BENDR – taking gender on a bender

By Sarah Hannan

In any community, opening a conversation about gender puts everyone in a difficult place. Given that you are initially conditioned to believe that there are only heterosexual males and females, and that based on your gender, you are required to follow a pre-decided way of life by adapting what is accepted as the norm, gender norms and gender stereotypes have developed.

While there are limited platforms that discuss gender-related matters, they are also only open and accessible to a smaller group of people; most often those who follow the same school of thought. Just six months ago, a local Facebook group called BENDR had added me to their group. The group describes itself as a safe space for dialogue on gender norms and gender stereotypes, and encourages healthy discourse to understand the limitations created in people’s minds.

The pop culture-inspired posters designed by Natalie Soysa grab one’s attention immediately to the platform, and are in fact cue cards that begin the dialogue. She is joined by Nadine Croos, Chadini Fernando, and Nalindra Godakanda. The four of them get together to research and lock on the trending topics that would be discussed in the platform. We spoke to the team to get to know how this project came about, and the responses they have received so far.

“BENDR is a social media-based dialogue platform, but we hope to expand it to an on-ground platform in a few months. In terms of content, we look at what’s going on around us both locally and internationally, how media frames the dialogue, and what academic dialogue is taking place around these topics.”

The platform engages all genders in an open dialogue on gender and the team encourages questioning gender stereotypes in the group. While there has been active and engaging discourse on gender in academic circles, with very little meaningful dialogue filtered down to the rest of the world, BENDR looks at engaging academics and the general population alike in such conversations on their platform.

“The discussions are not always pleasant because it pulls a lot on people to examine themselves outwardly in terms of gender, stereotypes, and conditioning. With that said, every BENDR conversation is always eye-opening and we all walk away learning something from it and each other.”

BENDR furthermore discusses anything in and around gender, and each week, the group has open discussions ranging from gender stereotypes to gender and sexuality, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), gender identity, and more.

“One week we’d discuss sexual harassment and the next week we would explore transgender issues or how society views masculinity. The number of things we can dialogue are quite boundless because gender has filtered itself into just about everything around us.”

Drawing our attention to one such cue that BENDR gave at the initial stage, Soysa explained how the platform used documentaries based on actual incidents to kick off a discussion on believability. She stated that many young boys get sexually abused and society is not ready to believe it takes place.

“BENDR used this discussion to widen the periphery and focus on who is affected by the patriarchy and why people need to start believing the reported crimes. This in turn encourages a culture of reporting sexual crimes in a society that has the habit of sweeping things under the carpet. Eventually, these points get filtered into visuals that become conversation starters on our group.”

Social media platforms at times turn into battle grounds and with the topics discussed that are especially gender sensitive and bound to trigger certain persons, we asked BENDR how they are different from all other online forums. “Our upbringings, learned behaviours, the media we are exposed to, and even the histories of the people we interact with determine our opinions to a great extent. We are challenging things that have never been questioned or have been taken for granted. We think this is a good thing, because we also want to encourage self-reflection. There are no wrong answers, only different opinions. Once they are all expressed, we can learn from one another.”

Just a few months ago, their blog published a victim testimony of a foreigner who was gang raped by a Sri Lankan politician and his driver, and the team now encourages people to voice and express heinous and unreported incidents that would otherwise go unheard.

When asked about the response they’ve received so far, we were informed that it was overwhelming. “We get messages from both friends and strangers encouraging us, stating we are onto something here. We also have a lot of people tell us that they are glad there is an inclusive group which anyone can join – as long as they adhere to the strict BENDR policy of respecting everyone’s views, even if they are different from yours.”

Wrapping up our conversation, we inquired what BENDR aims to achieve through their platform, to which they responded: “Our aim is to have people open up to the idea of exploring subjects beyond them and all what we have ‘been told’. So as for the change aspect, we believe that’s mainly on each individual on BENDR and what that person takes away from each discussion.”

The team informed that they plan to have trilingual content in the coming months and will also have activities on ground and it will be a space for activism and campaigning. The team plans to run activations around the country to build awareness around gender issues and gender-based crimes. The team is also eager to get their unique visual identity out and expand into a brand that will in turn fund their other work.