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In conversation with Riju Banerjee

Riju Banerjee is a writer, teacher, sexual health educator, intersectional queer feminist and storyteller. We recently got a wonderful opportunity to talk with them about their journey as an educator, their thoughts on festivals like Raksha Bandhan, what intersectionality means to them and more!

WE: How has your journey been like advocating for inclusivity, mental health, and more?

Riju: I’ve definitely come a long in terms of my journey. I think my focus on mental health started by emphasizing being productive and being able to function. There's a lot of need to function and work and be productive but this is where I find I need to prioritize rest and it was one of the things I didn’t do. In the world we live in, we need to be productive to survive but I need to focus on myself too - this is something we need to be integrating into every aspect of my life. I also started looking at self-care very differently. I had also started coping with my anxiety, depression, and ADHD. But right I want to not emphasize so much on productive self-care or like have an outcome from it, rather I just wanna be, and rest and not be overwhelmed by things. This has been a huge journey for me. I started as an elementary teacher. My approach to mental health used to be very different; I had to be more there for the kids but now while I am working with adults and organizations, it has become more important to focus on me. It demands me to be communicative, articulate, and be present with my full mind which I often find difficult to do with all that I am coping with. But that too has been quite a journey.

WE: How long have you been working in this field for?

Riju: Right now I have been working on sexual and reproductive health, and well-being isn't something that can exist in isolation. Usually, these things are talked about in a very isolated segue but they don’t really exist like that! They are always at an intersection with mental health and social well-being. I’ve been trying to work with this well-being at the center of what I do, and those who are carrying this duty also must ensure they look after themselves. This is something I have been involved in for the last 2 years.

WE: What are some of your earliest memories of celebrating RB with your family?

Riju: Being a Bengali, Bhai Phota was something we celebrated more than Raksha Bandhan, but both festivals are the same in the sense that sisters are praying for the long lives of their brothers or are asking brothers to provide protection. Most of our festivals are hetero-patriarchal. I often felt excluded from everyone around me during these. For starters I did not want to wear a rakhi, people around me would tie a rakhi on my wrists. I felt this is not who I am; I am not a man. So I feel like I have also shied away from these festivals; only sometimes when forced by my parents I’ve had to sit through things but I have never been very keen. That is my extended idea of how I look at Raksha Bandhan, I see it more as something about solidarity and extending friendship, sisterhood, and also about being there for my family and for those who have been there for me. Being a trans person, I feel like having a family of choice or a family beyond your biological family is something that has helped me grow and thrive. Now my idea of Raksha Bandhan is about extending that solidarity. As a trans woman, history has excluded me; and so for me, this is a way of reclaiming that history in a way I want to.

WE: Do you think Raksha Bandhan can evolve to be an inclusive ritual? (why/why not?)

Riju: I think there are two ways of looking at it: one way is if we’re thinking about transformative changes when we scrutinize any of these festivals be it a marriage, Raksha Bandhan, Bhai Phota, or anything…there is sexism and with some of them a great degree of casteism. We need to scrutinize them and understand whether we really want to continue this heritage. But another way of looking at it is that we live in a world of festivities and celebration. So it’s important to look at these things the way we want to look at them; especially for marginalized communities to reclaim them in the way they want to. Anybody who has been historically denied these festivities, even women for that matter, why must you only tie a rakhi to your brother and not sister? We have to not just follow these traditions blindly.

WE: Wear Equal has launched a special rakhi hamper….. thoughts on an approach towards inclusivity when it comes to Raksha Bandhan?

Riju: I think as brands we often want to take on the upcoming festivals and participate in them. We have brands that are inclusive and want to be a part of these festivals that are inherently many of the negative things that I mentioned - being careful about who are you serving is one thing I’d say is an important thing to think about. We have to be mindful about where this voice is coming from, is it someone I want to include in such places? And while I do so, what is their message? What I like about Wear Equal is that I align with their message of love and solidarity. This message is more towards the celebration of expanding festivities rather than focusing on the idea of the festival itself. I think that's beautiful and is something one can learn from.

WE: What is your definition of intersectionality? / Why is intersectionality important in the larger queer dialogue?

Riju: I think intersectionality is about realizing that a person is not just one identity - one is not just trans or queer, there is a multitude of identities that one carries which is important to remember when we talk about rights and privileges and justice. One identity doesn't exist in a vacuum - my identity as a trans woman doesn't exist beyond my identity of being savarna. So it is important to remember my privileges while I talk about my transness. We need to see who is occupying these platforms and spaces. Is it just one top layer talking about things or is it the multitudes of intersections that exist? And when it comes to the queer movement, it has inevitably been intersectional from the beginning. The western queer movement started with a black trans woman, who started to fight for the rights she was denied. Similarly, it is important that while we talk about the queer movement to see who is leading it, what is the queer presence we see, and if we are seeing diversity on these platforms.

WE: What are some of your hopes/expectations with the evolution of queer dialogue in India?

Riju: I think first I’d definitely like to see some systemic shift. Right now we do have a lot of visibility that was not there, like, five years ago; but we need a systemic shift as well. For example, there should be more laws catering to atrocities against queer-trans people, better workplace harassment laws and an active effort to see queer and trans people in the workforce, and more. We also need to look at partnership and civil union laws, and the rights for queer people. We do have a few laws but there’s a huge gap in their

implementation. The way the system looks at trans people is very problematic, it’s more like an idea they have of trans people rather than what they really are and what they want. It is important to listen to our voices and create institutionalized places for us to trust. We need to make more wholesome efforts for the diverse gender identities we have. Transition is not the end of the journey. And many trans people do not transition too. Me saying ‘I am trans’ is also transition. We need to focus less on physical transitioning and trans bodies and shift towards focusing on trans rights and trans justice.

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