Kavita Krishnan on her book Fearless Freedom, what empowerment means, and why 'unlearning' propels equality

Kavita Krishnan's debut book examines the various facets of 'freedom' for women in modern-day India, revealing the deceptive ways in which seemingly benign tropes, hiding in plain sight, disempower women in the garb of emancipation.

Arshia Dhar May 28, 2020 09:10:18 IST
Kavita Krishnan on her book Fearless Freedom, what empowerment means, and why 'unlearning' propels equality

The introduction to Kavita Krishnan's book Fearless Freedom, titled 'If You Want to Be Safe, Why Do You Demand Freedom?' succinctly summarises the dichotomy that lies at the crux of her treatise. The communist feminist activist, who's also a part of the CPI(ML) Liberation politburo, reveals the threats to female life and autonomy that hide in plain sight — in government welfare schemes, seemingly innocuous comments made in social circles, and even our school textbooks.

Krishnan's debut book is, unsurprisingly, an extension of her unapologetic voice that was thrust to the fore following the 2012 Delhi rape incident. The activist had protested against a controversial statement made by then-Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, who questioned Jyoti's decision to venture out at night. Eight years since, the conviction in her voice has only grown more robust. In an interaction with Firstpost, Krishnan speaks about the 'disempowerment' often hidden in 'empowerment', men as feminist allies, and what truly entails justice for victims of sexual assault.

Kavita Krishnan on her book Fearless Freedom what empowerment means and why unlearning propels equality

Kavita Krishnan. Facebook/kavita.krishnan

You point out through the length of your book that in India, women are required to trade their freedom for their safety. It's a subject that hits home for women all over. Was it difficult to research on and write about issues that might often feel personal? Did you ever feel like you might lose objectivity?

Not really. I felt instead that as a woman and a feminist, I had insight and experience that could supply objectivity to the conversation. The conversation around the issue of women's safety has till now been dominated by those least objective about it: custodians of the patriarchal, casteist, capitalist system, with vested interests in rationalising curbs on women's freedoms. Is it not strange that we think women can't be "objective" about their own freedoms?

In one of your chapters you write: "If you think education makes for greater freedom for women, you are wrong. Education contributes only marginally to freedom of movement — 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."

I find this juxtaposition of education and mobility of women quite interesting and startling, especially because education can be a powerful tool for social emancipation. Would you say it's possible to subvert education as a tool for empowering women further? If yes, where does this process of education and subversion really begin?

I am not saying that education is not important. Education is a right. But education is not a magic pill to cure patriarchy. There is no magic pill. There's a difference between saying "quality education of equitable standards should be available as a right to all" (this is true), and making the not so true claim that "education can set the oppressed free." Those who are educated are not necessarily less oppressive. Those who are less educated are not more oppressive than those with a lot of degrees (if anything, the opposite tendency is true).

Education in itself may or may not aid social emancipation. Education systems tend to school individuals to accept rather than challenge hierarchies and subordination. Whatever subversion happens, usually happens outside the formal schooling system. Of course education is a right. But education itself is not emancipation. Emancipation requires us to acknowledge and identify structures of oppression and inequity, and fight to change those structures. India's schooling system does not acknowledge caste or gender or class inequality. Mention of these hierarchies in school textbooks is taboo. Meanwhile plenty of prejudices (casteist communal, patriarchal) get reproduced in schooling (covertly, or even blatantly when schools segregate students based on caste or faith or gender; or when school officials tell girls (as they did in my own school in Bhilai), that they should not take away engineering seats and jobs from boys, and tell boys that the home-science subject was not a suitable option for them).

You draw your readers' attention to the deceptive ways in which language functions in furthering patriarchy in the garb of women empowerment, especially in various government schemes. And yet, there are women who have been conditioned into accepting such messages as their uncontested reality, thereby leading them to condone such stances. How does one address this issue without further endangering the lives of such women?

The schemes I speak of garb disempowerment as "empowerment" — and not just through linguistic or discursive strategies but in very real, material ways. Women's lives are endangered by these schemes, not by the attempts of feminist movements to encourage women to assert their autonomy. We are all subject to conditioning (even those of us who are educated and from elite, even progressive households). Learning to take our own experiences and insights, as well as our urge for autonomy seriously, is the only way towards any genuine "empowerment".

When it comes to women who are complicit in acts like honour killing, dowry, sex selection, what are your thoughts on challenging this culpability, considering advocates of patriarchy often use this as an excuse to let the system off the hook.

Just because women also participate in oppressing other women and marginalised genders, does not legitimise gender-based oppression or discredit feminism. Early in my book, I discuss findings that a larger proportion of women than men in India, openly justify wife-beating and domestic violence. I observe there that this fact is not especially surprising to me as a feminist activist: "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...unsurprisingly, it is older women who 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." Recognising this does not mean condoning women who are complicit in gender-based violence, nor can it mean condoning such violence itself or dissing the very existence of patriarchy.

What are the most important steps that men can take in order to be allies to women and members of other gender groups? Is unlearning an important aspect of the exercise?

Men have a huge part to play. We all have unlearning to do, irrespective of which gender or sexual orientation we identify with. But men need to play a far greater part in talking to and persuading other men and boys to acknowledge and resist patriarchy. Woke men need not expect praise and pats on the back from women for being woke. They really need to stop themselves from telling women how to (and how not to) fight patriarchy. Instead they should ask themselves, "How much are we doing everyday to change how other men and boys perceive masculinity and treat persons of other genders?"

Kavita Krishnan on her book Fearless Freedom what empowerment means and why unlearning propels equality

Fearless Freedom by Kavita Krishnan

In one of your other chapters you write: "People are going to continue to be patriarchal, they say so one has to appeal to their patriarchal interests to allow girls to be born. If individual patriarchal families want to avoid girls, perhaps they can be induced to allowing girls to be born in the collective interest of patriarchal society, or so the argument goes. The problem is that as long as women are devalued and denied personhood and equality, patriarchy is not particularly insecure."

Does it surprise you that such campaigns continue to find acceptance across various sections of society, and that they have only seldom been flagged as problematic? Does this also point to gaps in the discourse and pedagogy in feminism at present?

It is really not the job of feminists to have to explain how using fire to fight fire, that is using patriarchy to fight patriarchy — is a bad strategy, doomed to fail; in fact that it is a strategy designed to protect rather than challenge patriarchy. And yet we feminists continually do this thankless task. After that, it is a bit much to be asked if the persistence of the notions we fight daily, is because we feminists have failed! Surely, it is anti-feminists, and those indifferent to feminism, not feminists, who bear responsibility for persistence of anti-feminist ideas and campaigns?

With recent movements like #MeToo and Shaheen Bagh in India, do you think the feminist vocabulary for women has also begun to evolve — cutting across regions, languages, religions and castes?

I would put it differently. In fact, feminist vocabulary in India is evolving to better appreciate how women from different castes, classes, and oppressed communities articulate feminism differently. There is no singular feminism — there are plural feminisms, and that is welcome.

What are your views on the recent #boislockerroom incident, which involves a group of school-going teenagers. How does one address this issue among impressionable age groups such as the one in question, without using coercive measures for reformation?

I think that in very large part, the silence in Indian society and schools about gender, caste and class hierarchies and oppressions, and about sexuality, is a breeding ground for the #boislockerroom type of phenomenon which is very widespread. It becomes more and more toxic with growing age and entitlement. Instead of thinking about how to "reform" boys, we need to think about how to reform our schooling and our society. There are no easy answers there. But I do believe that a more honest and open-ended system of education that is less focussed on competition and more on mutual understanding, is the way forward. One of the most insightful and sensitive articles on the whole episode is by Paromita Vohra for Firstpost.

The hanging of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape convicts earlier this year led to social media dividing on the issue of capital punishment yet again. You begin your book with this incident, and you've also strongly advocated against the death penalty. It has even been empirically proven that capital punishment does not bring about a reduction in violence against women. However, since a systemic overhaul of attitudes and thoughts is slated to take centuries, how does one, in the meantime, go about "bringing justice" to victims of sexual abuse, according to you?

I think the point my book seeks to make is that hanging, capital punishment, do not merely "fail" to reduce gender-based violence. They actively help bolster up and cover up for patriarchy. They divert and distract us from the uncomfortable issues we need to raise with our selves and our own households and societies. Justice for victims of abuse and violence need not wait centuries — it can happen the minute we create a climate (in society, in police stations, in courtrooms, in politics) where those victims can speak their truth without being shamed and blamed. Fighting the culture of victim blaming goes a long way towards achieving justice. "Justice" is about acknowledging the harm done to the victim, honouring their truth — it is not equal to a particular jail sentence and certainly not to the death penalty.

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