In Assam, This Transwoman’s Free Libraries Are Changing How Villages See Queer People
Assam's Rituparna Neog runs Akam Foundation, an NGO that builds free libraries in villages to break barriers around gender, LGBTQ communities and sexuality.
When many of us reminisce about our childhoods, especially our teenage years, we often recall fond memories filled with friends and family. However, as life progresses, the challenge of recreating those moments of joy becomes increasingly daunting.
For Rituparna Neog, a young trans leader and educator, memories of her teenage years differ significantly from the typical nostalgic recollections. “As a young child, I lived in a protected household. However, as life progressed, I became a victim of bullying and queerphobia,” she recalls in a conversation with The Better India.
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Now a leading queer rights activist in Assam, she is employing the power of books to eliminate queerphobia in her village.
“I don’t blame my classmates for bullying me. They didn’t know any better. I want to ensure that in my village and the entire state, no other child gets bullied for being queer. What better way to do that than with the power of books!” she says.
Creating a Queer-Positive Assam
Born and raised in Jorhat, Assam, Rituparna never had to ‘come out’ in her home. “My home was always very supportive of my identity, and I never had to explain it to anyone. I was protected for a long time,” she shares.
It was when she reached high school however, that she started to face bullies. “I did not know what to do when the bullying started. I started to push myself into a shell,” she says.
As Rituparna recalls, during that challenging time, her solace became libraries and her best friends were books.
“I would just hide in my school’s libraries and make friends with books. I loved reading so much, and they transported me to a world where there were no bullies,” she adds.
Since then, Rituparna had carried the thought that she would do something for children like her. What better way than to use books and education to help them, she exclaims.
“I firmly believe that education is the key to reducing the bullying I faced. They were young children who did not know what queer means, and they made fun of it. While cities in India have become much more sensitive to the topic, people in rural areas and remote villages do not even know about the existence of queer people and their rights,” she adds.
“How can we expect children to respect something they know nothing about?” she questions.
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After completing her degree in social work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati in 2017, she decided to do something in her village.
“While I worked in Guwahati for some time, I believe that change starts at home and do something in my village,” she says, adding that bringing queer education to children was one of the first things she wanted to implement upon her return.
Kitape Katha Koi
In a bid to make books available to every child in her village, Rituparna started a project called Kitape Katha Koi which translates to ‘books speak’ under her NGO called Akam Foundation.
“I proposed this idea to my people in the village — a free library with hundreds of books to learn from. They were eager for it. I could see a hunger in them for education. I decided to open a library in the village free of cost with my own personal collection of books,” she says.
The free community library helps nearly 100 children from nearby villages and tea estates access and read Assamese, Hindi, and English books. “The initial reaction of the children was overwhelmingly positive. An average of 30 children visit the library every day. The initial reaction made me want to open more such libraries,” she says.
The library has books on various subjects and themes such as gender, sexuality, mental health, climate justice, ability, feminism, and minority rights.
The project is also a part of The Free Libraries Network (FLN) India and South Asia — a platform designed to link free libraries and build free library movements.
“These books around the topics of gender, sexuality and feminism especially in the local language give the people access to knowledge that is free. This knowledge helps them grow,” she adds.
With continuous efforts, she was able to open another library called the Chandraprabha Saikiani Feminist Library and Resource Centre in Dibrugarh, Assam. “My vision is to reach as many children and people as possible in rural areas of Assam,” she says.
In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Rituparna started an online storytelling project where she would recite stories. Additionally, she also keeps hosting various pop-up libraries in spaces such as housing societies, colleges, university campuses, public parks etc.
The library in Jorhat which started with 600 books has now grown to have a collection of 2,000+ books.
Reaching the remotest areas
Rituparna believes that books can help her achieve her goal. She also wanted to mobilise the youth of her village and Asaam to bring queer positivity.
For this, she along with her community members started Drishti Queer Collective in 2021. “So far a lot of work has been done in many areas of the state especially in Guwahati to make people aware of queer rights but I still feel that it is lacking in small towns and rural areas,” she says.
With a core team of 15 people, Rituparna focuses on bringing awareness to people in rural Assam in the local language.
“I realised how language is a barrier for many rural people and we decided to reach them in their language. We organised meetups in semi-urban areas to educate them of LGBTQI+ communities and their rights,” she says.
“We have also been trying to mobilise communities to come together. Along the same lines, we did our very first Jorhat pride walk in April 2022. This was the first pride walk outside of Guwahati. In June 2022, Dibrugarh had its very first pride walk in which hundreds of people participated,” she says.
The collective also works with colleges to help them run gender-sensitising programmes that have been mandated by the UGC.
“From the collective, we are running two more campaigns — ‘No More Holding My Pee’ to bring gender-neutral washrooms in public and private colleges. We have a petition running on Change.org for the same as we want some kind of policy change mandating schools to have gender-neutral washrooms,” she says.
“The second campaign is about making children in high schools more sensitive towards topics of queerness and gender. We work with teachers and schools for that,” she adds.
With the collectives’ effort, Rituparna has reached out to more than 10,000 people from rural areas and small towns in the Assamese language.
Rituparna recently got nominated as a member representative to the National Council for Transgender Persons of the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of Assam.
You can follow Rituparna’s libraries and initiatives here.
(Edited by Padmashree Pande)
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