizenship’ too. The scholarship on sexual citizenship is not very old, and it is an important area of enquiry for development practitioners and activists in the South Asian context. By sexual citizenship, I mean, rights granted or denied to a social group on the basis of sexuality (Richardson, 2015). Failure of the system to provide safe spaces and healthcare for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community, and affirm their identity therefore, is denial of their sexual citizenship rights. Given the caste, religion and class differences in the LGB community, it remains a question as to whether the framework of ‘sexual citizenship’ is desirable and comprehensive or is too simplistic and universal to advocate for.

In terms of legal challenges, mandatory reporting in cases of adolescents below 18 years of age under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act is a barrier. Private service providers are more likely to deny services in such cases, with the fear of getting involved in a medico-legal case.

S: Shruti, thank you for your time, insights and engagement with this interview. Please tell us something about yourself growing up, the influences on your life that have motivated and inspired you to do the work you do.

SA: I have been the black sheep in the family since childhood. I grew up in a typical middle-class North Indian family. Since the early years of my life, I observed unfair gender roles at home. I used to write about it in a diary that I still possess. I was a quiet but angry child (my parents would say, I still am). I didn’t find a role model in my family. My teachers and professors were my role models. Even though my mother is a teacher, she teaches Math, Accountancy and Business Studies. I barely managed to pass Math, while my parents, siblings, everyone in the family loved Math. I studied literature in my undergrad course and I think the classroom discussions motivated me the most to think about issues of gender more deeply. There were women writers like Toni Morrison, Margaret Mitchelle, Charlotte Bronte and Ismat Chugtai in the course who were my favourite ones. There were discussions in the classroom on women’s writings and I knew that those discussions were important to have outside the classroom space. My childhood friend and I would talk about books set in different continents and eras. That is a sweet memory I hold fondly. After I joined Nirantar, I was part of many discussions on women’s writings. Obviously, writings by revolutionists like Pandita Ramabai but also writings of the neo-literate Dalit women who came to the literacy centres that Nirantar runs in Uttar Pradesh. The pedagogy of teaching-learning and the curriculum focused on using women’s lived experiences for building critical thinking along with learning to read and write. The motivation behind the pedagogy is for adult women to learn functional literacy and find joy in narrating their own stories, as opposed to the pressure and responsibility on women to become “educated mothers” and teach their children.

I worked on Gender and Sexuality as a trainer in Nirantar. The curriculum of the trainings and courses opened up multiple questions about patriarchy, gender and sexual norms & hierarchies, non-normative sexual and gender identities, sex work and transactional sex, disability and body, punishments and privileges, subversion of norms, institutions of marriage and family.  We are all taught to believe that only one kind of family is possible and desirable – procreative, heterosexual, able-bodied couple, married in the same caste, man is the head and protector of the family and woman is the keeper of home and in need of protection. While gender and sexual norms differ in cultures (for example there are tribes that observe matrilineal culture) and market influence has also led to a shift in women’s role in society, the dominant viewpoint on family, kinship and property rights, especially in the South Asian region remains that the man is superior and is head of the household. There are many people who do not abide by these norms, whether by choice or circumstance. Many of my friends and colleagues and I did not identify with or desire this world. I think it needs to be made more and more visible that it is possible to have diverse kinds of families.

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