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Friday, November 27, 2020

Kavita Krishnan: Women at the Shaheen Baghs all over India are fighting for us all to be free

Kavita Krishnan spoke to regarding the pronouncements she made in the book, her perception of fearless freedom and the insidious way language affirms entitlement of men even when used for the benefit of women.

Written by Ishita Sengupta | New Delhi | Updated: March 8, 2020 9:49:35 am
In her book, Fearless Freedom, Kavita Krishnan does not subvert the seemingly offensive adjectives used against women but accepts them.

Kavita Krishnan’s Twitter bio reads like an assertion. The succinct, “Woman who misbehaves & rants on TV, Twitter, FB, YouTube!” bears the exasperation of an-oft repeated observation made about her and also her defiant acceptance that they are right, this is she. In her new book, Fearless Freedom, she does something similar: rather than subverting the seemingly offensive adjectives used against women, she persuades to accept them. The origin of the problem, she maintains, is in the innate expectation from women to be a certain way and not in women being a particular way.

The activist, who has been a recurrent voice of women through various ordeals, argues with the authority and precision of an analyst the extent of oppression suffered by women, the ubiquity of it (cutting through caste and class barriers) and its utter unfairness.

She spoke to regarding the pronouncements she made in the book, her perception of fearless freedom and the insidious way language affirms entitlement of men even when used for the benefit of women.


In your book, Fearless Freedom, you write, “You want to protect anything, protect our fearless freedom“.  How would you define the state of fearless freedom?

I do not think of ‘fearless freedom’ as a state – more as the unconditional right to seek to live freely. I am not saying that the need to keep women safe, shows that they are not yet free. Instead, I am pointing out that in India, women are expected to trade their freedom for their safety. Restrictions on women’s freedom are often legitimised as ways of keeping them ‘safe’. Whereas, in fact, the restrictions on women’s freedoms are themselves perhaps the most widespread form of gender-based violence in India. I think many women are rather tired of being told that they have to be kept locked up in order to be ‘safe’. The restrictions on our freedoms do not keep us safe – instead they make us unsafe. It is often assumed that women in India live in constant fear of rape and sexual violence. What we often ignore is the fact that rape is not all that women in India fear. Women in India are fearful of being perceived as “shameless”. They are continuously under pressure to seek permission for and offer a “respectable” explanation for their wish to step out of the house.

Why is it that phrases with “free” in them (“loose”, “free sex” etc) are used so liberally as abuse against women, even in modern political usage? Is it only some outdated khaps that seek to keep women confined? Or do modern factories, workplaces, and political formations do the same? My book seeks to bust some of the myths around gender-based violence, safety, and danger in India.

While writing about the various restrictions imposed on women and the role caste plays in determining that, you argue, “There are no measurable differences between Hindu, Muslim and women of other religious minorities. Do you believe that coercion of women will cuts through religious gradations?

The coercion cuts through religious, caste, status and education gradations, to my surprise. The fact that just 41 per cent of Indian women are allowed to go alone outside the house (National Family Health Survey-4) was no surprise. But I had assumed that women from Dalit, OBC and adivasi communities, as well as educated and employed women, would enjoy significantly greater mobility. But the data is unequivocal: there is very little variation amongst women of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and ‘other’ castes when it comes to being allowed to go out of the house. If you think education makes for greater freedom for women, you would be wrong: just 42.9 per cent women with no schooling and 45.3 per cent women with twelve years or more of schooling have freedom of movement (NFHS-4). The matter becomes clearer when we see the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) data which makes a useful distinction between “women being able to go out alone and women having to seek permission to go out.”

You write about the many honour killings happening in the country without absolving woman’s role in it. How far do you think women are culpable, and does fighting against patriarchy for them involve fighting against their own self owing to years of conditioning?

Data shows that a larger proportion of women as compared to men voice justifications for domestic violence. This should not surprise us. Patriarchal social relations, like other oppressive relations, do not rely on coercion alone—they rely in very large measure on being able to acquire the consent of the subordinated classes or sections of people. Young women bear the brunt of the surveillance and restrictions, to control them sexually and discipline them to play their roles of domestic servitude. ‘Safety’ is the pretext for confining women to homes; the outcome is to create consent for the domestic servitude of women. As women grow older, they are expected to enforce the rules and supervise the labour and subordination of the daughters-in-law, even as they themselves have now earned some measure of respite from the surveillance and subordination.

I discuss scenes from a documentary on the caste-based “honour killing” of Kausalya’s Dalit husband Shankar. In one scene, Kausalya’s mother is fondly recalling how Kausalya knew only how to cook dosai: ‘When I was sick, she would cook dosai for me.’ In the very next frame, she says that she had warned Kausalya, ‘If you betray us, fall in love and elope, I’ll kill you.’

The problem is that patriarchal propagandists use such facts as an alibi for their own complicity in gender-based discrimination and violence. They say “Women are women’s worst enemies”, and by this they mean, “If women oppress other women, surely it lets men and patriarchy off the hook, surely it is okay to oppress women and surely the women’s movement is pointless.” I seek to challenge this self-serving excuse. I argue that it is collective social movements challenging patriarchal power structures that truly ‘empower’ women – not government policies and schemes that protect and justify those power structures.

Fearless Freedom is published by Penguin Random House, India.

In the book, you analyse various government campaigns (Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao etc) and deduce that the language used by them feeds into the patriarchal need to protect women. Your argument echoes what activist Audre Lorde had said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Do you feel unlearning, and not necessarily appropriating, to be the way forward for both men and women?

Indeed, it is a myth that the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. On Twitter just yesterday, I had an exchange with Sunil Jaglan, the khap panchayat leader who started the Avivahit Purush Sangathan (Unmarried Men’s Association) and the Beti Bachao and Selfie With Daughter campaigns against sex-selective abortion, which the Modi government later endorsed. Jaglan felt that my criticism was an “insult” to his campaigns which had received so much  admiration. I tried to explain the point I make in my book to him: which is that his campaign is premised on men’s entitlement to wives of the correct caste and gotra who are disciplined, docile and less likely or able to “run away” (rather than purchased wives from other states who can, and do “run away”). A campaign based on such patriarchal bases cannot dismantle the structures that devalue women and prevent women from being born.

In relation to this, do you subscribe to French feminist Hélène Cixous’ idea of Écriture féminine- establishing a different genre of writing which departs from the traditional masculine tropes of writing and be used by women to write about their own self? Do you feel the language we use for and against women to be a bigger problem than we are given to understand?

Well, to be honest, I have found that Virginia Woolf’s discussion of the pressures on women’s writing make more sense to me than Cixous’ Écriture féminine. Woolf wrote about how every woman writer has to wrestle with and kill the phantom of the self-sacrificing “Angel in the House” who tried to tell her that she must not write honestly, without flattery, about men, and must “never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure”. Even after she killed the Angel in the House which urged her to disguise her intellect and soften her opinions, Woolf said she, and she suspected most women writers, struggle to “tell the truth about my own experiences as a body”. She wrote that when it came to writing about the body and about passions: “…though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt that they realise or can control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women.”

I think the expectations about how women are supposed to write, speak, and communicate continue to be a problem. I often find myself being told by well-meaning persons (and, I admit, by the voices inside my own head), not to sound angry or hectoring or intimidating. I suspect women experience a greater pressure to sound “nice” than do men. We need to ask ourselves why we expect women’s voices (in politics, journalism, literature, life) to sound less harsh, less censorious, less loud, and less judgemental than those of men.

Does the new generation of women you see today, headlining protests and ready to speak truth to power  — at the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere — inching closer to recognising and aspiring to be fearlessly free?

I think that the women at the Shaheen Baghs all over India, and in the anti-CAA movement, are fighting for us all to be free. They are participating in a freedom struggle today – to defend and assert our collective claim to citizenship and the Constitution. But the fact is that in spite of the dangers and repression they are facing, they are also experiencing a kind of joy, in asserting their autonomy and discovering their capacities for leadership and companionship. If tomorrow CAA, NPR and NRC are rolled back, these women will not go back to being invisible in their domestic roles. They are likely to continue to lead movements to make our society a better place, to realise the promises of India’s Constitution.

You started your book with the 2012 Delhi gang rape incident. What is your opinion on the death penalty? 

Death penalty is not equivalent to justice, it is not a deterrent to rape. Instead, it is a distraction from the substantive issues on which we need to focus. We do sympathise with the anguish and anger of December 16 victim’s parents, which may feel somewhat assuaged if her assailants are hanged. But the State that fails women in every way, every day, should not be allowed to absolve its sins by taking lives and draw our attention away from the substantive changes that the State and society must ensure to make women’s lives more safe from violence, and more free. An execution falsely reassures us that rape is a “rarest of the rare” act committed by strangers, beasts. In fact, rapists are usually not strangers, but men we know and admire, and rape is a product of our patriarchal society, not an isolated rare instance. If our gaze is focused on the gallows, it is focused away from what we need to hold the government accountable for: for instance, 24/7 public transport so that the streets are flooded with women, so that no one is compelled to take a rogue bus; vastly more judges and courts so that all cases move faster; a policing and judicial system where the process of investigation and trial is not a punishment for the rape victim.

My book carries the message that there is little value in seeking the deaths of rapists. We should instead make sure we value women’s lives and freedoms more. Rather than celebrate the state’s power to hang rapists, let us continue to work for a society which would not produce and condone rapists, and blame women for rape.

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