Rise Up – Interview Series | Shweta Katti and Jayashree Patil

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The FemJustice Legal Centre seeks to increase the use of feminist lawyering techniques in the legal sector, with a particular focus on increasing feminist leadership among legal practitioners, law students and other individuals working with survivors of gender based violence. We believe that the legal field has massive potential to advance the feminist and gender-rights movement. In order for this to be successful, legal approaches with a gender-sensitive lens need to be employed.

Rather than just filling the legal aid gap in India, we work to provide a space where the process of seeking justice can be a transformative tool to combat gender-based crimes, while simultaneously recognising the survivor-client’s agency, lived reality and desires for justice. This project hopes to change the narrative around gender-based violence by distilling theory into practice.

This interview series seeks to take the conversation to professionals who have created a tangible feminist justice responses in their field of work. The objective is to open up space to explore various different forms of feminist justice, across personal and professional spaces looking at interpersonal and systemic challenges.

Maëlle Noir from One Future Collective spoke to Shweta Katti and Jayashree Patil, two inspiring women, members of Kranti. Founded by Robin Chaurasiya, Kranti is a Mumbai-based organisation that empowers marginalized girls and survivors of human trafficking.

Shweta was born in Mumbai’s largest red-light district and joined Kranti when she was 16 years old wishing to be able to pursue her education. She studied psychology and theater at Bard College in New York and she is currently undertaking a program in Buddhist studies in Italy. She has been involved in numerous women’s organisations as a volunteer, intern and teacher. She strongly believes in the power of education to produce social change and desires to continue supporting other marginalised women and girls in the future.

Nineteen-year-old Jayashree is interested in the potential for art to be used as a platform to share one’s story and to transform one’s experiences. She led a theater project in Punjab supporting marginalised Dalit girls who have used drama  to convey a message of tolerance and to raise awareness regarding the conditions for women within local villages.. Eight years after joining Kranti, Jayashree received the award of the Exceptional Woman of Excellence at the Women’s Economic Forum in 2020. Her aim in life is to increase  exposure for  her community by fighting against stigma and the exclusion of women in society through theater.

OFC: What would be your definition of feminist justice? 

Shweta: For me feminism means equal rights, but not in the sense that we are the same. It implies that whoever needs whatever can be provided it without gender being kept in mind. Gender should not decide what a  person is allowed to do or not to do in the law or in society at large.

Jayashree: I’m often told that I am a feminist because I’m a girl and I talk a lot about women’s rights and equal rights. But feminist justice does not  mean that we want to make men to feel less than women, we are just fighting for our rights as women.

I think that sometimes the word “feminism” is not used in the right sense. Some women even take advantage of being female. For example, if you travel by bus, sometimes, there is no section for men to sit. On the other hand, there is no gender equality in our society, women have always been discriminated by others, that’s why we need to develop this  feminist movement. But many people are not clear about what feminism and feminist justice mean, that’s one of the most complicated discussions to have in India.

Shweta Katti

OFC: Do you remember the first time you were introduced to the concept of feminism? Was it when you joined Kranti? 

Jayashree: Yes, it was. I came to Kranti when I was eleven and before, I used to think “feminism” was a bad word. Robin, who is a feminist, obviously, uses it a lot, so that is how I was  introduced to the concept. That’s a fact. But what I learnt here is that what really matters is what is in your mind. Even if I’m physically weaker  than some men, it doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to go out at night when I am not!

Shweta: I don’t remember when was the first time exactly but I guess when you first come to Kranti you need to understand the concept of equal rights. We are not necessarily taught what “feminist justice” is but we are introduced to this mindset because otherwise we wouldn’t think too much about it. When I came to Kranti, I was encouraged to explore what it means for me, I learnt how to have ownership of my own way of thinking. I started to develop critical thinking and other values, especially about my identity. It encouraged me to check who I was, to challenge myself and what I thought in different settings and spaces.

OFC: Speaking of identity, at OFC we believe that an essential component of feminist justice is to comprehend everyone’s lived reality and to celebrate the richness of the self. What do you think about this and what has been your journey in discovering, challenging and accepting your identity?  

Jayashree: My mum is a sex worker and seeing her doing sex work was always difficult.

Before, I used to think that I should not talk about her, I was afraid of being judged. I even  used to hate my mum for whatever she did.  And I have been living in this community so I know how men see the woman who work on the road.

At the end of an eight months programme I participated in to learn “life skills”, we had to reflect about the most sensitive part of our life. I decided to think about questions I could ask my mum to try and understand her choices. From a young age, I was wondering why she needed a man at home and why she was doing sex work (she is now a housewife since eight years). I never listened to her perspective. I was always judgmental towards her. And then I understood that she was worried about my studies. Now, I believe that she’s right in her own way. You can’t judge someone who is doing her best in the circumstances she has been put. Working on this relationship made me accept who I was in order not to repeat the stigma my mum was experiencing. I’m no longer ashamed of talking about my mum. I’m so proud of her and I believe she’s the strongest woman I have met in my life.

Shweta: I grew up in the red light district in Mumbai. I started to struggle in school when I turned 11 or 12 years old because the whole curriculum, which was in Marathi, switched to English. I had a very low self esteem as a child. I was scared to attend classes, afraid of being bullied and ashamed of myself. All of a sudden I realised that, if I don’t study, it would reinforce this insecurity. In my community, everyone does small jobs to survive and I certainly didn’t want that. I was also suffering from abuse and trauma at home so I wanted some change, to move somewhere else where I could study properly. At first I was part of another organisation in my community and they introduced me to Kranti.

I discovered a space where I started to accept myself, my skin color, my identity. “Dark skin is beautiful”. This was a sentence I’d never heard before. So I started to attend different workshops and then I took these lessons to other places, not only in India but also abroad. I went to Nepal. I got to speak about child abuse and sex education, for example. This is what Kranti is about, giving us an opportunity to learn and then talk about our stories. It’s been a journey and it’s still a journey.

OFC: One way to tell your story has also been through theater. This project emerged from workshops delivered by Jaya Iyer, a theater trainer and activist promoting the “Theater of the Oppressed” method as a way of healing through dialogue. You performed in multiple places in India as well as abroad, in the USA and the UK. Can you tell us more about your experience? What role has this form of art-based therapy played in your personal journey?

Shweta: Jaya works with different communities on how to use theater as a tool to share stories as a process of healing. We would do different activities, improvisation exercises and it would come spontaneously from her: she works from what is needed. It was really helpful to me because I understood that It’s not just about our journey but also about how to communicate and how we express our struggles.

Jayashree: It all started about five years ago when Jaya came to teach us theater. We did a  lot of exercises and the aim was firstly, to show what and how we are thinking and secondly, to show how we can use our bodies to express our thoughts. One of them is that Jaya would tell us to choose one character and we were supposed to freeze like that. First she would just say “you’re a little girl” and then “you’re a Muslim little girl” or “ you’re a transgender little girl”. It highlighted the kinds of stereotypes that would come out of the freezings. Slowly, we started thinking that it would be amazing if we just carry on and start a project to tell our stories by performing our struggles. When I first saw that we had to create this abuse scene in the play, I remembered that I was not ready for it. So for years I refused to do it. I was ok with doing the other ones but not the abuse scene. But a few weeks ago we had that show and I said “I’ll do it!” and I did! I cried at the end. It was very intense. The play talks about our experiences of violence and also who we are as persons so the play changes with the time because in one year, people can become a different person. I’ve been exploring my story of abuse in my therapy for almost seven years so now. After five years, I’m able to do the abuse scene in my play.  So theater clearly has a big role in my life and in my struggles.

Jayashree Patil

OFC: Jayashree, you took the initiative to lead a similar project with members of the Dalit community in Punjab. Can you share about this process of using your struggles to work with marginalised girls and what impact it has had on your own experience? 

Jayashree: The idea came up from a Panchayat in this small village in Punjab. We started to think that we could use theater to give a social message, to talk about the experience of being a girl. I was doing theater for five years only so I was not sure if I could take on this project but I thought “let’s just give it a chance!”. It was my responsibility to collect the girls from their house, to introduce myself and to tell them about the project. I ended up having seven girls. I gave them the choice between working on a play based on a script or just performing our struggles and they chose the second option.

Being a girl is basically the main problem in the lower caste community so they had a lot to say! I just created a play from their stories and we worked on that for three months, performing in every village in north Punjab. It was quite amazing, I never thought I could have done this.

Doing theater with Kranti first and then directing the girls has definitely been a big part of my healing process. It made me share many things. I’m not ashamed of my body, of my voice because the other girls at Kranti are also going through these struggles. That’s what I tried to teach the girls in Punjab: theater is not only for fun but also to support one another. In theater, I think, you need a lot of trust when you’re working with each other because you share your feelings and the others share their feelings with you as well. There were times where I cried.

The difference was that in Kranti, someone else is leading so I could just show my emotions and she will always be there to support me. The second project was more difficult and more challenging because I was responsible for everything but it was amazing for me to see that I am actually able to do this.

OFC: This is a brilliant example of individual and collective empowerment which is one of the key values of feminist justice. At OFC, we advocate towards tackling the vulnerability narrative that exists in society when addressing GBV. Often, it is believed that using the term “survivors” rather than “victims” is much more empowering. However, we believe that every experience is unique so we should not universalise the individual process by putting labels on people who experienced violence. What do you think about that? 

Shweta: Oh yes, obviously there is a huge difference between “victims” and “survivors”. When calling us “victims” people are twisting the way we see ourselves and it definitely influences how people treat us and the way they speak to you. It can even have an impact on how we see ourselves. I hate when I hear people talking about us as “victims of trafficking, victims of abuse”. I think, for me, it’s so important to change my own story and the way I see myself. We should not let people put their own words on our stories.

OFC: We are trying to promote these principles as part of the FemJustice Legal Centre. We designed a curriculum to train legal and mental health practitioners to address GBV with a feminist lens. Do you think this kind of method can have a positive practical impact on survivors and how? 

Shweta: Yes, I think it is beneficial both for women and society actually. Many people have been raised with this ignorance about feminism and women’s empowerment. Women specifically have been conditioned to think like that they are equal to men, so we need to raise awareness about discrimination.

It’s always easier to complain than to fight, to stand up for our rights. It’s easier to stick to the norm than to challenge it.

I wish there was more harmony in the communities rather than oppression and suppression of one gender.

Policies and laws make a huge difference in fighting against gender discrimination because it is a communal statement, made by society at large. But sometimes the law does not give enough attention to some groups like women and issues like rape and sexual violence: it does not take into account experiences.

OFC: Do you think social change can only occur through the law? 

Shweta: Part of it, yes but definitely not all of it. This is especially the case in India where what is needed is a change of attitude towards gender, and this can’t happen through the law. We must create awareness, acceptance and open-mindedness first otherwise the law will be useless.

And law can also be harmful, as you can see with the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act. It shows the power that the law has on society. But now I think we can see that people are more and more awake so I have hope.

Maelle Noir is Program Officer at the Feminist Justice Legal Center, One Future Collective.