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Why some women keep pursuing the right to be unconditionally free

For some women, the unbearable need for justice is not a youthful phase, and the clarity of their passions eclipses despair

Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian feminist, went to jail for 73 days in 2014 for driving her car.
Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian feminist, went to jail for 73 days in 2014 for driving her car. (Reuters)

Vivian Gornick, a writer with an exceptionally clear-eyed view of the feelings that fuel political activism, once wrote: “A handful of radicals throughout the centuries have intuited that a successful revolution includes a healthy passion for the inner life. One of them was the anarchist Emma Goldman. The right to stay alive in one’s senses, and to live in a world that prized that aliveness, was, for her, a key demand in any struggle she cared to wage against coercive government rule. The hatred she bore the centralised state was rooted in what she took to be government’s brutish contempt for the feeling life of the individual…. Comrades were those who, in the name of the revolution, were bent on honoring the complete human being.” Goldman, a poor Russian Jewish immigrant in the US, was 18 when she, a factory worker, found her people, her fellow radicals, and in that life rose her most famous (paraphased) quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

To read about Goldman in 2021 is to be reminded irresistibly of a series of passionate, articulate young women who, like Goldman, feel that “injustice burned unbearably”. As Gornick says for Goldman, “it was the ‘unbearably’ that set her apart” from other young people. To read about Goldman today is to think about the 24-year-old labour rights activist from Haryana, Nodeep Kaur. Kaur, who wanted to go to college, began working in a factory in 2020 to support her family—a family of politically active workers—just like her father, who moved from Haryana to Hyderabad to work as a driver. At the factory, Kaur became part of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS), a young union for industrial workers in the Kundli industrial area. This is a place where, until recently, workers were not allowed to distribute pamphlets on May Day, a far cry from organising and allying with the farmers’ protests, as they have recently. Low pay, long hours, poor working conditions, the factory’s private bouncers—this is what Kaur fought in her short career as a factory worker. Kaur was fired and reportedly even fired at. Currently, this young Dalit woman and MAS president Shiva Kumar are in jail in Haryana on an array of charges, including rioting. Kaur’s family and lawyer say she has been tortured and sexually assaulted in prison, charges that the authorities deny (everything that I recount here is based only on what is in the public domain. It’s hard to say when we will learn the full truth of any of these stories).

Some strangers and their seemingly just causes stay in your heart. Why these particular strangers among a whole universe of suffering? The reasons are sometimes shamefully simple. They are from your class or caste background and you can, to use that awful word, relate. Sometimes, because you know that historically, women like Kaur created every right workers retain today. Sometimes, it is because of the continuing astonishment caused by the clarity of their passions. Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian feminist, went to jail for 73 days in 2014 for driving her car. She persisted. She was part of the movement to end the Saudi male guardianship system—which requires all women to get permission from their guardian to get jobs, travel, get married and everything. She was kidnapped from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and arrested again. In 2018, Saudi women got the right to drive but Loujain remained in jail. Her family says she was tortured and sexually assaulted in jail, charges that the authorities deny.

Loujain was put on trial for “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom”. She was sentenced for charges that included “serving a foreign agenda inside the kingdom by using the internet with the objective of damaging public order”. Somewhere along the way, I remember reading a story that Loujain had been offered a chance to go as long as on the outside she told the world she hadn’t been tortured. She refused.

After a literal 1,001 days in prison (and what is widely believed to be an intervention from the Joe Biden administration), Loujain was released. She asked, her sister says, for ice cream. For the camera, the 31-year-old smiled her big, calm smile. It was 10 February 2021. A day later, it was Kaur’s 24th birthday. She had been in jail for 30 days. Through her sister, she sent the world thanks for birthday wishes and said “women in the prison are denied the basic amenities necessary for daily needs. She said that she needs 20 lowers and T-shirts and 20 cups for the prisoners”.

According to a report in The Pioneer, she had been talking to “the women prisoners on the need to unite against the patriarchal policies of jail administration”. I know that “Nodeep” is a name analogous to the more conventionally spelt Navdeep. But I can’t help seeing the “No” and thinking of Emma Goldman, whom Gornick called a “refusenik”.

And in the week that followed Loujain’s release, Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old environmental activist, was arrested by the Delhi police in Bengaluru and sent to police custody by the Patiala House court. According to Delhi high court senior advocate Rebecca Mammen John, she was remanded without a lawyer or an offer of legal aid. According to the Delhi police, Ravi was arrested because she is the editor of “the toolkit Google Doc and a key conspirator in document’s formulation and dissemination”. Toolkit, a once innocuous phrase meaning handy list, has, after Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s tweet on farmers, been weaponised by the Indian establishment to sound like it contains explosives.

It is difficult not to feel despair. However, for some women the unbearable need for justice is not a youthful phase—and eclipses despair. To translate a message to India’s daughters from Kaur’s mother, Swaranjit Kaur: “Don’t be scared. Do not be defeated. We have to fight to the end or they won’t let us live.” Or, as Loujain’s sister Lina said: “What we want now is real justice. That Loujain is completely, unconditionally free.”

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.

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