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What does it mean to be an Agent of Ishq?

Agents of Ishq’s founder Paromita Vohra talks about the philosophy
that underlies this unique cultural sex-education project at Dasra
Philanthropy Week 2021.

How do we as children learn to become adults?
Most of us are taught that being a grown
up is about learning to fit into the world and to adjust better to it
so that it rewards us for our adjustments with success. This often means
curating a part of ourselves that is acceptable to the world.
If we really stop to think about it,
those parts that we are taught to minimize and reduce are the very ones
that are pleasurable, emotional, sexual...the world of desires,
longings, confusion, pleasure, doubt, pain, feelings. We see these
variously as taboo, as inefficient, as “too much”. They are meant to be
controlled in order to fit into the world. There is something these
stigmatized parts of ourselves have in common. They cannot be counted.
And because they cannot be counted, they also cannot be controlled. But
does that mean they do not count?
If we are being taught to belong in the
world – or even mostly given chances to fit into a world, that in itself
creates inequality, injustice and exclusion – are we really helping
create an equal world? Can we really imagine equality and justice if we
treat parts of society as lesser, stigmatise and marginalize it, thereby
doing the same to parts of our own selves too? When we treat parts of
the human being as unequal, can we imagine equality, let alone practice
it? If we edit out parts of ourselves that do not fit in and are
included in a homogenous and homogenizing system, can this really be
called inclusion? And if it is merely checking the boxes of how many
identities it includes, without being changed by those, is it really
inclusive, or is it always leaving something out or someone out? Is our
idea of inclusion actually in danger of being built on an idea of
When we started Agents of Ishq we did a
landscaping exercise in which we learned a very interesting thing about
young people who were participating in programmes meant to provide
justice, equality and inclusion. They spoke about some subjects very
easily in public and these subjects were always to do so with violence
or difficulty. The subjects they discussed with a trusted trainer or a
few friends, were often to do with the difficulties of social freedom,
vis-à-vis their home and community. And then, there was a long list of
topics they never discussed with anybody -- and those were always to do
with hurt, pain, self-hurt, shame, desire, longing, and pleasure.
We often talk about how school teaches
us to pass exams and just write the answer the teacher wants to hear.
That is what we carry out into the world too. We are trained to say the
things the teacher, the trainer, the instructor, the boss, the funder
wants to hear. Think of how we talk about sex – we talk about it as
violence, disease or exploitation. We do not talk about it as pleasure,
possibility, creativity or life itself– all of which it also is. So
naturally, when we talk to people about sexual health and sexual rights
in this way, people respond with the more less definable parts of their
wishes and desires.
We pay attention when people talk of
these negative experiences, because that confirms to us that we are
helping them. The other experiences that we do not count, maybe because
we do not have the language to count them in and learn from those
accounts, are also accounts, but not the ones that tally up nicely. They
are accounts of experiences which build the knowledge of people and the
world as much as anything else.
When we do this, we are in danger of
seeing people in terms of a lack, not in terms of their capabilities. We
risk seeing them with an unequal gaze, rather than as co-travelers in a
journey of change – which is simply another word for life.
So, where do people go to experience
those hidden selves? They go to the world of enjoyment – Bollywood,
Tiktok, the internet, pornography, books, music, fashion, taking
selfies. It is a world that we treat as inferior and normally tend to
not take seriously, because it is pleasurable. It is a world we treat
with embarrassment or shame because it accommodates human emotion and
pleasure and even when we are in it, we refer to it as our guilty
pleasure. What could we learn if we paid attention to these parts of the
self and the world? This is the question we asked ourselves when we
started Agents of Ishq.
We created a space that was saturated
with pleasure – it was enjoyable, it incorporated the popular culture
that young people enjoy – from Bollywood, to the internet meme – and it
was non-prescriptive. It was about sexual health and rights, but it was
also about sexual desire...the world of emotions and feelings, doubts
and relationships. Information, education, enjoyment, pleasure, emotion,
sex, love, desire, rights – all of these were treated on the par and
questions about sex were given equal place and importance. We believe
this made us Agents of Ishq. And then we asked people – do you want to
be an agent of ishq?
We didn’t say that we want to reform
them; we asked them what they wanted to be and they replied with an
incredible diversity of interpretations of the term agents of ishq. We
think that these experiences changed the way we thought and reshaped the
space. We are used to telling others what is good for them, but the
truth is, people struggle to carve out a life for themselves – one that
is about health and opportunity but also about happiness and
self-expression. Their experiences are a place of rich wisdom and great
learning that can reshape our imaginations. As people began to share
their ideas and experiences two unique things happened.
One was the co-creation of the space
that got reshaped on mutual terms and which we can’t stress that this is
the central tenet of pleasure enough that mutuality and consent,
something that shaped itself together and also sowed the seeds of its
future growth.
The second thing that happened was an
organic and incredible diversity because people were not being brought
in only on the basis of identity but of their experiences. They were not
being asked to enumerate their difficulties so that they could be
categorized as an identity but rather to share what they had learned
from their own lives. There were no boxes and so, no hierarchies; as a
result it created a place where people meet on an equal footing without
erasing their differences. This genuinely inclusive frame where you
don’t check in with an identity card alone, while keeping half of your
complex human self out of the picture, is a place of solidarity and
connection which also acknowledges that there are great differences
amongst us which cause us difficulty. This creates an intersectionality
of identity but also an intersectionality of the human being - each
person complete with all aspects of themselves, no part lesser than the
We believe that the purpose of justice
is to allow us to be who we are, and to be respected for that as a
whole. If we cannot accept people as complex wholes, but treat them as
enumerable, quantifiable commodities alone, we cannot imagine a truly
diverse world – because the frame we are fitting people in is one of
sameness, a single imagination, and a single story.
People often ask us if we have been
trolled since we talk about sex on the internet. The answer to that
question is surprising. We have never been trolled. We believe it is
because of the fact that we do not speak a language of aggression and of
reforming somebody who is imperfect and needs to be fixed. Rather, we
speak a language of exchange, inclusion and love which honours the human
experiences and gives it dignity through art and offerings of pleasure
and enjoyment. This, we believe, creates a confidence in the self, a
belief in the right to be human - which is also a human right - and a
world where we do not need to fear change, but can define change on
mutual terms and walk towards it, hand in hand.
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