On Women’s Day This Year: Let’s Bring Women’s Freedom Onto the Political Agenda

Azaadi – freedom – was the slogan raised last year in the anti-rape movement. How should that azaadi translate into an anti-patriarchy manifesto for the 2014 election?

One fact stares us in the face: that ruling political formations across the board seem to wilfully refuse to accept women’s demand for freedom. Whether ‘democracy’ is defined in Parliamentary terms or in more radical terms of participatory democracy and mohalla sabhas, political parties are proving to be unwilling to recognise that democracy can’t be consistent with patriarchy.

Let’s begin with the evocative slogan raised by young women during last year’s movement: ‘khap se bhi azaadi, baap/bhai se bhi azaadi.’ That slogan is actually a rich and insightful one. For those women, ‘khap’ isn’t just some aberrant institution found in Haryana or adjoining regions. They recognised the ‘khaps’ all around them in various guises – in their own homes, their hostel administrations, their caste and community structures, their own parents and brothers – seeking to take away their freedom in the name of their safety. That slogan displayed an instinctive recognition of the fact that patriarchy doesn’t rest only in rapist strangers, but in structures of caste, class, and community. By choosing ‘khap’ as the symbol for patriarchy, the slogan recognises that the same structures that oppress women, oppress dalits too. Men and women alike raised that slogan: recognising that patriarchy, like khaps, seeks to discipline and control women’s sexuality, by laying down moral diktats for women, and profiling and demonising men of ‘other’ castes and communities. They recognised the ‘khap’ in the IPC Section 377 that profiles and criminalises gay and transgender people.

When political parties act as defenders and apologists of khaps, they are telling us that the freedom and dignity of women and dalits really do not have much place in their vision of politics. When they tell us “Khaps are fine as long as they don’t coerce or kill”, they are telling us that oppressive and undemocratic structures are fine, as long as the structures are maintained without overt and obvious violence.

The problem is – those who demanded azaadi last year didn’t identify khaps only with ‘honour killings’: they recognised the khaps lurking in their discriminatory hostel curfews; and in their parents’ anxiety to get them married into the ‘right’ caste; in the daily, obsessive policing, by their own loved ones, of their friendships, their movements, their sexuality, all in the name of their ‘safety’. So, they located the oppressiveness of ‘khaps’ in the normal and everyday patriarchal restrictions and codes – not simply in the shock of spectacular ‘honour killings.’