Lawyer. Activist. Artist. Author. Kirthi Jayakumar redefines ‘triple threat’. She is a women’s rights activist striving to achieve gender equality through her NGO, Red Elephant Foundation, a lawyer specializing in Public International Law and Human Rights, runs an art-advocacy campaign, Femcyclopaedia, which showcases zen doodled portraits of women, and is the author of The Dove’s Lament and The Doodler of Dimashq.
She takes us through her transformative journey in becoming a feminist.
My childhood was filled with formative experiences, that at the time, like most others do while making memories, I ignored. It is interesting how the many lessons you learnt as a child need unlearning. Almost as if they came with an option to uninstall them, much like many computer programs we all use. When opportunities would present themselves in the future, you only needed to find the file and press uninstall.
But here’s the thing about the human mind – it is capable; of making mistakes, of falling, of learning lessons from those mistakes, and of choosing, with an informed point of view, which way to go.
My journey into feminism began by a conscious choice not to be a feminist. When you are thirteen, you are presented with one worldview that your surroundings reiterate. Growing up in sleepy little conservative Chennai, the city’s adolescence came way after my adolescence had left. I grew up being privileged and oppressed by the conservative social ethos around me. My privilege lent me a cloak of ignorance, which led to me to believe feminism was all about ‘a bunch of angry women.’ My ignorance extended even further to denounce the call for equality, because, well, I was equal to the men in my life. Hindsight, as they say, is 6/6, and I see quite clearly that what I assumed was equality, amounted to hardly even the “e” in equality.
Discernment dawns when it dawns, and I had to wait – had to, without knowing it, of course – for my turn. A system that had showed me its privileges had also shown me its oppressions, but I had dissociated with the latter. My many identities have been a heady mix of privilege and oppression.
My identity as a girl and woman brought me smack in the middle of oppression, as sexual, physical and verbal abuse would follow from all kinds of quarters through my childhood, teenage, and early adulthood years.
My identity as an upper caste girl saw me as an oppressor as I would mindlessly carry out dictum after dictum of my extended family in perpetuating “caste purity” – until the time would come when I would identify how horribly, horribly wrong I was, and begin to mend my ways towards being inclusive, respectful, and to turn my caste privilege on its head.
My identity as a middle-class girl would allow me only so much in terms of what I could afford and access, and yet show me that I still had privilege and could again, make better use of it to fight systems that kept inequality alive.
My identity as an upper caste girl would also come into play where I would be beaten up for my caste identity – no reasons, except for what my caste was. My ignorance would lead me to presume that a classmate from Kalimpong was Chinese and not Indian, because of her features. I did mend my ways, but the damage was done in that I had judged her identity without a second thought. I was a victim of abuse, but I was a horrible person that had privilege, too. I was both. A time would come in the future when I would learn to feed one wolf and starve the other. To date, I strive to starve the privileged wolf.
Molestation, sexual abuse, gender-based bullying, and discrimination were dished out to me with as much generosity as kindness was – except that the impact they left on my body and mind went behind a cloak. A cloak called silence. A cloak woven out of the threads of stigma, fear, predatory threats and pain. A cloak that would come undone when my nation would wake up to the long ignored calls by feminists.
On December 16, 2012, it would come undone.
A footnote in the world’s news channels. ‘Gang-rape in Delhi; girl admitted to hospital,’ would remain emblazoned on the insides of my eyelids and tattooed onto them forevermore. I would go to sleep that night, but only just, and wonder at the many missing pieces of the puzzles inside my heart that didn’t let me feel wholesome on the inside. I would go to receive an award a day after and feel horrible, empty, and like a criminal for receiving an award for ‘women’s empowerment’ when a girl would be battling for her life after a brutal gang-rape.
Six months later, I would awaken a sleeping giant and give birth to my act of resistance – The Red Elephant Foundation. A torrential outpouring of my story would follow, and attempts to heal would arrive in many shapes and sizes, some successful, some unsuccessful, some temporary, some permanent. Uninstall buttons would be pressed, and new learning would arrive. Intersectional Feminism would come to become my oxygen.
Today, I cannot claim to know enough. I will never know enough. But I know for a fact that eight, eleven, thirteen, and sixteen year old Kirthi(s) have come a long way today. I know for a fact that every day will remain a learning experience. That my feminism, like the blood in my veins, will need to be fed and nourished with learning, with an intersectional network of veins that stand for multiple identities and experiences, to be inclusive and genuine.