Women demand freedom, not surveillance

In the wake of the brutal gang rape of a student in Delhi in December 2012, Kavita Krishnan shot to international fame when her speech demanding protection of a ‘woman’s freedom, not her body’ went viral. She spoke to Rahila Gupta about her campaigning work for women's rights.

Rahila Gupta Kavita Krishnan
21 October 2013

Kavita Krishnan, secretary general of the All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA). Credit: Rahila Gupta

Rahila Gupta: Tell me a little about your work as secretary general of the All India Progressive Women's Association and the issues you have been working and campaigning on.

Kavita Krishnan: The All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) was set up in 1994 to organise around women workers, especially agricultural women labourers. We did not simply take up strictly economic issues of wages, but took on issues of the social dignity of Dalit (lower caste) women, challenging sexual violence and sexual entitlement of feudal forces against Dalit women.

For example, in Bihar, sexual entitlement had been institutionalised in the tradition of doli pratha, where the palanquin of a newly married Dalit woman would be taken to the landlord’s house on her way to her in-laws. Dalit women labourers under the Communist Party of India (ML), to which AIPWA is affiliated, resisted and successfully ended this practice. In the course of those struggles and the huge participation of women there was a felt need for women to organise separately, which is how AIPWA came about.

RG: What was it about this specific gang rape in December 2012 that sparked such national outrage in India given that sexual violence is and has been so endemic?

KK: There is no easy answer. There have been other incidents, even in Delhi, involving women in similar positions which have not resulted in this kind of outrage. In the Delhi case, no one knew her name, her caste, her identity, nobody knew much more than the fact that she was training to be a paramedic and that she had gone out to see a movie with her friend – a lot of young people in Delhi, many of them in a similar situation, identified with that.

On the second day of demonstrations at India gate, despite news that police were tear gassing and beating people up, I saw young people,18-19 year olds, going out to the protests just as we were going home. I think there was an outburst of accumulated anger against rape culture. Even from day one, the placards were raising slogans about rape culture and when sexual violence happens, it is the girls’ behaviour that is restrained. Beyond Delhi, there have been big mobilisations against rape, like at Khairlanji, against the public rape and massacre of a Dalit family, or Manipur in 2004 against the custodial rape and murder of a woman by the Army. But in those instances, the media, unlike in the Delhi case, did not cover the protests as reflecting 'national outrage'.  

Many public figures made ‘rape culture’ remarks that in fact criticised her for being out with her ‘boyfriend’. A prominent one was Asaram Bapu who thought the young woman was equally responsible. There was a Congress leader who asked why she was out at night, similarly a Judge of the Madras High Court. I don’t think it was about her being a textbook case, far from it: what girls were telling us was, that after this case, our parents are telling us that you can’t go out at night, you can’t watch a movie with your friends, you can’t study away from home.

RG: Connected to this issue of surveillance, I heard a fascinating analysis from you about why CCTVs could make things worse rather than better for women. Could you say more about that?

KK: CCTV cameras were being touted as something that would help to catch perpetrators. What is to say that the policeman watching a CCTV camera in the bus won’t clamp down on a couple sitting together and holding hands? We demanded that cameras should be placed only inside the police station – let it record the way the policeman is dealing with the complainant and let it be available to the courts when required. Let them be under surveillance, not us. We did not realise how prescient we were.

Recently it became known that CCTV footage of a couple necking on the Delhi Metro was released on the internet and sold as a sex video. But the controversy that followed turned on the limits of behaviour in a public place – that people shouldn’t do private acts in a public place, essentially moral policing.  

RG: What has been the main focus of AIPWA's campaign?

KK: One is to bring into sharp focus the fact the vast majority of rape cases are not carried out by some aberrant elements that we can deal with by locking away or hanging, but that much of it is structural and all of us are implicated in upholding those structures – not only the everyday rape of women but a rape culture in which we have rapes of Dalit women, custodial rape, rapes by the state and army in the name of patriotism and national security, and rapes of indigenous women who have been resisting land grab who are then profiled as Maoist.

We’ve also made specific demands for more government spending. The Domestic Violence law is not backed by any spending on state shelters – the existing shelters are a complete scandal. Women refer to them as jails. Sometimes police cells are used to shelter women when there isn’t a place that can take them.


An anti-rape protest in Delhi. Credit: Vijay

RG: How important is the law in bringing about change to the rape culture ?

KK: The law in itself is a limited tool, as we all know. But there is a real problem when the law is couched in language and concepts that do not reflect women’s experience of violence, if the understanding behind a rape law is that it is essentially a crime against another man’s property, that of the husband…

RG: Is that why marital rape is still not recognised in the new legislation?

KK: Exactly. They don’t want to get their heads around that. Their reasoning is: If a wife is his property, how on earth could he be said to steal his own property? Rape according to them is 'theft' of sex. There was no understanding of rape as a crime of power and a humiliation of the woman.

If these are the concepts underpinning the law, then it’s an actual barrier to seeking of justice. It’s not as if a woman has the option of remaining outside the judicial process. If justice is going to be sought in an area which is extremely unequal, not just in terms of gender but also caste and class, it makes sense to start demanding changes. For instance, the definition of rape was expanded in the new law – before this it was seen just as penis-vagina penetration. 

RG: And then there is the huge problem of implementation, a problem we face here too in Britain with only a 7% conviction rate.

KK: Yes, we have been seeking measures to ensure a higher conviction rate and speedier trials. However, when it comes to police reform, it's necessary because when ex-policemen talk about police reform, they don't talk about police accountability. They never talk of custodial rapes of women by the police.

The Mathura rape case of 1980 leading to the recognition of custodial rape was a big victory for women’s organisations in India. It was understood not in terms of it being a worse rape, but recognising that in custody, the question of consent could not be read in the same way – to claim that she had consented to sex on the grounds that there was no sign of struggle was obnoxious in a custodial situation.

RG: I’m interested in the link that you have made elsewhere between sexual violence and neo-liberalism. Could you talk a little more about that?

KK: I don’t think any of us are trying to say that violence against women is reducible to only economic regimes. We have to make the point that it isn’t just 'Indian culture' or India’s specific backward economy which is responsible for violence against women. The women’s movement demands women's freedom in various economic structures, including advanced capitalism.

Neo-liberalism has a lot at stake in controlling women’s sexuality, sexual labour, reproductive labour and, of course, women’s labour in the global marketplace. That underpins so much of the violence. The neo-liberal policies do not represent empowerment; we should look at the linkages and the stake they have in maintaining disempowerment in terms of austerity measures which push women back to accepting the burdens of household labour. 

RG: Surely there is also the question of pre-existing traditions ie feudalism with which neo-liberalism collides that creates a particular environment for violence against women in India.

KK: It is not so much feudalism coming up against neo-liberalism as neo-liberalism being happy to get into bed with feudalism to promote its own agenda.

RG: Are you hopeful that the changes brought about so far - such as the new laws and the heightened awareness of sexual violence - will make a difference to the position of women in India?

KK: The long term takeaways that I see from this struggle are that a lot of young people have a real interest in feminist organising. You may not always have thousands of people on the street but there is this willingness to look beyond simple sound bites.

The other important thing this movement did was to open up possibilities for the future in our understanding of who we can engage with – for example on issues of state violence, we had not been able to reach out beyond our comfort zones, say if it was about violence in Kashmir then we would talk to Kashmiri students perhaps – actually taking it out there to people on Delhi streets and talking about why violence is being perpetrated against Kashmiri women in our name was new.

For me, the high point of this movement was our freedom parade on Republic day, which is a sacred cow as you know and you are not supposed to say anything that can be construed as unpatriotic – the kind of slogans that day about the republic raping Kashmiri women, about hijras and gay people being raped – we talked about all this in public and engaged those people; that was really exciting. We said that day: If we’re asking for azadi (freedom) for ourselves we should not be scared of azadi for the other person. 

RG: In terms of the worldwide struggle, what can we learn from Indian women and how can we support them?

KK: I think a lot of that support has already been happening like the setting up of the Freedom Without Fear Platform. The main takeaway from the anti-rape movement in India was that the women’s movement doesn’t have to be about people who are already clued into it. It can have a truly mass dimension. It can be one of those frontiers of democratic struggles in which general people participate.

The assumption that 'Indian women are unfree while women in the US, UK, France etc are free' has to be questioned. Unfreedom is usually mystified, disguised. In India, we are exposing those mystifications. For those in the UK, the unfreedom of women in India may be easy to see: the urgent need here is to expose the disguised unfreedoms right here. There is a greater need for a closer look at the how the state (all over the world, including India and the UK) intervenes in the name of acting on behalf of women whilst serving very different agendas.

RG: Here it is the immigration agenda for black women: new controls in the name of forced marriage have been introduced by the British government, designed to reduce numbers entering the country through the family migration route. However, the state is also our only safety net because we can’t look to family or community.

KK: I don’t see the State as a safety net. The State has a stake in women's subordination just as much as family or community, but as the State claims to speak on behalf of everybody, we have to engage with it.

We have to demand accountability from the State. I’m really wary of these hidden and not so hidden state agendas. In India, the National Commission for Women and the Women and Child Development Ministry often end up speaking against the women's movement, for instance on death penalty for rape, lowering of the juvenile age, or raising of age of consent. Similarly in Britain, the State is using the issue of forced marriages, domestic violence or grooming to bolster a racist agenda of profiling and surveillance of immigrants and working classes, and of Islamophobia.

RG: Of course, you have to be vigilant. But Southall Black Sisters has relied on and demanded that state agencies, like social workers, support young women who are being forced to marry. 

KK: Obviously, we in India too demand action from state agencies, but the point I’m making is that the state has become aware that this is something they can harness for themselves. We want to make it more about state spending on rape crisis, safe shelters, rehabilitation of rape survivors etc.  

RG: There is a fear that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may lead the next government. What sort of setback will that represent to your campaign against sexual violence?

KK: BJP has the most regressive agenda for women. Central to their agenda of Hindu nationalism is their imposition of norms of behaviour suitable for 'Indian women'. Their organisations impose dress codes on women or attack women who go to pubs, and love or marry men from other castes or communities.

They have unleashed sexual violence against minority women. Recently in Muzaffarnagar, the khap panchayats (illegal caste-based courts) were used as a platform by the BJP to mobilise thousands of people on the slogan of "save our women from Muslim men", claiming that Muslims are running a love jihad. 

Feeding into this is an Islamophobia which is endorsed not just by the BJP but the whole Indian state, where Muslim boys are profiled as potential terrorists. Whether BJP wins or not, this is going to grow in the coming months. The second thing I should say is that the Congress government is managing to get off the hook on a number of issues on which it finds itself in the dock by saying that we’re better than the BJP, so you have to support us.

It’s an attempt to silence substantive issues which the women’s movement, as well as the civil liberties movement, have raised – issues about the right to dissent, women's freedom, the rights of minorities in terms of their dignity, against Islamophobia or corporate land grab.

RG: How do we build a global campaign to end violence against women? 

KK: I’ll start by saying what we should NOT do. Much of those concerns about how we respond globally have become over focussed on how we intervene through the UN. I’m really wary of too much emphasis on the UN and on global funding agencies. 

RG: How do you respond to the call that violence against women should be made one of the indicators of development? As India wants a presence on the world stage, would this force India to take effective action?

KK: Why just the focus on India? Take the most obvious example, Palestinian or Iraqi women who are facing violence as a result of US intervention, will this kind of global action take account of that? We all need to do a lot more work on understanding how global institutions are implicated in violence. I’m not trying to let the Indian government or Indian patriarchy off the hook. That’s what we’re fighting. But we need to note how a company like Vedanta is implicated in violence against Indian women resisting their attempts to grab land, or how the garment labels such as Primark and Marks and Spencers supplied by factories in India or Bangladesh are implicated in violence against women workers.

These questions receive little attention, while most of the discussions focus on how can we help India through intervention at the UN. Rather than that, look around you and try and see what you can do to act against global institutions. For example, in Britain look at DFID’s (Department for International Development) work and the kind of violence they’re perpetrating on women’s reproductive rights in India where forced sterilisations are taking place in the name of population control.

There’s so much of that happening and so little discussion about it. In terms of international solidarity those are the kinds of things we could look at.  In the same context we could look at women in advanced capitalist countries, in which you’re seeing huge movements against austerity measures, we need to focus on the position of migrant labour, women immigrants in the advanced capitalist countries – those are things that could do with attention from a global women’s movement.

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