‘We’ve heard of sexy!’
We were pleasantly surprised when students of Kamla Mehta School for the Blind were more informed about sex and reproduction than most non-disabled adults. What followed the surprise were discussions on attraction, desire, consent, privacy, space and assertiveness. We learnt as much as we shared!
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 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 until the 7th grade. While the girls can continue living in the hostels here even after, they are required to integrate regular schools.
Our workshop with 17 girls was scheduled to start by 9 o’clock but by 8.40 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, who is a gynaecologist, started the conversation by talking about getting your period for the first time. The idea of people with impairments not being the other has never been challenged as strongly as it was when these girls were recounting the horror and confusion that invariably comes with a girl’s first period. I couldn’t help but notice how similar their experiences were to the experiences of my friends and I. As soon as Dr Shrutika started asking questions like ‘How do you wear a pad and make sure that it stays on?’ the girls responded by talking about how winged sanitary napkins made sure that the pad firmly stayed in place. When asked about whether any of them flush the sanitary napkins down their toilet the room erupted in a loud chorus of ‘Chhee’.
Up to this point, the girls, all between 14 and 16 years, 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. In the society that we live in, even non-impaired girls are rarely allowed to think or talk about their bodies in a way that embraces them instead of shaming them. Controlling girls’ relationships with their bodies has been an integral tool in keeping women oppressed. This is why, for these girls who are visually impaired and constantly told that beggars 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 parts. After all of them had finished, Dr Shrutika said 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, this idea of a girl’s body being something that should be hidden clearly came out. 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 asked, to 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 size models so that they could really grasp what was being discussed. The girls poked around the models with awe while 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 of 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, who is a disability and gender rights activist and 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 something that everyone feels, 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 height or weight.’
While it is important for the girls not to assume that their disability automatically means that no one can be attracted to them. However, she also warned the girls of some problems that come with being visually impaired in the context of attraction. She spoke about how easy it is to mistake kindness for romantic interest.