An Interview with Kavita Krishnan on International Women’s Day

Kavita Krishnan

Transcribed by: SMIW Editorial | Image by: Wande Magazine

This International Women’s Day, we had the opportunity to dialogue with one of our favourite feminists, Kavita Krishnan. In our conversation with Kavita, she spoke about the feminist movement in India, intersectionality, men’s rights activists, the “feminism vs equalism” debate, brahminical patriarchy, Indian rape laws, triple talaq, Donald Trump and of course, the current Central government and Prime Minister. Here is the conversation transcribed in full:

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SMIW: How do you like to introduce yourself?

Kavita Krishnan: I am the Secretary of the All India Progressive Women Association (AIPWA). It is a left wing women’s organisation which doesn’t take any funding. It is not an NGO and takes neither government funding nor corporate. I’ve usually described myself as a Communist feminist or Marxist feminist. I feel as though I should not have to say separately that I am a feminist. I feel that every Marxist and Communist by definition should be a feminist because being a feminist is about changing, radically transforming, revolutionizing patriarchal structures, recognising that these structures are not natural and organising and fighting collectively to change that. If being a feminist is that then every Marxist and Communist ought to be a feminist.

But I do recognise that now I tend to say that I am a Marxist feminist or I am a Communist feminist because I also feel that Marxists and Communists in today’s world have to lay claim to the history and legacy of the feminist movement. They also organised working women to fight against Capitalism and they do not see patriarchy as separable from Capitalism.

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SMIW: As an influential feminist whom many look up to, what would you say to young (and old) Indians looking to learn more about the feminist movement and how they can be a part of it?

Kavita: I don’t see myself as necessarily being influential. I think that I am a feminist activist and there are many feminist activists all over the country. I would say that we, men or women or transgender persons or anyone, need to recognise that things we take for granted as being normal and natural are all things that we need to question. The world that we see it around us looks perfectly normal and natural but we refuse to recognise that much of violence, discrimination and oppression against women even sexual violence against children tends to happen in the structures we venerate. These are families, households, religious institutions, schools, and so on. We need to recognise that these things are not god given or born in nature like that. We can imagine the world differently where women alone will not have to do care work and cooking; where violence against women will not be a reality; where society is not divided into caste; and where racial discrimination is not a reality.

All of us can and should try to organise and participate in feminist movements. We should try and join movements in ways that we can. If you are a man and are unable to join a women’s group then try and find ways in which men can make a difference. For that, it doesn’t mean that you become a man who sounds like he is an expert on feminism. We don’t need men to come and explain to women how they can be better feminists. Leave that to women! I’d like to quote a blogger I read on Instagram that:

“Instead of saving our daughters, we need to save our sons from patriarchy, misogyny and toxic masculinity.”

We need men to talk to other men, trying to help them to recognise how they can be men differently.

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SMIW: How do you define intersectionality and how important is it to the modern day gender movement in India?

Kavita: Intersectionality is colloquially understood as being recognition that different people are oppressed in different ways and to different degrees. You need to recognise that how caste, class, gender and race are operating and interacting with each other in order to create specific form of oppression and that you can’t just look at women as an undifferentiated category. Having said that, I will say that I am a little critical of the term intersectionality. I feel that its misleading in some way if you look at it because it means as though there are different roads that intersect. That’s the analogy here. To imagine caste, class, gender and race as different roads intersecting in some places is useful only up to a point.

How do we look at these operations as part of one system not separate systems? So if it’s a part of one system in which different kinds of oppression are working in specific ways, what is the way in which we could help ourselves understand these forms of oppression and recognise them in our day to day organising and feminist work?

I have found it useful to read works on social reproductive feminism which have tried to assimilate the gains of intersectionality while trying to retain the idea of a single system in which different kinds of oppression and exploitation work together, holding up the system together and requiring of us to fight that system together.

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SMIW: Many today associate feminism with man-hate. Feminists are casually compared to Nazis and there is a vocal Men’s Rights movement out there whose agenda just seems to attacks, discredit and derail women who speak out. These people are often supported / followed by top political leaders. How can we collectively address and reclaim this narrative? 

Kavita: To answer this question, I think we all need a sense of history and history will tell us that comparing feminism with Nazis is ridiculous and an insult to the victims of the Nazis. Nazism is about being oppressive, conducting massacres of minorities in your society and country.

I feel like asking people who call us feminazis, “Are you really against Nazis?” Because it sounds like you’re very comfortable with the Nazis in India today which is the RSS, Sangh Parivar and the BJP or with Donald Trump.

In fact, Trump is their poster boy for the so called men’s rights activists and he is also someone who is comfortable with real, actual Nazis.

What does the so called idea of men’s rights mean exactly? If people were to ask what about men’s rights to be protected from sexual violence, rape, transphobia and homophobia, etc. I would say absolutely! The feminist movement should absolutely be concerned with this and this should be a part of the movement. In that sense we are for men’s rights. For example, feminists in India have been raising the issue that nearly 40% of rape cases in Delhi in 2013 that came to Delhi’s trial court were cases of consensual elopements where parents of the girls or women had falsely accused their boyfriends or husbands of rape and kidnapping. So those were not rape cases at all. We have recognised that it is men from oppressed or minority communities who tend to be disproportionately implicated in such cases. Are we not taking about men’s rights? We are!

But what men’s right activism (MRA) has come to be a euphemism, which actually means, protect patriarchal privileges. It should be called the PPP movement (laughs). In India they call themselves Save Family. What do you mean by “save family”? Are women threatening families? What you are saying is that save the patriarchal families in which women can be killed for dowry, subjected to physical mental and economic torture in the name of saving the family.

We need to break through this discourse. I too am disturbed by the disproportionate grip these MRAs have in the media. They have the ear of political parties and I don’t mean only in the ruling party. I see how they can influence someone who’s reasonably sensitive.

For example, Delhi Commission of Women’s Chief in Delhi today who otherwise is a woman whom I respect. But I see the influence the MRAs have on her, the Save Family types, to an extent where the falsehood they project tends to become an established truth with the help of a lazy media that doesn’t do its job.

How do we reclaim the narrative? See we can’t always be battling this narrative on Social media and so on. It’s exhausting. It will tire you out. We should be building on recognising our strengths and claim to those strengths. Women’s movements in India in the past 4-5 years have been successful to a great degree in establishing their narratives. For example, a variety of movements, Pinjra tod, or my own organisation which raise slogans of Bekhauf Azadi along with students’ organisation like the AISA. They all have been raising the issues of discriminatory hostel rules against women and they have made their mark in the media and in the society at large as well. They’ve made the idea more popular that you cannot curtail women’s azadi or freedom in the name of keeping them safe (laughs). In fact, curtailing their azadi makes them more unsafe. So I feel this is the way in which we can continue to assert our narrative and not worry much about the narrative which the Save Family types or MRAs are spreading.

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SMIW: There are also many, including some influential celebrities followed by millions, who imply that feminism is a bad word – by either rejecting it entirely or going with the famous ‘why not call it equalism’ cop-out. What can we do to engage with them constructively and reclaim this narrative?

Kavita: About celebrities who say I am not a feminist and why not equalism and so on, I would say that these are basically sound bites. Obviously they are trying to do a balancing act and not own up as feminists because they feel that they will lose support of those who are anti feminist. I don’t know how helpful it is to engage or argue with them beyond this. We can’t rely on celebrities for our message. Celebrities say this because they are a part of a commercial system and they fear the financial and political consequences of this. I think of it as being at par with the celebrities who basically suck up to Narendra Modi or Trump because they think they need to do that. How can we rely on them? How can we expect them to change? I don’t think they are going to change.

So what I concentrate on more is that I don’t see people being “celebrities” or whatever. I think in the world of art, culture, films and sports, you will find people who speak sensibly about feminism.  We need to do what we can to amplify their voice and engage with them. And this has happened if you look at it in the other parts of the world. Let’s get back to basics and keep doing what we are doing. We should just be courageous and honest citizens who organised and boldly assert without feeling that we need to tweak our message in order to appease certain kind of misogynist audiences.

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SMIW: Media plays a big role in furthering gender stereotypes and normalising a culture of sexual harassment and violence. This includes cinema, TV, stand up comedy and literature. How can we collectively address and reform this on a systemic level and how important are movements like SMIW who use humour, pop culture and  new media to challenge this pattern and break these stereotypes?

Kavita: Yes, of course media has a huge role specially in a country like India where the literacy levels are low in shaping up perceptions not only on women but on so many other issues. It’s not just about misogynist and sexist film songs or TV series. It’s also about the average television news. Just today I saw a Republic TV manel where there were 15 manly men war mongering in little little boxes packed into the television screen. What message are they sending out to young viewers?

Secondly, I would say that the harm done to women and women movements goes beyond this. Look at what news media does when it demonising Kashmiris for instance. You are basically creating a situation where there’s no scope of Kashmiri women to come out and talk about their struggles for justice. For the rapes that were perpetrated in Kunan and Poshpora in 1991. Can anyone talk about it on any news channel in India? Can there ever be a show on Indian television at this time and age about it? Is there any channel which talks to the women who wrote the book “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” They wrote it after the Delhi gang rape case. But is there any television channel that would be able to talk to them?

How many channels are there that would be able to talk about the ongoing Supreme Court case about the 1,500 custodial killings and rape cases in Manipur perpetrated by men wearing uniforms that signify India? Instead, you find media completely complicit in silencing this discourse.

It’s a tough situation. But yes, social media and alternative media do have a role and we need to make as much use of that as possible.

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SMIW: Brahminical patriarchy has been in the news recently but the said system itself is centuries old and yet not recognised by many. How would you explain it to a novice and how big a role do you think caste plays in an Indian woman’s subjugation?

Kavita: Brahminical patriarchy is a problem specific to India. Let’s face it. Caste is the backbone of patriarchal subjugation of women in India. There is a lot of resistance to recognising this. But the restrictions on women’s autonomy, what is that about? Because if women are free to love and marry whom they please, the caste system is in danger of breaking down. That is why the borders of caste are surveilled and policed – to prevent women from crossing them. Dalit women bear a huge burden of this. They are expected to be sexually available, and the kind of sanitation work and demeaning labour they are expected to do, are all huge problems in our country. But, while Dalit women are of course disproportionately at the receiving end of Brahminical patriarchy, in some way every woman in India is affected by it.

So, you can’t have a feminist movement in India that is not fighting against Brahminical patriarchy. If it’s not then it can’t be called a feminist movement.

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SMIW: Do you think stricter rape laws are necessarily the solution for addressing sexual violence? If not, what is?

Kavita: My emphasis has never been on how severe the punishment is. It is more about what kind of changes are needed in the laws and how they respectful of women’s autonomy and dignity. You still have a phrase like “Outraging a woman’s modesty” on the books in the IPC.  Similarly, the Indian laws fix the age of consent at 18. If a 16-17 year girls has a relationship with an 18-19 year old boy, it should not be considered statutory rape and yet our laws do that. These laws are used in Patriarchal ways to crack down on consensual relationships between young people and are disproportionately used against Dalit, oppressed caste and Muslim boys and men. So, it is not about making stricter laws but about making laws more gender sensitive and also about changing the framework of how laws plays in courtrooms and society. There should be strict action against judges who pass unconstitutional judgements who orders an adult woman back in the custody of her parental homes because she married someone her parents didn’t approve of.

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SMIW: What do you have to say about the recent Triple Talaq law and the call for a Uniform Civil Code in India?

Kavita: I believe that we need personal laws to be gender just but diverse. The autonomy of different communities to have different personal laws is not just the concern of Muslims or the Christian community. It’s also the consideration of Adivasi communities, transgender persons and a variety of other oppressed communities in India. The problem is that in the Indian political discourse, the BJP has muddies the waters and spread communal poison so much that now when someone talks about Uniform Civil Code, people automatically think it is about the Muslims not being allowed to oppress their women.

Instant triple talaq should not be considered divorce, this is what the Supreme Court also said and this happened when Muslim women went to court to fight for it. The issue is that after this, should instant triple talaq be criminalised? We have established it is not divorce, so does a legally invalid attempt to divorce a woman by saying talaq three times become a crime? Because men of every community abandon their wives without a legally valid divorce all the time. But we are not sending them to jail.

We are not sending our Prime Minister to jail for doing exactly the same thing to his wife! In that case, how can you have a law specifically criminalising Muslim men? The answer is not to criminalise all men for invalid forms of divorce.

The answer lies in creating supportive structures for women facing this kind of abandonment. To improve our maintenance laws. We need to make sure they are better equipped to gain the maintenance they need. Coming back to instant triple talaq, if a qazi or religious authority validates is as divorce then they should lose their registration. Regarding the changes we need in the various personal laws, we need to look at the recommendations and frameworks provided in the  High Level Committee on the Status of Women Report (2015) headed by Pam Rajput to have a wider discussion on this subject.

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SMIW: Last but not the least, what message would you give to our small audience on this International Women’s Day, many of whom themselves identify as spoilt modern Indian women?

Kavita: I think the idea that “spoilt” women are on top in a kalyug -like world turned upside down is not new. We need to remind ourselves that this was said about women in the last century and the century before that as well. Our grandmothers were spoilt modern women too in the sense that patriarchy considered them spoilt for demanding what they wanted. The Theragatha nuns in the 11th century who left their husbands and became Buddhist monks to get away from a life in the kitchen and abusive husbands must have been considered spoilt as well. So, in short we need to have the confidence that we are not a small group of spoilt modern women.

Our grandmothers and great grandmothers were just as spoilt as us and whatever we do, we do it with their spirit with us in this struggle!

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