Friday, January 4, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Kavita Krishnan on safety and India's rape culture

In December in New Delhi, a 23-year-old woman traveling on a city bus was beaten with iron rods, gang-raped for almost an hour and thrown out of the bus as it was moving. As a result of the attack, she suffered a heart attack, infections of her lungs and abdomen, and serious brain injury, and died on December 28. News of the rape sparked days of protests in New Delhi, with thousands marching in defiance of tear gas, batons, and water cannons. (You can see dramatic photos of the protests here.) On December 19, the march headed for the house of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, where activist Kavita Krishnan gave a speech that laid responsibility for the assault and the underlying societal conditions at Dikshit's door, so to speak.

She was reacting not just to this heinous crime, but to the Indian rape culture. As Jezebel notes, "Nationwide rape cases in India have jumped almost 875% over the last 40 years, and New Delhi alone reported 600 cases in 2012." Krishnan, who is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, delivered a blistering critique not only of the attack but the words that public officials used to blame the women victims, rather than their attackers, for the crimes. The English transcript of her remarks has gone viral. Here, she recalls an earlier attack and challenges the way it was described:
....when that journalist Soumya (Vishwanathan) was murdered, Sheila Dikshit had issued another statement saying “If she (Soumya) was out at 3 am in the morning, she was being too adventurous,” — we are here to tell her that women have every right to be adventurous. We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!
Later in her remarks, she tackled the coded language again, and with more force:
I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much — all us women know what this ‘safety’ refers to, we have heard our parents use it, we have heard our communities, our principals, our wardens use it. Women know what ‘safety’ refers to. It means – You behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe....No one is talking about protecting her ‘bekhauf azaadi’, or her freedom to live without fear. 
Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:

  • Decode euphemisms and address issues directly: Krishnan's decoding of the term "safety" reminded me of Ida B. Wells's speech, which denied the claim that lynching was done to protect women, when that was only an excuse. Here, Krishnan took a palatable euphemism and defined it for what it is, an attempt to limit women's freedoms. Then she went a necessary step further to describe what no one was talking about: Protecting "her freedom to live without fear." The contrast makes her goal clear, even as it sheds light on the public officials' statements.
  • Be ready to respond on issues important to you: No one knows when your issue will grab the attention of your city, nation or the world, but you'll have a better chance of riding the wave of publicity and public opinion if you already know where you stand and what you want to say when that time comes. Krishnan was able to speak out early in the protests, capturing a continuing wave of outcry and interest about this incident, and there's no question that she knows what she wants to get across at this critical moment.
  • Make your words accessible to wider audiences: In this case, a transcript of Krishnan's speech in English, along with video, helped carry her words far beyond the streets of protest. In your case, making your words accessible might mean finding a translator; publishing the text, video or audio; sharing the speech on social networks; and seeking media coverage. The lack of these resources keeps many women's speeches from being known in the world, effectively silencing us.

Below is a video of Krishnan's remarks. What do you think of this famous speech?

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