As I walked past classrooms filled with random bursts of sunlight and corridors painted in various hues of blue, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for us at the Kamla Mehta Dadar School for the Blind. Located just a few minutes away from the station, this school was set up by the American Marathi Mission in the 19th century. Eventually, it turned into an academic institution for visually-impaired girls, where they could study until the 7th grade. While the girls can continue living in the hostels here even after, they are required to integrate into regular schools.
Our workshop with 17 girls was scheduled to start by 9 o’clock but by 8.40 am, the excited chatter of teenage girls filled the room. They all came in small groups of three or four, holding hands and occasionally giggling as they steered one another through the narrow room with ease. The workshop promptly began with a conversation about something that is common to everyone, regardless of their abilities, caste or class – the love of food! Each girl was asked to tell everyone her name and her favourite food. As we all dreamed about hot samosas on a Thursday morning, the already friendly girls started getting more comfortable with our team. This was our signal to move the conversation on to slightly trickier subjects that hardly anyone ever talks about – bodies, consent and desire.
We had just the right person to help us steer this conversation in a way that encouraged the girls to feel comfortable enough to ask questions: Dr. Shrutika Thakkar, a gynaecologist. She started the conversation by talking about getting one’s period for the first time.
The idea that a person with disability is the ‘other’ has never been as strongly challenged as it was when the girls recounted the horror and confusion that invariably accompanied their first period.
I couldn’t help but notice how similar their experiences were to the experiences of my friends and I.
Then Dr. Shrutika asked them, “How do you wear a pad and make sure that it stays on?” The girls responded by talking about how they use winged sanitary napkins to make sure that the pads stay firmly in place. When asked whether any of them flush the sanitary napkins down their toilet, the girls erupted in a loud chorus of “Chhee!” (“Yuck!”)
Up to this point, the girls, all between 14 and 16 years old, seemed very comfortable with everything that we were discussing. Their answers were sharp and loud, and there was no sign of embarrassment.
However, as soon as Dr. Shrutika asked each of them to name their favourite body parts, there was a sudden heavy silence. The society that we live in rarely allows girls to think or talk about their bodies in a way that embraces them, rather than shames them. Controlling girls’ relationships with their bodies has been an integral tool in keeping women and girls oppressed.
With the added problem of ableism, it is even harder for girls with disabilities.
This is why, for these girls who are visually impaired and constantly told that they are the proverbial beggars who cannot be choosers, the idea of openly discussing what they love about their bodies seemed absurd. However, Dr. Shrutika refused to let the girls awkwardly sit in silence; instead, she herself started naming her favourite body parts. One by one, the girls started opening up. Most of them spoke about their hands or their hair. Some of them named their mind, brain and heart as their favourite body parts. After all of them had finished, Dr. Shrutika pointed out that none of them had spoken about their tongues, teeth or organs that are slightly more hidden.
As she started talking about the erogenous zones and asking about the changes a girl’s body goes through after puberty, the girls insisted on closing the door and latching it before they responded to any questions. Again, the idea of a girl’s body being something that should be hidden clearly emerged.
As soon as the door was shut, the girls actively participated in the conversation and astounded all of us with the amount of knowledge they had about their own bodies. They told us about the uterus, describing it as a guava-shaped organ. The room exploded with giggles as Dr. Shrutika spoke about changes that boys go through after puberty. To ensure that the girls were not overwhelmed or uncomfortable, lighthearted questions like “Do you prefer men with or without a moustache?” were constantly asked, which the girls responded to with loud, warm chuckles.
When the girls seemed to have understood all the technical terms regarding their bodies, they were divided into groups. Each one was given a chance to touch life-sized models so that she could really grasp what was being discussed. The girls poked around the models with awe, telling us that they had never been exposed to models like this.
Building on the basic knowledge about male and female anatomy that had just been discussed, Dr. Shrutika asked if any of the girls had heard about sex. The girls shook their heads but many of them said that they had heard the word ‘sexy’ from Bollywood movies. They associated sexy with Sunny Leone and short clothes, and insisted that sexy was not meant for visually-impaired girls. Sexy was reserved for sighted girls and boys who liked to make jokes with “double meanings.” Nidhi, a disability and gender rights activist, who also happens to be a part of the visually-impaired community, busted these myths. She spoke about her experiences with boys, and the fine line between friendship and romance. The girls attentively listened as she discussed the difference between manners and gendered expectations, talked about how feeling attraction is completely natural and felt by everyone, and spoke about sex as the last step of attraction.
“Your impairment is neither a boon nor a bane,” said Nidhi. “It just makes you different from other people, like your height or weight.” In unison, the girls eagerly agreed with her, and with that, day one of the workshop came to an end.