Indian women fight back against violence, oppression

May 10, 2014
A leader of the struggle for women's liberation in India, Kavita Krishnan will be one of the international guest speakers at the

Kavita Krishnan is a central leader of the Communist Party of India―Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) and editor of its magazine Liberation.

A former leader of the All India Students Association (AISA), Krishnan is joint secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), which is active among women workers and agricultural labourers, and has led struggles for the dignity and rights of Dalit (lower caste) women, and against state repression.

The AISA and AIPWA played big roles in the struggle against sexual violence after a gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. Krishnan has become a well-known international spokesperson for the movement.

Krishnan will be one of the international guest speakers at the 10th national conference of the Socialist Alliance to be held in Sydney over June 7-9. She will also be doing a speaking tour of Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, Adelaide and Perth.

Mila Gisbert, a conference organiser, spoke to Krishnan in the midst of campaigning in the Indian general elections. The CPI-ML is fielding candidates in 83 constituencies. A longer version of the interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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If a new right-wing government is elected in India, with Narendra Modi as prime minister, what effect do you think this will have on sexual violence laws and their implementation? What is the likely impact of these elections on the women’s rights movement?

It is not only about the laws on sexual violence. I think there are a broader range of very serious developments already unfolding. For instance, one of the ways in which Modi and his supporters are mobilising votes is by sparking up a fear of sexual violence from minorities.

By painting the Muslim minority as a sexually aggressive community, as posing a danger to Hindu women and children, they are trying to consolidate their support.

This is very dangerous for women. Just before the elections, there was a case of communal violence against Muslims carried out around the slogan: “Save our honour, save our daughters and our sisters.” They say that young Muslim men are targeting Hindu girls.

The main bodies that carried out this campaign are called Khap Panchayat. These Khap bodies carry out “honour killings”. They actually kill daughters for exercising their own choice, for falling in love with the wrong person.

And so, the same groups say, “Save your daughters, save your sisters” from Muslim men. India’s election campaign has included the same message repeated by Amit Shah, a man very close to Narendra Modi.

I think this implies that, in the name of “protecting women”, there is a threat of a new set of restrictions being imposed on women. It is going to mean a restriction on our freedom.

Modi has also been accused of having illegally used tape machinery to conduct surveillance on a young woman for weeks on end. Essentially he stalked her.

He used the state anti-terrorist squad, the police and his state government machinery. He used all of these to stalk a woman, and yet he has not had to answer a single question about this.

The Indian media is not asking him these questions and his party is silent. It offers the explanation that it is alright because the woman’s father asked for it. That they can say that illegal surveillance is OK if the woman’s dad is OK with it is deeply worrying.

I think if Modi wins, this would represent a very big danger for women. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has “moral policing” groups ― groups of men that go around imposing moral norms on others.

For example, they pick on women for wearing jeans and they target couples on Valentine's Day. They aim to restrict a woman’s choice in what she wears or her relationships. And these groups will experience an enormous sense of empowerment if Modi becomes PM.

My party, the CPI-ML-Liberation, has been campaigning very hard and we do hope for a strong and powerful assertion of revolutionary left forces in the election.

Modi and his party have benefited from the immense corruption and the anger against the policies from the current government, but the BJP and its allies represent much worse.

They stand for the same neoliberal policies, with extra violence against minorities, oppressed communities and women.

We have been campaigning very hard against this. The media says Modi has already won, but this is premature. The battle is very much on and we will be fighting strongly right to the end.

Since the public outrage and huge demonstrations after the gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus in December 2012, has public protest enabled legislation changes? Has this brought a change of police procedures regarding sexual violence complaints and led to greater conviction rates?

That question is actually difficult to answer. I would say that there are two things here, one that the public demands are not all the same, and there are two currents in the movement.

One current was about imposing the extreme punishment of the death penalty for rapists. But another significant current was also focused on identifying the many layers of misogyny that operate in society. This includes looking at institutions like the police, judiciary, medical services and so on. It looked at the response of these institutions to the whole question of sexual violence and rape.

From this, some legislative changes were sought by the movement. All the changes sought have not materialised, but some changes in the law have taken place. For instance, we have a wider definition of what constitutes rape.

But if you look at conviction rates, there isn’t much improvement in the institutional response. Even now, we see that when a woman is raped, she still cannot count on the kind of support that she ought to be able to expect ― from medical support to the expectation of being able to get justice within a reasonable time.

One significant recent achievement is ending outdated tests that were still in use in India. Basically every rape survivor was subjected to this test to check the elasticity of her vagina, so that the doctor would then say whether or not she was habituated to sex.

Essentially, this is a way of bringing in the “character”, the sexual history, of the complainant into the picture.

Recently the health ministry issued guidelines for the treatment of rape survivors that made it very clear that this test has been outlawed. They should no longer subject the rape survivor to it.

Yet it is still happening because the guidelines have yet to be implemented across the board, in all hospitals and states. But at least it has been admitted that it is demeaning and should not be used.

The one disturbing thing that has happened on the pretext of last year’s protests has been the introduction of the death penalty for rape in certain circumstances.

We have had two such verdicts. Both women survived the rapes, so it was not a question of murder, but based on laws of honour and chastity. These were the arguments of the prosecution.

It was very disturbing to see that one of the outcomes of these laws has been to reinforce the notions of honour and chastity, and allow the state to mete out the death penalty in the name of those notions.

It is now more than a year since the Delhi case ignited people’s anger and led to protests. What do you consider has been the main achievement of that movement?

I would say the main achievement has been actually a shift in the way rape is talked about. To me, the most significant thing about the protest was that there were slogans raised against victim-blaming and rape culture.

This happened for the very first time. It introduced the idea that the women should not be subjected to restrictions in the name of “chastity”.

This was something new in India. But I think that the changes we want to see are yet to happen and not all of the changes are positive.

For instance, we wanted marital rape to be recognised as rape, but this has not happened. We wanted the impunity enjoyed by armed forces personnel who are accused of sexual violence in conflict areas removed, but that has not happened.

There are also two significant changes that have been introduced that we opposed: one was the raising of the age of consent from 16 to 18, and the other the introduction of death penalty for rape. Both these changes have very dire consequences for women, and yet these changes were made in the name of protecting women.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, has widened the definition of rape and also states that consent cannot be presumed. What is the effect of these changes on culture and the need of society to catch up with the new laws? For example, the recent case of sexual assault charges against prominent editor and journalist Tarun Tejpal, where media reactions and divided public opinion has resulted in campaigns of support for the aggressor and vilification of the complainant

In the past, people would only recognise rape as vaginal fornication no matter to what extent the woman was hurt ― even if it left her so badly injured that she was nearly dead. Now the law has recognised violation of the woman’s integrity as rape.

This is something which the better-off class seemed to accept, but the minute it comes home to their own class, the minute that comes home that the law would apply to them, to someone from the elite ― to an influential person like Tarun Tejpal, there was an outcry.

Had the same law been invoked for someone of a lower social stature, I don’t think there would have been this kind of outcry.

Actually, this outcry is about the privileges, control and power ― especially in workplaces― that men hold over women. Women do experience a lot of sexual violence and sexual harassment at the workplace.

I think that the response in the case against Tarun Tejpal shows an unwillingness to accept the implications of a change of the definition of rape. But it is also about class.

We are having sexual harassment cases come out against judges, serious cases of sexual harassment, which are met with some strange responses. For example, one minister said if women keep making this type of allegations, people would stop employing women because they would become a liability. So this is not addressing the problem, or even acknowledging that there is a problem.

You have described sexual violence as “disciplinary action” to preserve patriarchal rules and dominance over women, disconnected from sexual attraction. You also make the case that neoliberalism is not the key to Indian women’s freedom.

I think it is an imposition for women across the world, not just in India. The threat of sexual violence is something that shapes our lives, that shapes our choices, that shapes what we do, how we feel in public spaces or private spaces, how we feel around men and so on.

If you look at the kind of behaviours that women are asked to live by, across the world, how is this achieved? How do they achieve telling women that, for instance, taking care of children, that motherhood,is their job? One way is by building a paradigm of “good women” and “bad women”. That is partly in a sexual sense, but it goes beyond sexual control alone.

What I also had in mind was that other forms of control over women actually enable sexual violence. I have been thinking about this lately, when I talk about sexual violence in India and I start telling people to think that it is not about sex, it is not sexual attraction that enables that violence.

What enables a man to think that he has the right to do something to a woman that she does not want? Then we start talking about the sense of entitlement that a man feels over women in general, and how he learns to feel that entitlement that society bestows on him, and allows him to feel over the women in his own life. That also leads to sexual violence within families.

Undoubtedly, it is a culture of entitlement and control that teaches him that is alright to perpetrate forms of violence against women. It is very difficult to make this connection in India because, generally, any campaign against sexual violence, by the state or certain agencies, tends to say to men: “Learn to treat women like you treat your mother and sisters.”

The point is that he is treating women like his mother and sisters. He has control over his mother and sisters, he gets to decide how they live their lives, he has control and entitlement over them, and he expands and extends that entitlement to other women in society, to exercise that control over them.

Neoliberalism also benefits from maintaining the structure of discipline over women, of control over women. One example is in advanced capitalist societies where the state is taking away welfare measures that they were forced to adopt earlier.

For instance, they are taking away child support, but they are forced to perpetuate an ideology where they say that if a woman has to take child support she is a “bad mother”, she has failed in her mothering duties. She will get the support, but not without being told that it is not what all women are entitled to.

So you have the “good mother” and the “bad mother”, then you also have the “good worker” and the “bad worker”. A “good” woman worker is not someone asking for her rights.

The government tries to tell us that they are empowering women via neoliberalism. Yes, women are coming out and working, but the point is the kind of work that they do.

Looking at the textile factories in south India, it is largely young girls from oppressed caste backgrounds doing that type of work. The subservience in those workplaces is enabled by caste and gender division and subordination.

Neoliberal policies would be unable to provide cheap labour from that section of society were it not for gender and caste inequality. So they clearly benefit from it.

There are also big foreign multinational companies coming here to take land. Large corporations are land grabbers and people from indigenous societies have resisted this very strongly. Women have been a very important part of these movements.

They have been subjected to violence, including sexual violence, by state and non-state agencies, in order to break their movements.

So neoliberal policies have not helped to empower them. In fact the opposite, neoliberalism has benefited from the perpetuating the existing inequalities and restrictions.

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