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Why the battle against patriarchy is far from over

Political activist Kavita Krishnan’s debut book hits out at the blind spots about women’s rights in India’s public life and policies

Protesters at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last year on the seventh anniversary of the Nirbhaya rape case
Protesters at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last year on the seventh anniversary of the Nirbhaya rape case (Photo: Getty Images)

If you are an Indian woman, you (like me) may be feeling completely overwhelmed by the daily flood of assaults against women in this country. Again, like me, you may not be in the mood to read another book about patriarchy—isn’t it enough to battle it in every part of our lives without having to read about it as well?

Fearless Freedom: By Kavita Krishnan, Penguin Random House, 264 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299.
Fearless Freedom: By Kavita Krishnan, Penguin Random House, 264 pages, 299.

Kavita Krishnan’s debut book Fearless Freedom is a reminder that we cannot afford to turn away, weary though we may be. Brutal, shadowy stranger rapes and murders often get all our attention, but as Krishnan points out, some of the biggest threats to women’s freedom are in plain sight, from seemingly benign forces.

Who: Krishnan is a communist feminist activist, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (Aipwa), a leftist women’s organization, and a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.

This is her first book, and it grew out of the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, when Krishnan gave a speech outside the late former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s residence that went viral. Enraged at the suggestion that Jyoti should not have been outside, Krishnan said: “Why should women provide justifications if they want to walk on streets alone, even if it is late at night?… We believe that regardless of whether she is indoors or outdoors, whether it is day or night, for whatever reason, whatever she is wearing, a woman has a right to freedom. And it is that fearless freedom that we need to save and protect, that we need to safeguard."

Kavita Krishnan
Kavita Krishnan

Fighting talk. But how do we wrest back this freedom? Last November, the brutal rape and murder of a veterinary doctor in Hyderabad raised this question again. What has changed since 2012? Krishnan says there are now more movements supporting women’s autonomy, such as Pinjra Tod, the group arguing for the removal of curfew in women’s hostels. Yet there are also ever more powerful players—the media, politicians, even the courts—which take away the autonomy of women in the guise of keeping them safe. “‘If you want to be safe, why do you want freedom?’ is a familiar question faced by Indian women," she writes. Why, indeed, should women have to choose between safety and freedom?

“The death penalty and encounter killings are just bakshish (a small tip) solutions intended to disguise the fact that the state is doing nothing for the safety of women," she says, referring to the knee-jerk strategies being applauded. As Krishnan points out, a 15-year-old Adivasi girl in Chhattisgarh was killed in a 2011 encounter with the police, who claimed she was a Maoist. When the opposition alleged she had been raped and killed, the state’s home minister claimed she had been “habitual at sex". There are many such incidents. “A police force that can kill with impunity, can also gang rape and kill women with impunity," writes Krishnan.

What: For the first third of the book, the informed reader may feel like he or she has read this before. Krishnan tears apart the ritual of raksha bandhan, khaps, and the patriarchal, casteist Indian family.

This may seem to be based on the usual arguments you read on social media. But the book gathers steam a third of the way in, when Krishnan takes on government initiatives that are seemingly good for women. This is a connect-the-dots kind of book. As Krishnan explains: “I wrote the book for people who think, ‘Yes, khaps are bad but have nothing to do with me.’ They haven’t made the connection between, say, khaps and the restrictions they are placing on their own daughters, or the restrictions placed in workplaces, hostels, and government programmes."

Occasionally, perhaps because the book grew out of a speech, it can seem a bit polemical. Krishnan’s voice is strong and fearless, but I would have liked to hear some other voices as well. The word “patriarchy" is repeated on almost every other page. It can get a bit monotonous, and the reader may feel a bit harangued. Sometimes, Krishnan breaks the cardinal writing rule of “show, don’t tell", and I was left longing for subtle inferences rather than being told what to think.

Why: Read this book if you would like to discover how seemingly progressive campaigns can be terribly regressive for women. The much lauded Swachh Bharat movement, for instance. Krishnan explores how Swachh Bharat slogans constantly shame women into not going out of the house, while linking toilets with honour and the ghoonghat (veil). One in Uttar Pradesh reads: “Daughters-in-law, daughters should not go far, construct a toilet in your house." Another in Bihar has an image of a man presenting a woman he has abducted to a dacoit chief saying, “‘Here boss, I have brought this beautiful lote wali (bearer of a mug of water) from the field for you’, while the chief replies that today will be a day for rape." The shame attached to defecating outside, as Krishnan points out, has also been used to lynch and kill both men and women.

At one meeting of her organization, a woman from Patna spoke about her experiences in rural Bihar. As women got ready to relieve themselves en masse in the early mornings and late evenings, she asked them if they wouldn’t prefer to have toilets in their homes. They scoffed. “Didi, why give our men and in-laws another reason to keep us captive indoors? This is our only excuse to get some fresh air, take a walk together, and speak to friends without someone overhearing us."

Similarly, Krishnan dissects factories and the microfinance movement. Clothing and lingerie factories, she points out, are supposed to be empowering places that give women a chance to escape poverty—“fairy tales" of rescue and liberation. But often they impose huge restrictions on women, and are not looked at with a critical eye. Krishnan argues that it is much easier to draw attention to a ban on mobile phones by “evil" khaps than a similar ban on phones in factories, usually done to prevent women from unionizing and demanding better work conditions.

Krishnan is surprised that activists are often seen as “negative" and anti-national. “We are all so desperate for good news, aren’t we?" she laughs. “The fact is all governments, whether the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress, are in favour of the status quo. We are not saying ‘Don’t build indoor toilets or factories.’ We are saying build them in the right way."

Nevertheless, Krishnan concludes that things are changing, and cites the way women of all shades are stepping up to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens as an example. “I do see a lot of good news. I don’t believe we need to accept things the way they are, because that’s the way they always have been. One instance is how activists helped decriminalize homosexuality." She concludes with a plea for more nuanced discussion. “I hope this book allows people to strive for real understanding rather than a dopamine hit."

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

Twitter - @kavitharao

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