Mae Jaceira performs at the AWID forum

Feminist Visions of the Future: Freedom Without Fear

Ed.note: This post is part of a series we’re running this month as part of a media partnership with the Association of Women in Development (AWID) to cover their semi-annual Forum. The 2016 Forum took place earlier this month in Brazil and explored diverse perspectives on “Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice” with a focus on voices from the Global South. 

Pakistani feminist Farida Shaheed gives a slogan for azaadi, freedom in Urdu. The whole hall joins in. It is the final plenary of the Association of Women in Development (AWID) conference, on Feminist Visions for the Future, and in asking the room to proclaim this slogan, Shaheed evokes a long history of South Asian feminist organizers’ radical visions of freedom. 

Sitting listening to the final plenary of the AWID conference on my laptop, in a small dorm room in a radical public university in New Delhi — which itself has shaken with “freedom” slogans  — on a fragrant, humid night, the slogan takes on the power of feminist vision. It urges us to ask, in the words of South Asian women who have raised the slogan against sexual violence: What is freedom without fear?

Originating in the Pakistani feminist movement, the rhythmic call for azaadi, or freedom, from patriarchal and state violence entered the Indian feminist movement in the early 90s. It has been a rallying cry by Kashmiris protesting for self-determination and against state violence, including during the present Indian military violence against people in the region. The freedom slogan has been called recently in student movements protesting the imprisonment of activists and repression of dissent. And it was called by feminists at midnight on the streets of Delhi after the December 16 2012 Delhi gang rape, where it became a call for bekhauf azaadi, or freedom without fear. 

From the range of both this history and of the women represented at the AWID conference shouting the slogan with Shaheed, we can see that feminist visions of freedom are and must be sweeping, in which freedom means not only freedom from sexual violence, but freedom from state violence, racism, militarization, capitalism, and the whole host of oppressive structures that shape women’s lives. 

Indeed, numerous AWID final plenary speakers evoked just this vision. According to Lena Meari, a Palestinian feminist academic whose work and activism confronts gender under the realities of Israeli occupation, a feminist vision of the future must be a revolutionary vision — against repressive gender structures, colonial violence, and global capitalism.

“These interconnected power structures are revealed in similar ways, in various local contexts, and they all are in control of the means to dominate people’s material conditions,” said Meari. In order to liberate ourselves, she says, feminists need “revolutionary practices aimed at addressing gender and sexual issues as social justice issues for all oppressed people.”

What did a small piece of this revolution look like for those shouting the “azaadi” slogan during the December 2012 Indian movement against sexual violence?

Before her family gave media permission to use her real name, Jyothi Singh Pandey, the victim of the December 2012 Delhi rape was originally dubbed by media “Nirbhaya,” or “Fearless.” The movement similarly mobilized a vision not just of freedom from fear, but of freedom without fear, bekhauf azaadi. Calls for azaadi became a visionary shift from the patriarchal ideals of propriety, morality, or protection so often used to double down on patriarchal control in the guise of protecting women from sexual violence. 

Communist feminist activist Kavita Krishnan articulated a vision of freedom (not protection) in a popular speech (full English text here) from the 2012 protests. Krishnan quoted then-Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s response to an earlier incident of gender based violence, in which the Minister had said that the woman, who was out at 3am, was “too adventurous.”

Krishnan said:

Ham yahan kehne aaye hain ki mahilon ko adventurous hone ka har adhikar, har haq hai. Ham adventurous honge, ham reckless honge, ham rash honge, ham apne suraksha ke liye kuch nahin karenge, ham kaise kapre pehenenge yeh aap hame mat batao. Hame kitne baje raat mein chalna chahiye, din mein kaise chalna chahiye, kitne logon ke saath chalna chahiye, hame mat batao.

We’re come here to say that women have every right, every right to be adventurous. We will be adventurous. We will be reckless, we will be rash, we will not do anything for our safety. Don’t tell us what clothes to wear. Don’t tell us when we should go out at night, how we should go out during the day, how many people we should go with. [Translation my own]

In an azaadi framework, women are entitled to be not only free but reckless, to wear what we want, to go where we want, to fuck who we want and to still not be victimized.

We see this framework of freedom, rather than protection, carried forward into current feminist organizing in Delhi — for example, in the Pinjra Tor, or Break the Cages movement, led by women college students.

At major public universities like Delhi University and Jamia Milia Islamia, adult women students (unlike their male counterparts) are required to be in their student accommodations as early as 8pm “for their own protection.” They are required to obtain guardian permission for late nights and nights spent elsewhere, both of which are limited to a few a month. Meanwhile, university facilities like the library are open as late as 2am, and much of university political life takes place after dark. Not only, then, are hostel restrictons infantilizing and morally-policing incursions on adult women’s mobility — they actively prevent women from engaging in academic, political, social, and sexual life.

In response to this, Pinjra Tod has mobilized women across Delhi for marches, protests, speak-outs, and campaigns to change regulations. In response to activism from Pinjra Tod, the Delhi Commission of Women has conducted an investigation of discriminatory hostel policies across Delhi colleges. Even the University Grants Commission, the Central Government’s education body, has issued a circular banning discriminatory hostel curfews and dress codes.

While doubts remain about enforcement of these new rules, the movement continues to push, says organizer Shambhawi Vikram, for a feminist vision of freedom.

“At every step Pinjra Tor has been offering a different imagination to the university, that a different university is possible,” said Vikram.

Listening to Vikram articulate this vision of a different future, I was reminded of the words of Mexican feminist and activist Marusia Lopez at the end of the last AWID plenary.

“Comrades, capitalist patriarchy is in collapse, and it can only generate death,” said Lopez. “Yes, we are indignant, we are outraged, and sometimes we are afraid.”

Yet, said Lopez, a radically different world is not only necessary — it is possible. “We may be reassured that the world can live without transnational corporations, without armies, without prisons, without jails.”

Lopez’s words evoked a vision of freedom that has been articulated, with help of the azaadi slogan, in diverse South Asian contexts: Freedom from sexual violence, freedom from capitalist violence, freedom from military and state violence; freedom without fear.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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