Kavita Krishnan is a socialist activist and a well-known international spokesperson for the movement against sexual violence in India.
A Communist Party of India―Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) Liberation leader, Krishnan was a featured guest at the Socialist Alliance's national conference held in Sydney from June 7 to 9. An abridged version of the speech she gave to the conference is published below the Green Left TV video of her ful speech.
I’d like to start by discussing how not to talk about rape in India. We cannot talk about it as though it is a problem that happens in India and nowhere else.
I say this because generally the way in which the international media has talked about incidences of rape in India has been extremely problematic.
Recently, after the case of two young girls who were raped and strung up from a tree, I got calls from various media. One was from the BBC in London for a radio program. I couldn’t hear exactly who the anchor was speaking to, but it was somebody from the British foreign secretary’s office.
They spoke to her before they spoke to me, and the entire program was about this incident in India, another in Pakistan and a third incident in Sudan. It started by saying “let’s talk about the problems women face in some parts of the world”, as though it’s only those parts of the world with these problems.
And then they asked the woman from the foreign secretary's office, “Could you discontinue aid to these countries?” When she got back to me I was trying very hard not to be incoherent with rage I said: “How come you are able to group Pakistan, India and Sudan together? Why not group India, Pakistan and California together [in referrence to the UC Santa Barbara killings of women]?
“Clearly because then you can’t ask somebody in the British government 'would you discontinue giving aid to America?' That would screw up your neat picture of violence against women in some parts of the world being a white government’s burden.”
But one of the really encouraging things I have seen lately is the sharing and solidarity across countries.
For instance, recently there was an article by Estelle Tan from Melbourne who now lives in New York. She wrote an “open letter to my male friends”. It’s a powerful piece.
She writes about the daily experience of sexual harassment that she faces on the streets in New York. She writes that it is constant in America.
For me that was an eye-opener. You could have just substituted New York for Delhi, or many other cities, in each of those incidences and it would have been the same constant harassment.
In India, you’re often asked, “Why didn’t you go to the police? Why didn’t you file a complaint?” And Estelle said if she was to file a complaint, she'd be doing little else.
She also writes about how a decision has to be made every single time, “how do I respond?”
Putting it in the context of the California shootings, she writes: “Every time a man whistles up on the street, murmering that I’m gorgeous or sexy, I ignore him. Doesn’t that mean I’m rejecting him too?
“Could I be in the same kind of danger one day, on the receiving end of some kind of Elliott Rodger who thinks he has to take revenge against women for rejecting him?”
She goes on to say to her male friends: “You may not be the ones out there doing this. I’m not trying to hold you responsible for all of that. I’m just trying to explain what it is like to be a woman.”
So much of this resonated. I could see what is similar between India and New York and how women tackle this daily what is common rather than what is unique about India.
That said, we in India are very conscious of the specific coordinates of misogyny and patriarchy in India, how it is structural in India in a specific way.
It is not enough to say it’s rooted in patriarchy and capitalism. You do need to understand exactly how it is rooted in Indian society and how we can fight it. We have to understand how caste works, how gender and class are interwoven with caste to structure Indian society.
I just wanted to share one thing in the context of a discussion and debate going on in Australia. Some groups on the left were feeling Reclaim The Night marches would focus on demanding greater policing or more CCTV cameras and so on.
That [type of support for “law and order” policies] is the case even in India. A large number of the protesters last year were asking for the death penalty for rape.
In a sense, many of them were not really thinking about what the death penalty means. They were simply sick of rapists getting away with violence and the death penalty is there in Indian law, it is the highest punishment, so they were asking for that.
Of course, there were others who were really obsessed with the idea of punishment and the death penalty. And of course, the state also tried to push the idea of more CCTV cameras.
How did we respond to that? The first thing we did was try and find a slogan that would resonate with people that would take things away from the single minded focus on the death penalty.
Because we noticed that while there were many thousands of people out with these death penalty placards, there were also many thousands of first time protesters with no exposure whatsoever to the women’s movement or the left movement who had placards against victim blaming.
They were saying “don’t tell women what kind of clothes to wear, tell men not to rape”.
There were persuasive and angry placards and posters, including some by men. We saw one boy painting a poster on his own, which said: “We men can wear shirts that show off our biceps, and nobody is going to tell us we’re in danger of being raped.”
So there was tremendous anger against every victim-blaming remark that politicians across the board were making.
And one of the slogans raised was “women want freedom” and then varitations on that women want freedom to study, freedom to go to college, freedom on the streets, freedom on the buses. And then it turned into freedom from caste.
Girls responded with freedom from their fathers, freedom from our brothers.
If we started to speak, people stopped to listen. We spoke about the different contexts in which rape happens and about the outrage about this incident in Delhi.
We asked people to think about the rapes that they don’t even hear about. When Dalit [lowest caste] women are raped, or Kashmiri women are raped by the army, you don’t even get to hear about it.
One of the slogans that became very popular was: “Women’s liberation, everyone’s liberation”.
These slogans had been part of the women’s movement and left movements for a long time, but suddenly they had a much wider resonance.
Struggle over public space
There are three women researchers in Mumbai who had written a book called Why Loiter. It’s a book about Mumbai, which is meant to be a safer city generally, and it talks about what makes women vulnerable in public spaces, even in a city like Mumbai.
In an interview, one of the authors said in India, the concern that occupies a large part of women’s minds across classes, is the pressure to appear respectable. You are asked to justify your presence especially in public spaces.
You are asked, why are you out here? Do you have reason to be here? How are you dressed, who are you with?
In the book, they write about girls coming home with a boyfriend, and the boyfriend is willing to walk her to her house, but she says no because she thinks her family will see, her neighbours will see and they will comment on her character.
The authors write about the right of women to do nothing in public space. But not only women. They talked about the ways police often profile unemployed, poor working-class men who are out in a public street. Their very presence immediately means they’re a source of danger. Muslim men are profiled.
They write: “It is only when the city belongs to everyone that it can belong to all women. The unconditional claim to public space will only be possible when all women and all men can walk the streets without being compelled to demonstrate purpose or respectability.
“Women’s access to public space is fundamentally linked to the access of all citizens, equally crucially we feel the litmus test of this right to public space is the right to loiter. Especially for women across classes.
“Loiter without purpose or meaning. Loiter without being asked what time of day it was, why we were there, what we were wearing and whom we were with.”
The slogan of freedom hit very hard at the attempts to control women in their private spaces. It was a slogan being raised in the context of freedom on the streets, but then it soon became about freedom from the father, from control inside the home, from being told who you can marry and who you can’t.