Voices from the Field: Feminism, Incarceration, and the Power of Organizing

June 27, 2019

Sadiya Khan is a sophomore at Arizona State University and a Forge Fellow with the Roosevelt Network.

Growing up as a Bengali American woman in Arizona, I have repeatedly been left with an unshakable feeling of being an outsider looking in. Belonging to the only Muslim family in my small community, I struggled to relate to my peers. I can recall being forced to navigate a variety of stereotypes and constantly fielding discriminatory questions and comments throughout my youth, as I very clearly stood out with my dark skin and Arabic name. Despite this, I still understood and empathized with the struggles my community was facing. As I noticed these trends, I grew more and more disillusioned with the power of government and public policy, as they repeatedly harmed communities of color just like mine. As time went on, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the issues around me and the lack of opportunity. This feeling of disillusionment left me desiring a space where I could talk about these topics.

Deciding to take matters into my own hands, I created a Feminist Club at my high school. I found students who were like me; their discontent was boiling over, and they wanted a platform to discuss and act. All of us had frustrations with what we saw occurring in our community and beyond and felt united by similar views and values. This club laid the foundation for my focus on the impact that I could have in the midst of a seemingly stagnant and unjust system, while also having a space I felt comfortable in. I had finally found a space where I felt free to express myself and work on issues that mattered to me. I learned the value of community organizing and the joy of seeing tangible impacts from my work.

I primarily experienced this joy through the club’s main project, one we called the Period Project. This was a hygiene product drive for Maggie’s Place, a shelter that houses pregnant women and single mothers without homes. One of the most surprising pushbacks from this initiative was the backlash we received from school administration for using this question in our flyers: “Can you imagine having to reuse a pad or tampon?” That message was deemed graphic. In spite of the pushback, however, we persisted and were able to collect around nine large boxes of menstrual products, an amount that could supply the shelter for about a month. Delivering the products to the shelter was the moment I realized the power of organizing: There were real people who were going to benefit directly from the work we’d done. There were now human faces to the problem we had talked about and worked on for so long.

I carried this passion with me to college; as soon as my freshman year, I was looking for any way to get involved with the issues I cared about. While I scrolled through my school’s newsletter, I noticed something called the “Forge Fellowship” with the Roosevelt Network and clicked on the link to learn more. I grew increasingly intrigued with the opportunity to connect with student-activists like me from across the country. Ultimately, I applied because I strongly desired a network of people that felt the same way about their communities as I did about mine. I was accepted, and this has brought me into contact with students who are doing amazing work nationally, ranging from restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, to increasing clean water access in Flint, Michigan, to promoting economic literacy.

As for myself, I chose to develop a strategy to secure a policy that would provide access to menstrual hygiene products in Maricopa County prisons. I felt that my work in high school taught me the fundamentals of research and how best to advocate for this issue. Through advocacy, I learned how to approach menstrual health through policy, as opposed to just direct action.

I was especially inspired by a bill from Arizona State Representative Athena Salman (D-26th). House Bill 2222, known as the “Dignity Act,” pushed for an unlimited supply of hygiene products to Arizona prisoners and prohibited prisons from charging inmates for menstrual hygiene products. Under the existing policy, Arizona prisoners are supposed to receive 12 pads per month, after which they must use their own money to buy more if needed. However, my research found that prisons do not follow this policy as strictly as they should. An interview with a formerly incarcerated woman found that guards fail to provide hygiene products regularly, play favorites amongst prisoners, and engage in other abusive practices. This is why the push that Salman’s bill provided is critical. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated, and though her work motivated local prisons to make slight improvements for a few months, they ultimately returned to their previous practices.

Understanding this made me cognizant of how much of the work I am interested in doing comes down to enforcement and genuine policy implementation. I learned that policy does not solve issues when institutions are allowed to police themselves. Accountability, I have come to realize, is a crucial but often overlooked part of the policymaking process.

This was especially clear in a conversation I had with a formerly incarcerated woman about potential solutions and their implementation. I reached out to her through a professor and visited her during her work break at a local church. During an hour-and-a-half-long conversation, she detailed her prison experience to me, and I told her about my fellowship involvement. I asked her where she saw change occurring and what that would look like. She talked about how she thinks policy is great and can make huge strides in social change, but at the end of the day, what matters is implementation and accountability.

The guards still treated them awfully despite existing policies, and as previously mentioned, favoritism among guards played a large role in who received what, ultimately leaving several inmates with little to nothing. She described to me the blood-stained, dirty rags she saw regularly. She described to me how prisoners were forced to trade, barter, and spend whatever little money they made on menstrual hygiene management. What was particularly moving was the way she described the desperation she and others felt to gain some form of power in a place where they felt powerless. She outlined how being deprived of something as basic as cleanliness was extremely emotionally damaging, and I am certain she is not the only one. It is clear that these practices—the result of poor policy implementation—leave many prisoners at a loss.

Looking back, the most valuable lesson I learned for future public service leadership is how vital it is to involve impacted communities. I had conducted individual research about accessing menstrual hygiene products in prison; however, it was not until I had the chance to speak with incarcerated women that I understood that the communities impacted by issues are the people who best understand what solutions are needed to address them.

It may be obvious, but the point bears repeating nonetheless: In social change work, I have come to understand that there is no substitute for working with those who are directly impacted. I intend to keep employing the principle in my work, whether at my college or beyond. The voices that matter most are those of the most directly impacted, and I hope to elevate them throughout my future endeavors.