In one of India’s first steps towards initiating a conversation around sexual wellness, 75 village women in Ajmer district in Rajasthan came together in 1989 to write a book named Shareer Ki Jankaari (About the Body).
This initiative was part of the Central government’s Women’s Development Programme in Rajasthan, which began in 1984.
The initiative was aimed at building awareness among rural women based on case studies through group formations.
The programme was launched across six districts and at the time stood out for its direct participation of women.
The women conceptualised and designed Shareer Ki Jankaari with the help of activists Malika Virdi, Indira Pancholi and a few doctors over the period of two years.
“We worked with these women, who were called saathins, to figure out the issues women face with respect to their bodies — how we’re built, how much control we have over our bodies and contraception,” says Virdi.
She adds that the idea was to weave a linear and structured scientific method of giving information about contraception with the non-linear and interconnected art of visual storytelling.
To remember information discussed in the workshops, the women would make up songs, discuss how they count the days they are fertile, how they kept a record of their menstrual cycle, and topics including the process of childbirth.
“The discussions were very open,” Pancholi recalls. “They discussed the nature of their white discharge in different phases of fertility, and talked about sexual urges at different points in the cycle.”
By the time the book was complete, Virdi and her colleagues had been asked to leave the project by government officials.
“Representatives of the government recalled all the copies we had distributed and burned them,” Pancholi says.But they were not deterred.
Virdi and Pancholi took up a small working space to finish the book themselves and took the final book to Kali for Women — India’s first feminist publishing house.
Kali started by printing 2,000 copies of the book, priced at Rs 12 each.However, the village women worked so hard to sell their copies that before Kali finished printing, 1,800 copies had already been pre-sold.
The book was also pirated a lot and printed in various different languages such Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil, and all copies were sold through various women’s groups, individuals, and agencies.