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Limelight | Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar is an Indian women’s rights activist, a peace activist, lawyer, author and a social entrepreneur. She is the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, a peace-building and activist initiative based on storytelling and also the author Stories of Hope, a collection of short stories; The Dove’s Lament, also a collection of short stories. She received the US Presidential Services Medal in 2011, and this is one among her endless list of achievements. Read more about her here. Follow her on Facebook and read about her work here.

In this interview, we discuss her story so far, her philosophy and thoughts on gender equality, her comments on feminism, her views on the status of women now, and  the countless initiatives she is engaged with, among other interesting things.

Your success story can be read over and over again for inspiration. From a law student in India to winning the US Presidential Services Medal, you have come very far. I’d really like to know more about what exactly drove you to fight and create art for social justice at such a young age.

I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents’ home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad, and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of “helping people”, until I realised that I could do that with development too. I studied Law in Chennai, mostly out of the fact that my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father’s practice. Once I left law school, I began working — I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation — they were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking, and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception. That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai. To put money in the bank (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit), I began freelancing with a bunch of local publications, legal journals, and publishing initiatives. With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in this journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on their awareness on the Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their Right to Clean Water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similarly, for food, education, health care, infrastructure, jobs, and what not. That was when it hit me that there’s so much sitting on one domino — gender inequality. If we knocked this one domino of gender inequality, the enormously global burden of inequality (of all sorts) could easily be quashed. You can see that I imported an idealistic mindset into my adulthood — I was an idealist as a child, I used to dream of a world where we could all sing songs together and eat muffins (food of choice then, haha!) and just be together without fighting among ourselves. I try to hold onto that little girl’s ideas even today.

Since your primary work concerns gender equality, I’d like to ask about your conception and philosophy behind the “woman”. When it comes to the “essence”, is a person born as a person and then takes up the role of a particular sex as prescribed by society, or are there fundamental differences, excepting the biological ones, which puts apart a girl from a boy?

Gender and Sex are very different. Sex has, for the most part, been considered a biological construct and is centered on the anatomy one is born with. Now, though, there are studies that reveal that even sex is not as much a biological construct as we once knew it to be. Gender is a social construct, meaning it is an identity that one embraces for themselves and it is way beyond the binary of male and female, and encompasses an enormous spectrum. Tinder recently said there are 37 gender identities. That’s how wide ranging it is. Of course, the anatomy that divides one’s sex into different groupings can determine whether you have the apparatus to impregnate or get pregnant. Regardless of sex or gender, there is NOTHING that comes pre-installed in our gender coding.  There’s absolutely nothing that gender enables or disables inherently — it’s just our social programming that has been determinative of how we treat people based on their gender identities.

Problems across places and countries vary greatly and so do the challenges women face. A woman working in a developed country can’t be expected to share the same plight of a woman in war torn Syria. To start with India, what do you think are the main problems, challenges, and threats that women in India currently face?

While the manifestation of the problems cannot be considered the same, the structural patriarchy that props up violence against women is fundamentally the same everywhere. The problems in India are centered on a gendered oppression that must be understood through the lens of intersectionality with due respect and regard for the Indian ethos. I’ll share this with you through the example of a Dalit Woman. Dalits as a community of people have faced years and years of oppression and marginalization, and are placed vulnerably at the bottom of the hierarchical ladders of India’s caste system, class segregations, and gender identities. If feminism was not intersectional and looked at her from a choice-consequence dimension, it would view the Dalit Woman solely as a Woman, one who is vulnerable to violence, just like other women. Intersectional feminism, however, would see her differently. Vulnerable as a woman, disenfranchised and marginalized as a caste, isolated and oppressed in society and therefore, even more vulnerable than most other women. And there are numbers, facts, and stories — truths to back this correct understanding of a Dalit Woman’s position. There is enough evidence to show you exactly how Dalit Women are exploited, oppressed, discriminated against, isolated, and vulnerable to violence. In a nutshell, not only are they dominated over by men in the power relations of a patriarchal social order, but are also fighting against a toxic hegemonic pillar of power in the form of caste, and coping with the poverty that comes in with a progressively divisive class system. This establishes the circumstance. Let’s say a Dalit Woman and a woman from a caste and class that are higher up (let’s call her privileged woman) in the hierarchy are brought into the mix. Let’s just say that the both of them have aspirations for their lives ahead, and let’s say that they aspire to pursue a course that would make them Mechanical Engineers. (If you raised an eyebrow, check your privilege and break those limiting stereotypes inside your head.) The Dalit Woman is encumbered by the burden of a system that started with her exclusion: she had no access to education that would suitably enable her to attempt the entrance exam, which, by the way, is administered in English. But the privileged woman has had the benefit of school, extra classes, and access to resources online. They take the test. The privileged woman makes it, but the Dalit Woman doesn’t. Strike one. She still harbours some hope, that she will make it in the quotas that have been reserved for a range of castes and classes. But no, she is among the last few in the pecking order, and therefore, waits, and waits, and waits. Strike two. Almost like an afterthought, she is sent an admission letter, a rarity, for many of her caste are left at the bottom of the pot. But the fee she is expected to pay is the next new hurdle in her path. Where can she afford to pay a year’s tuition if her family can’t scrape enough to afford a square meal? Strike three. This shows you how constrained choice truly is. These “choices” are not choices. And so, even without the right to make a choice, she has to bear consequences.

Indian women have, for a long time now, made demands for 33% reservation in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. What is your take on the same?

I think the under-representation of women in the higher echelons of our nation’s leadership is a cause of concern. Women need to be represented and it is fully valid that a quota is sought. Care must be taken to ensure that the quota neither becomes a crutch that it is permanently depended upon without equality becoming a reality, nor a token which is used to check a box to absolve one of their greater responsibility.

Since we’re on the subject of reservation, I might as well bring in the reservation for economically and socially backward castes in India, the idea of which was laid down by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. However, I don’t mean to ask you about your opinion on the reservation system in India. My question is regarding Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s approach to the problem of untouchability — he wanted to make this widespread practice into a modern day taboo, a taboo which no one would dare talk about. Can the sexist and misogynistic dialogue and public discourse be gradually made into a taboo, by making it socially unacceptable to talk about?

I think that it worked well for caste because it was a nuanced discourse, but less nuanced than the gender discourse. The first thing we need to understand is that gender oppression and inequality has its roots in a social structure that is globally shared, and it is further precipitated by the myriad themes of intersectionality that each region is filled with. Not that I am oversimplifying it, but in comparison, untouchability was limited in its geographies. Furthermore, gender oppression has its roots in patriarchy and patriarchal behavior, which is basically a presupposed socially acceptable state of masculine dominance over the feminine. When such dominance exists, there is an automatic assumption on the part of the patriarchal proponent that shaking up the balance could result in his loss of power. He needs to be able to see his stakeholding in the larger ethos of gender equality. Moreover, I believe in non-violent communication and so, instead of imposing a taboo on misogynistic dialogue, I would say that we should focus on educating men and boys on understanding their stakeholding and benefits in a gender equal future, and work on educating women on unlearning their learned behaviours that both stem from and feed into patriarchy.

Moving on to the global scenario for women. With Donald Trump, an openly sexist, racist, and misogynistic President is in power in the United States. What are your thoughts on the years of struggle and the countless movements that women had to engage in for their equality, all of which now don’t seem to have had a substantial impact on civil society? Also, did you play a role in the Women’s March on Washington?

I am all for empowering leadership and inclusive authority figures. Donald Trump may be a lot of things, but I appreciate his ascendancy to presidency for one thing: He makes us unite to change everything that is wrong in society when it comes to gender (among other things). To that end, what I see his presidency as being, is nothing more than a SOLID opportunity to be the civil society we are meant to be, and to hack at structures that have normalized the violence that his statements represent. It’s not easy, but it is achievable, and that is guaranteed when we unite, and collaborate rather than compete. Every sister of mine who was involved in the Women’s March in DC has my support – whatever be her race, colour, language, sexual orientation. If there is a call to arms to support my global sisterhood against any oppressor, I am there – I don’t believe in appropriating a struggle that is more direct and central to a demographic that is distinct from mine in terms of the intersectional identities that constitute it, but I am a staunch supporter.

What do you think people, women and men both, must adopt as measures against the widespread sexism still prevalent in the society? Is there a need to understand the Foucauldian power relations present in basic institutions like family? What are the minor steps that we must take, as human beings, to achieve an equal footing for women in our society?

There is a tendency to romanticize and label theories to question structures that constantly feed into misogyny and patriarchy. This can isolate an everyday demographic that doesn’t need the noise that academia offers. Instead, we should look at the reality around us, see the wrongs that are constantly happening and being ignored, and deconstruct that in our minds. Why is this happening? Why does a man feel entitled to my body? Why is my consent not an important factor at all? Why does there exist a constant cycle of misogyny? Why is there no value attached to the personal agency of a woman? Why do we feed into patriarchy? Then, with this information, we should identify the micro aggressions that happen around us that keep these practices / behaviours alive. And then, take the plunge and question them until they are weeded out. So yes, Foucault’s Power Relations do matter, but let’s make it realistic and easy for a non-academic to comprehend. Don’t tell your children what to do. Give them tools to think critically. Show them the right, show them the wrong. Show them the consequences of one and the other. Show them that they have the freedom to be what they want, with the ONLY caveat that they should not harm another living being. Lead by example in your houses and classrooms. Stop messages that reassert stereotypes for your kids: don’t buy your son blue and daughter pink, don’t force your children to play with gendered toys or pursue gendered hobbies, and don’t ever, ever say things like “don’t cry like a girl” or “be lady like and not a tomboy.” Children are like clay. They take the shape you mould them in. Take care, a lot of care, to tell them the truth, to show them the rights and wrongs, and to teach them that their personal agency has value, and so does everyone else’s — they cannot harm, as much as they cannot be harmed.

One cannot deny, living in 2017, that the society still has a lot to deal with everyday sexism and misogyny. These are times when Feminist thinkers and movements must be revisited for guidance, times when we must revisit the milestones which we have already achieved, and which we are so foolishly undoing now. What do you think is the role of a Feminist? Who is a Feminist?

Feminism is equality. Why is it called Feminism? It is called Feminism because women need to be put back in to the equation of equality and restore the balance. Why should women be put back in the rhetoric? Well, simply because the structural violence of patriarchy started with the dominance of man over women. And how will that impact other genders? When patriarchy subverted equality, the male was dominant, and the female was subjugated. But gender, you see, is fluid. This fluidity allows for one who may identify as male to also identify with certain aspects of female, or, for one born as male to identify as a female. This fluidity was seen as anomalous, for it was not considered “normal” or “acceptable” for the dominant to identify as the subjugated. So feminising the rhetoric by putting women back into the dialogue will create an equal space where no one is seen as the dominant or the subjugated, and therefore, fluidity will not be an anomaly. Anyone who professes the view that feminism is equality and works from this space, and views and acts and respects another human being from that standpoint is a feminist.

To end where we began, what does it mean to be a woman for you?

I believe that my identity is an accretion of the daily experiences of being alive. So, my answer changes every day. Today, being a woman means being a fighter. Till there is oppression against women, we will survive, persist, and fight and no matter what each woman’s individual beliefs might be, this one thing unites all of us.

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