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Political activist Tara Krishnaswamy realised early the gap between her privileged, feminist upbringing, and the life of the ordinary Indian woman, leading her to raise her voice in concrete ways that make a difference.
Am I speaking to Mr Tara Krishnaswamy? Hello, Sir!
This is fairly routine from customer service personnel, despite them knowing more about me than myself – from my monthly phone bills to my spending preferences on the credit card. This must sound familiar to many women.
And then, as an active citizen in civic and political domains, I also often hear “Lady Corporator,” “Lady MLA,” and the ultimate epithet, “Lady Volunteer.”
It indicates a default state of mind, where I am not default.
I grew up in a house that did not discriminate. My mother was virulently fair with me and my brother. In fact her abiding quality was more justice than standard motherhood tropes. My father sat me down at puberty, explained to me about the birds and the bees, diagrammatically for clarity.
So my personal brush with feminism was at birth; at the giving end of two feminists. My parents. That felt good, made me confident, let me be.
But that also made the world all the more outrageous.
I remember as far back as my 5th standard, sitting with The Hindu in my home in Madras, reading daily, unrelenting reports of rape, domestic violence, dowry torture, trafficking etc.; news about somewhere in India, everywhere in India. That is where it would start, and end, without mention of caught culprits, court cases or justice.
Every time I read these, every day, I would struggle with a myriad amplified emotions – rage at the unfairness of society, anger at male bestiality, copious tears at the girl or woman’s plight and another overriding intensely personal emotion that I will come to.
As my nascent, text-book schooled mind struggled for rationale at the gravity of what confronted women in India. I was also puzzled at the stark contrast between my life and those of many, perhaps most women. For a while, I stopped reading these articles as I could not take them any more.
That overriding, intensely personal emotion I referred to, grew into a resolve.
At high school, I volunteered at my neighborhood NGO in Madras. It was an AIDS action programme that distributed condoms to street walkers. I accompanied volunteers to bus stops and street corners at dusk, listened and engaged in dialogue with sex workers and it blew my mind.
She could be brutalised for simply suggesting that a customer wear a condom! After all, it protects him too! What idiots, and violent ones at that!
It opened my eyes to a universe entirely different than my cocooned upper middle class existence. I saw victims of domestic abuse at the centre, return to their abusers ‘willingly’. There is no better education for the notion of ‘consent’ than that. Consent isn’t consent under duress like poverty or threats that one’s children will be harmed. The mind must be free of self imposed and super imposed pressures for genuine consent.
It made me more acutely aware of my privilege and opportunities. The least I could do, was to identify with women fighting their daily fights. Make it my pain, my fight.
That overriding resolve became an oath to myself, one of fierce independence. That I would never allow myself to be poor, for a poor woman had no access to justice, no agency and no recourse in India. A woman’s sovereignty and dignity in India entirely hinge upon her ability to afford it, not the Constitution.
In the meanwhile, I was reading The Second Sex at college, coupled with Nadine Gordimer, the Annhilation of Caste, Ice Candy Man and growing up in rationalist Tamil Nadu. This, while listening to older female cousins and friends talk of marriage and ‘settling down’ as life aspirations and simultaneously seeing male uncles and cousins seeking ‘wheatish, college educated, homely, non working’ wives. Imagine the dissonance!
Hearing this from highly educated men and women with a modicum of sovereignty, it dawned on me that patriarchy is pernicious and ungendered. Just like rape is not about sex but a violent assertion of power, patriarchy is an assertion of conformance or a surrender to an existing power structure. A structure that defers to male elders as arbiters of fate, keepers of wealth and all agency in the family. I saw that men suffer from the ill effects of patriatrchy just as women do.
If women are stripped of career, independence and agency, men are too. They cannot aspire to get married and ‘settle down’ as a career choice; they cannot just take a sabbatical and discover themselves, they cannot dabble in art or drama, but must commit to a paying job, dreary day in and dreary day out. When men say, “why should my wife work when we have enough money,” I not only heard bigotry, I also suffered a fool who believed it was his own opinion, when indeed it was social pressure.
All this meant that I was at odds with the world around me.
Even as I spent the next decade and a half pursuing higher education, professional advancement and redeeming my oath, the anger against the outright denial of opportunities to women festered like an ugly infection in me, suppressed and threatening to release sharply at unexpected times. I rushed out of the screening of the Phoolan Devi movie then, and rushed out of Udta Punjab now, when the men drugged Alia Bhat and tied her to the bed to get to work on her. I could not, and cannot stand it.
Some years ago, wise friends persuaded me into writing, active citizenship, political activism. It has been a fulfilling experience, giving me more than I can ever give back.
Examining data and writing about gender, caste, politics and policy, became ammunition to frame my opinion and channel anger into thought provoking and persuasive arguments.
Activism through #CitizensForBengaluru allowed me to positively and productively vent my frustration, while experiencing the multiple axes of federalism, social justice and feminism.
Finally, doing battle for the political representation of women, that ultimate frontier, with #Shakti #PoliticalPowerToWomen is not only tremendously empowering, it is illuminative of the challenges in current day feminism.
Even as awareness about the scarcity of women in politics and its toxic masculinity grows, the feminist circuit has also been unwittingly playing into gender stereotypes. Female politicians are expected to be ‘better’ at governance, ‘incorruptible’, ‘unrelated’ to political families, not ‘align with the right-wing’ and further the ‘women’s cause’. Male politicans though, can be human. Good or bad, corrupt, criminal, dynastic, bigoted or not.
When the husband of the female corporator or sarpanch strong arms his way into conducting her public affairs, he usurps her elected office. This is an actual offence under Section 170 of the IPC; impersonating a public officer. He should be arrested. However, the dominant narrative, from well intentioned women and men alike, makes her the villain!
“What is the point in electing a woman when she doesn’t do her job?” “Why does she let him do that?”
This is a victim blaming narrative that is as shocking as it is plain wrong. She is not allowed to do her job. If he is this brazen publicly, imagine the consequences she might face in private life if she resists?
Disallowing human frailties, setting a higher bar, defining her ideology for her, and denying her career aspirations to be the politician she wants to be – good, bad, or ugly – is itself sexism.
Unfortutanely, feminism seems like an F word in India, misconstrued and beleagured. Women avoid it like the plague and men look upon it as disease. But the irony is that gender is a determinant of fate in every household in India, rich and poor, urban or rural, no matter religion, region or caste. For instance, even today, I am subject to ‘manels’ not panels, lecturing us on how to build an inclusive city that works for women!
Feminism is simply an attempt at a more decent society that treats women and men with dignity and respect. Women can choose to be home makers or not marry, chase their careers with exclusivity or have kids as single moms; and men can choose to be home makers or single dads or whetever, in a society that respects their legal choices as adults. That is all it is.
My feminism is that of a devout doer, a credo of ‘deeds not only words’ to create opportunities for women’s aspirations and rights. My inspirations are Dr Ambedkar, Dr Muthulakshmi, Savitri Bai Phule, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Periyar, and as much as my domestic help who educated her daughter against all odds, who now works for an IT company and earns handsomely; and my dance teacher, who widowed in her youth, hit the stage at 60 plus years of age to perform erotic padams and javalis!
No matter what your motivations and affiliations are, investing in active feminism helps India be a glorious and beautiful land that treats women, even those least advantaged, with dignity and respect. If you empathise with the battles of every day women and wish them better, then you are already feminist, whether you profess it or not. It is best you come to terms with it and embrace it wholeheartedly, for the truth shall not only set your free, it will propel you to give back to those with less opportunities and bask in the pride of advocating for a whole 50% of the population.
Editor’s note: Feminism has exploded over Indian screens and minds in the last few years, bringing what was considered an ‘uncomfortable’ topic into everyday speech, with all its hues and forms, warts and all. Wonder of wonders, it is even becoming an accepted way of life!
In this series, we invite women of note who’ve made a mark in their respective fields to share their Feminism – how they have experienced it, and how their view of it has evolved over the years.
Tara Krishnaswamy wears many hats.
Co-founder of Shakti, a pan-India, non partisan citizens pressure group working to get more women into State Assemblies & Parliament, pressure MPs to table the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament, and the Election Commission to discipline parties towards gender equitable nominations.
Co-founder of Citizens For Bengaluru, a grassroots people’s movement with landmark campaigns for #SteelFlyoverBeda, campaigns for mass public transit like the #ChukBukuBeku & #BusBhagyaBeku for suburban gains and public buses, and the #BekuBedaSanthe for the citizens manifesto in Bengaluru. The current campaign is for initiating and institutionalising Ward Committees for systemic participation of citizens in grassroots democracy in urban local bodies.
On the policy front, she has worked on Lokpal amendments and the Justice Verma Committee for rape Law amendments, and presented to multiple Rajya Sabha Standing Committees.
She lead ground campaigns for Karnataka Police Stations to maintain list of convicted sex offenders & secured a Government Order for the same. She introduced the Urban Women’s Safety Social Audit framework and methodology.
Co-Convenor of the Nirbhaya Fund Round Table, Hyderabad for administration of then 3000 cr Nirbhaya Fund.
She has independently authored articles on federalism, citizenship, gender and caste issues with First Post, The News Minute, Live Mint, News Laundry, Times of India, Hindustan Times etc.
In her day job she is a Software Director at an MNC in Bengaluru. You can find her on Twitter @tarauk
This is the ninth article in the series #WomenWhoMatter.
Want to know what our other feminists say? Read the thoughts of the some awesome feminists here.
Image source: Tara Krishnaswamy
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