Author: Eva Cunningham, Tate Soller
Mona has been navigating the notion of gender and the issues surrounding it for a while. After initial study in psychology, she then went on to study gender, realising her passion and interest for this area. With her exposure to feminist trends, her interests grew in the subject & she took it up as a research paradigm for her masters study. Despite her extensive academic research in the area, questions around the reality of stereotypes and gender based violence still plagued her - “why haven't I experienced it till now?” she queried. She became critical of the Indian education system and wanted to discover the on-ground relevance of gender, which she felt detached from. This clarity gradually came when she undertook volunteer work with children during her studies. “My saying one thing is helping them make decisions”, she noted, explaining her gratification during her fieldwork. This is where the source of her true happiness lies, she realised. Through this new insight she recognised the disjuncture between academic study, characterised by a strong western influence, and the reality of Indian society and the forms these issues were taking in the everyday. Leading her to critique psychology and its use of labelling which, she argues, advocates rigid social categories that are individualistic in nature. This disillusion between her academic teachings and her on-ground experience of gender triggered her connection with People for Parity, who work towards curbing gender-based violence.
Mona felt empowered by her workshops with People for Parity. These workshops covered topics such as stereotypes, what it means to be a girl or to be a boy, and notions of power structures. She felt like this was an area she was keen to explore. “What are the voices within me that are stopping me from doing the things that I want to do? How do I challenge these voices?” she questioned herself. She began to realise the importance of gender in her own personality and that her approach to gender must be two-fold: with herself and then with others - “Gender is not something outside, it’s something within me. I need to first explore the challenges I'm facing as a girl, and then extend that to the community around me”.
Mona went on to further explore these challenges through her work in People for Parity and the workshops she facilitated. These workshops with college kids deconstructed common stereotypes like “men don't cry”. These workshops created a space for young people to engage and discuss gender, as well as feel comfortable to open about how the social constructions of gender and the stereotypes and violence linked to it affect their lives.
Her journey as a Changeloomer has helped Mona's progress in breaking down gender stereotypes and gender-based violence. It has also made her feel celebrated for her creation of socially inclusive spaces to approach the concept of gender, she says. But, as she adds, this celebration comes with responsibility as “people are looking up at you”. She sees the spaces she creates through workshops and other forums as a kind of 5th space, somewhere for youth to get together and talk about how gender is affecting their lives and the change they want to see. Passion is inherent in every facet of Mona's work. She considers emotion to be integral and come hand-in-hand with her avenue of work, “I used to think that crying was something that made me weak...but creating safe spaces and trusting others…. [and] letting yourself fall has to happen”. It was through this uninhibited emotionthat Mona was able to achieve what she has today.