Hailing from a patriarchal Punjabi family, Aastha Vohra had her thought processes moulded in a way they are moulded for most – thoughts passed down from the family. It was only much later, when she moved to another city for higher education, and the exposure that move brought along, that she understood the implications of gender in the real world.
Aastha shared these implications and her experiences with her close friend Ritesh D. Ritelin (they have been friends since they were 13) and during the intense discussions, both understood minutely the gap that exists in society. One that needs to be bridged to help people move on from being judgemental to being open, accepting and understanding.
The idea of this bridge formed the basis of the business they set up, and, that is how Manzuri was born. Attempting to become India’s first sex education company, Manzuri is trying to bring about a change wherein there is adequate focus on inclusive and pleasure positive sex education. The duo is ensuring this is done in a variety of ways – with blogs, community activities on digital platforms and by providing a platform for people to share their experiences openly. Soon, they hope to build a platform to offer judgement-free medical consultations, to help people with the taboos encountered with gynaecologists. They duo also hopes to launch sex education courses to cater to the population at large. The name Manzuri, is derived from a Japanese word that translates to ‘ten thousand rubs’, also translates to ‘consent’ in Hindi, both of which are essential to the task at their hand. The perfect choice for the name, Aastha tells us.
We caught up with Aastha Vohra, Co-founder and CEO, Manzuri. Edited exceprts from the chat:
You were interested early on in exploring gender inequality and the ways it impacts our ability to be authentic to ourselves. How did this thought even come about?
Everybody has an identity, whether it is rooted in their gender, politics or age. It would be false to say that I came to this world with a knowledge of who I am and the role my gender would come to play in defining it. Growing up I recognised something was different but could not quite put a finger on it.
It was only much later when I left my cocoon and moved to a completely new city to pursue my higher education that I saw the intersection of my gender with society play out in real time. Of course, the cosmopolitan environment of the college accompanied with a very diverse set of friends from all walks of life helped me unfold and understand where I came from and gave me a deeper understanding of self.
During this exploration, what sort of experiences did you go through?
Everybody wants to be a doctor, teacher, lawyer when they grow up. The answer is rarely ever ‘feminist’. Moving to a new city and later to a country meant I had to figure out everything by myself. I started with myself and set roots to what felt sincere and genuine. This phase of my life also saw me gain agency of my body, life and its decisions.
When in the scheme of life did you think about Manzuri? Did all the conversations with Ritesh lead to you establishing it for providing solutions where there seemed to be none?
I come from a very different background when compared to Ritesh. I remember recounting an incident from college to Ritesh where my roommate at the hostel introduced me to the cheapest vibrator that was rebranded and sold on the net as a ‘face massager’. Ritesh and I could not believe that something so basic was so inaccessible to women who make up 48% of the total population. That is why our products cater to everyone, but with a focus on vulva-owners. So yes, we did start off on this journey to provide accessibility to vulva-owners to invest in themselves, and fortunately, conversations around our pleasure are finding their way into the mainstream media.
What kinds of challenges did you face when you wanted to launch Manzuri? How did you navigate these challenges?
We were shadow banned, rejected and banned by several digital and social media platforms and payment gateways. We had to get creative and reinvent a lot of the traditional ways that a business model such as ours depends on. Finally, LinkedIn removed its ban and flipped their policy completely, now giving more push to sex-positive content. We made that happen, yes, but we couldn’t have done it alone. The community helped us push our case.
Had your family come around regarding your thought processes and life by the time you set up Manzuri? How did you convince them?
It has been a process telling them about Manzuri. To be quite candid about it, setting up Manzuri happened first. Telling them about when and how came much later.
Did your gender ever pose a hindrance for you when you wanted to establish Manzuri? Does it pose any problems now?
‘Why are you wearing such short clothes?’
‘Why do you run a company that sells sex toys? Is this the only thing that you do?’
‘Will you continue running this business after you get married?’
‘You’ve done your master’s and you’re still doing this?’
These are just some of the questions that I run into quite often. It is important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight and is a constant process.
How do you tackle naysayers?
What we’re doing is a process, and something that will take decades to accomplish. We do see small victories here and there – women writing to us and telling us how they had their first orgasms ever because of a vibrator they purchased; someone DM-ing us and telling us how they got out of an abusive relationship because of a blog that we wrote – these things keep us going, but we’re just getting started and it’s too early to be proud or content with anything we’ve done. The only thing we know is – we’re on the right track.
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