'We Need to Uncouple Protectiveness From Restrictions on Women’s Rights': Kavita Krishnan

From the tenets of protectiveness to how the divisive notions of the day shape our responses to even a health crisis, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association speaks at length.

At an online session hosted by the Belongg Book Club & Library, feminist activist Kavita Krishnan discussed her new book Fearless Freedom, which challenges the presumed incompatibility between women’s safety and their freedom.

Excerpts from her conversation with Team Belongg have been reproduced here with her permission.

The full conversation can be found here


Could you tell us about the central concept of your book, which doubles as the book’s title, Fearless Freedom? What does it mean and how does it differ from the commonplace, unqualified notion of freedom? 

Let me begin with the cover of my book. It features a 2016 painting by Amruta Patil, from her book Sauptik, which is a modern interpretation of the Abhisarika Nayika.

Fearless Freedom, Kavita Krishnan, Penguin, 2020

In Indian art traditions, the Abhisarika Nayika is one of the Ashta Nayikas or heroines who inhabit eight different states of emotional being.

This particular Nayika is the heroine who is heading out into the dangers of the night to meet her lover (you can, in this painting, see snakes at the Nayikas’ feet).

This image stands for the idea that you pursue your desire in spite of fear, encapsulating what I mean when I say “fearless freedom.”

I’m not trying to say that we need to have no fear. It’s natural to be afraid. Yet, in a way, fear is your companion and you are not expected to restrict yourself in the name of that fear. Fear and risk are a part of your life as a human being and they accompany you when you seek your desires. 

In the conclusion of my book, I write, “We need women to be Abhisarika today: with their desires—for lovers, yes, but also for the simple pleasure of a walk on the street or a cup of a chai at a street corner, for reading and research, for adventure, for wanderlust, for andolans, for revolution—to light up everything around them. And when many women become Abhisarika, the streets and the dark nights will be much safer. Imagine a woman alone on the street at night—and we imagine danger; but imagine a street full of women going about their own business and pleasure, and to women, such a street immediately seems safe!”

Among other things, your book is invested in expanding the traditional notion of violence beyond the public, grotesque forms of sexual violence that are met with media attention and capital punishment.

It makes a case for recognising the violence that we commit everyday in our families and societies, that the state commits against the women of the country. Could you explain why we need this kind of structural approach to understanding both violence against women and women’s autonomy from that violence at a time when there is so much emphasis on a woman’s individual choice?

I don’t think that social change should be seen only in terms of incentivising individual decisions. That is a neoliberal framework—a framework of liberalism that says that individual self-interest is paramount. It sets up a situation where women or various marginalised sections of society are forced into competition with each other.

Why can’t we think that everyone needs to rise together, that you don’t need to have your foot on someone else’s neck in order to rise yourself? 

When you think about social transformation as a whole you need to consider what is structurally preventing that transformation from taking place.

This means looking at not just individuals but at the socio-economic structure of society. I also mean that you should not separate the economic and the social. You have to look at social oppressions and economic deprivation and exploitation together; they are embodied in each of us and reinforce each other.

Migrant workers walking in Mamallapuram, May 31, 2020. Photo: PTI

Related to this, I have been thinking about state responses to COVID-19. Four states including the Indian state, the Chinese state, the American state, and now the Hungarian state have treated this as an occasion to ramp up the states’ draconian power, to punish people — threaten them, beat them up, humiliate them publicly — for violating physical distancing.

And this is also the case with the Beti Bachao and Swachh Bharat campaigns. You go around shaming people, thinking that it is the only way you can encourage them to change, instead of banking on their ability and willingness to understand the need for that change.

When the first case of COVID-19 came to light on January 30, the government should have discussed with various stakeholders — trade unions, opposition parties, state governments, women’s groups, sex worker’s groups, trans persons, etc. — how we can best face this and what preparations need to be made so that we don’t harm people while trying to protect them from the virus. This is the kind of structural, democratic approach to problems that I talk about in my book.

Also read: Self-Absorbed, Uncaring, Incompetent: COVID Has Exposed Populist Leaders for What They Are

Your book is also interested in critiquing patriarchal notions of protectiveness that are bound up with the attempt to ensure that women don’t bring shame to the family and nation.

I was wondering: Do you think it would be worthwhile to reimagine protectiveness as a universal ethic of care where we all both need care and provide care? There are also people who perform specialised forms of care labour or work, and such a conceptualisation might help elevate their labour.

I would not even jettison protectiveness. I would say that we need to uncouple it from restrictions on women’s rights.

Protection is just fine as long as it is coming from a place of respect for that person’s autonomy, decision-making and right to take risks. That is, as long as protection doesn’t mean the entitlement to tell someone what to do or not to do, we should protect each other.

For instance, I keep thinking about how we can reimagine Raksha Bandhan, not as a shackle but as a bond where siblings protect each other. And in what ways could siblings do this? You could, for example, protect your brother if he wanted to come out as gay or trans. Protection then means that you are protecting that person’s personhood. It’s not just a macho sense of protection, but a sense, like you said, of care. 

Also read: A Nurse in PPE Fainted in a Building. What Happened Next Shouldn’t Surprise You.

And I, too, think that it’s about reimagining care as a society. Care involves so much labour, including emotional labour, which we call social reproduction work — the work done to reproduce social relationships and what we understand as society. It includes sanitation work, medical work, education work (formal and informal), cooking, cleaning, caring for the old and the sick, even something simple like providing PPE gowns for ASHA workers, sanitation workers, doctors and nurses.

Why does it take a pandemic for us to start saying across the world, “Our doctors don’t have gear.”

Why? You’re prioritising something in the name of protectiveness. We are probably prioritising defence and buying all kinds of jet planes and warlike equipment. Even during the pandemic, we [India] have spent money buying arms from Israel.

Also read: ASHA Workers Are Indispensable. So Why Are They the Least of Our Concerns?

So I think prioritising, reimagining and democratising care are all part of protection. We need to ask ourselves: Who does this care-work? Why do Dalits do most of the sanitation work? Why do women do most of the care-work inside the home? Can’t the state take responsibility for a large bulk of care-work? Can’t we have more community kitchens? That too always, and not just during a pandemic? 

On the subject of caste: In your book, you say in no unclear terms that caste is at the very centre of Indian social order and that the need to maintain this social order is the reason why women’s autonomy is controlled so aggressively. Could you tell us more about the role of caste in Indian society?

From experience, I can say that if you ask a roomful of students their thoughts on caste discrimination, they will say that it’s very bad. Then, if you ask them for an instance of such discrimination, they will say caste-based reservation. In India, one of the remedies to the problem is seen as the problem.

People also say that they were not aware of caste until they came up against reservations. If you are from a privileged caste, you have the privilege of not being aware of caste because you are not reminded of it everyday. It’s as simple as that. 

Also read: Has the Pandemic Changed How Caste Hierarchies Play Out in India?

I marvel at the fact that the same people who say that caste doesn’t actually exist anymore — that it only exists in the form of reservations due to vote bank politics — will not miss a single opportunity to tell you what a wonderful thing caste is.

When physical distancing was being implemented, social media was awash with people saying, “Look, untouchability is a good thing after all; it’s a good thing to distance oneself from people who do unclean work.”

What is unclean work? Sanitation work is actually cleaning work and clean work. This comes up repeatedly in relation to Swachh Bharat. It’s an open secret — well-established by research — that people defecate in the open in India a lot more than they do in Bangladesh, Pakistan or even similar African countries because in India, open defecation is associated with notions of purity and pollution that are in-turn associated with caste.

Also read: Sanitation Workers Holding the Fort Against COVID-19 Have No Protective Equipment

The idea is that if you have a toilet inside your home, you are going to have to clean it yourself and that’s a dirty thing to do. In the case of pit toilets, faeces becomes compost and can be easily cleaned out, yet people think it’s unclean. So one should engage with people, talk to them about caste and why cleaning after yourself isn’t dirty work but rather clean work. But that’s not happening. 

Similarly, when it comes to women, people talk about rape and the death penalty, but they don’t want to talk about the fact that so many Indian households are obsessed with the idea of policing their daughters, their friendships and social behaviour, because they are terrorised by the idea that the girls may fall in love with somebody from outside their caste or within their gotra, thereby violating the rules of caste.

This is something that is exploited by right-wing politicians and dominant-caste political groups. Young people are falling in love across caste boundaries, deciding they won’t bother with caste restrictions, and we see caste-based honour killings happening, which try to reassert those boundaries.

My next question is about the anti-CAA movement. How do you read this movement in the context of women’s autonomy? And do you see any connections between this movement and the anti-rape movement of 2012 that you were heavily involved in?

I am very wary of collapsing one movement into another, but I see the anti-CAA movement as being in continuity with the anti-rape movement in one respect: it is a women-led movement and, importantly, not India’s first women-led movement.

The media is always very quick to say that something is happening for the first time, but not at all: In the 1980s, you had in Delhi, for instance, the anti-dowry movement.

At all the Shaheen Baghs that I went to I said that that when you remember Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule and their friendship, do also remember Shahjahan Apa and Satya Rani Chadha, two women whom, as I discuss in my book, lost their daughters to dowry killings and then became lifelong friends who fought to make other people’s daughters safe from these killings. They were ordinary women, and what extraordinary foremothers they were. 

Women’s Day at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: PTI

The women of Shaheen Bagh, of all ages, are out there, running the stages for hours on end, managing who to ask to speak, who to ask to shut up, who to call when, how to introduce them, and more. Everybody has something to say and they are so sensible and eloquent in what they say.

The other thing is that I used to ask the women, “You’re afraid of many things, but tell me, are you having fun?” And then there would be this big smile all around and they would say that they are, since they are making new friends, some part of the care-work is being taken care of by their men back home (even at the protest site, a lot of the care-work is being done by men), they are able to stretch their wings and discover their leadership. Even if the CAA is repealed and the NPR-NRC does not take place, they will not simply go back to being the women they used to be.

They have now become something else as a collective. While the physical Shaheen Baghs may not be there, we need to imagine such places and continue to have them because this is where you are nurturing solidarity, a sense of history and constitutional morality. These women are doing that now and they will continue to do it. Even if this particular battle is won, they will continue to fight the war.

Also read: ‘Our Fight Is Still On’: Shaheen Bagh’s Spirit Remains Unbroken

Lastly, you begin your conclusion with a quote from James Baldwin, which says, “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world.”

Could you say a little about what you consider to be the power or indispensability of literature?

I think that because I was brought up as the daughter of someone who was a literature enthusiast and a teacher of literature (my mother), surrounded by a lot of books, I tend to think in terms of instances and examples from books. The people I’ve met in books are always there [in my mind].

All of us live lives, which are in some ways confined by our circumstances and, in order to expand our heads, not all of us will be able to travel widely, know people across continents and so on. Books — both fiction and nonfiction — help you walk in the shoes of other people. This makes your brain and heart stronger; it makes you less antagonistic when you see something that is strange to your cultural sensibilities. 

Even if, for example, the culture around you is very homophobic (as it was in my case when I was growing up), when you have access to literature you know that there are worlds and movements out there where people live life differently, where homophobia is recognised for what it is. As a result, you are able to look at things a little differently than someone who has not been exposed to them.

I think this makes us better people.

Manjari Sahay is the Book Club and Library Associate at Belongg.