Rise Up – Interview Series | Robin Chaurasiya
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 tangible feminist justice responses in their field of work. The objective is to open up space to explore various forms of feminist justice, across personal and professional spaces while looking at interpersonal and systemic challenges.
Maëlle Noir, of One future Collective spoke to Robin Chaurasiya, the founder of Kranti, an NGO that empowers marginalised girls in Mumbai’s red light district, Kamathipura, and survivors of human trafficking to become agents of social change. She is a psychology and political science graduate and holds a postgraduate degree in gender studies. Robin served in the United States Air Force until she was compelled to part ways due to her sexual orientation. She kindly accepted to share her vision of feminist justice with us.
OFC: Having had the exposure of working in different contexts (countries, industries, sectors), what is your definition of feminist justice, in theory and in practice?
Defining feminist justice in theory is a very easy question. Feminist justice is literally the basic belief that we are all equal: we deserve to be treated equally, to be entitled to the same rights equally (resources, education, opportunities), and we should not be denied or restricted access to anything based on our gender.
In practise, feminist justice should very much encompass other things: to say you are a feminist but you are anti-muslim for example just does not make sense. Therefore feminism, for me is an umbrella of believing and understanding that this equality that I am asking for should be extended to any human being on this planet regardless of one’s religion, sexual orientation, race or anything.
What is more, feminist justice is not only about women’s rights. I was in the military for 7 years in the US and I realised that men are just as much, if not more, at risk than girls in this field. They are facing discrimination as well, they are being sexually abused as well and they are at a higher risk when it comes to certain things such as drug addiction or suicide for example. So, from my point of view, feminist justice is believing in the worth of every human being. Everyone can be marginalised in some way. It is important to be aware that one can be the oppressed as well as the oppressor. Thus, If I expect respect and equality then I must owe everyone else respect and equality too. This is what feminist justice is about for me.
OFC: When did you first get introduced to the concept of feminist justice? What role is this playing in your personal and professional life?
I was always deeply feminist but it took me some time to be introduced to the word that goes along with this belief system. When I first understood what feminism was, probably when I started studying in Budapest for my degree in Gender Studies, I thought “oh that’s what’s wrong with me!”. It was my first time living proudly as a feminist and openly as a queer. I found this amazing space of open-mindedness and freedom, meeting such interesting people that understood me. It was just so comfortable to be part of this community where I did not have to fight constantly to explain to people why there is no such thing as “equality” in the world at the moment
OFC: While living this enriching and liberating experience in Budapest you got recalled to active duty by the US defence forces. How did the feminist in you deal with the US military’s policy on sexual orientation?
When I entered the military, at the age of 17, I had been asked to sign this document stating that I have never and I will never enter in homosexual conduct. I decided not to tell the truth in order to start my career. I had been living in the closet for a few years but when I got recalled on active duty, my commander found out about my sexual orientation. After my experience in Budapest, it seemed impossible for me not to affirm my identity openly. Even though I knew that if I went into this struggle it would turn into a nationwide drama, I decided to go for it. Therefore I went back to see my commander and explained that I am a lesbian and that I had known this since I was a child and, moreover, I had already been in relationships with women. I left him with a choice of either kicking me out or letting me live with my homosexuality openly and proudly. His answer came some months later when he accused me of lying about my sexuality, as a way to avoid returning to the military. I therefore decided to marry the woman I was in a relationship with at the time to give them the certificate as proof.
In the meantime, following the advice of my lawyer, I decided to start a campaign. This upsetted the defence forces as an institution as the story received a lot of coverage in the media. Whatever the outcome would be, what was at stake for them was a matter of control. They were thinking “if you want to be in the military, we will kick you out, if you want to get out of the military we will keep you in”. On the one hand, their argument was to exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ community on the basis that it would undermine the solidarity of the military and yet they wanted to keep me in as they thought I was lying.
The campaign was really intense. We used activism to defend our rights: we’d handcuff ourselves to the White House fence, drawing big banners and protesting every week to get people’s attention. The whole idea was to make so much noise that the issue could no longer be ignored. I was even put in jail for a few days, suffered a lot of pressure and even an attempt to be Court Marshalled.
The military finally kicked me out in July 2010 after four months of continuous harassment by journalists. Slowly, things are changing: the policy has been modified and now there are gay couples living in the military base.
This campaign has taught me a lot. To know that you can challenge the most powerful institution in the world makes me think that almost anything is possible.
OFC: After this successful campaign, you settled down in India and founded Kranti to work on a grassroot level with survivors of human trafficking and daughters of sex workers. How do you use feminist principles in your work and what do the girls know about feminist justice?
First of all, if you would ask them, they would probably not say “I am a feminist” but “I am an equalist”. In Kranti, we try to teach the girls that everyone deserves equal treatment. In the house there are Hindu, Catholic and Muslims girls. They accommodate very well to share the space and cohabit regardless of their background.
In connection to that, a big part of our work with Kranti is to both question and solidify their identity, which, I believe, is an essential component of feminist justice. For example, in certain parts of India, you are required to have a middle name which would either be your father’s name or your husband’s name. My dad was super feminist, and he put my mum’s name as my middle name.
But what about your name when you are a sex worker’s child or when you are transsexual? Their names are directly linked to this notion of their identity. The girls would have been told that they are not allowed to talk about their mum. When they come to Kranti we would tell them “talk about where you are from, be part of where you are from, be grateful for what your mum did to keep you alive and give you an education. Be proud of who you are”.
Being proud of our own identity is quite of a journey for everyone and it has been difficult for me too as a lesbian. There are some girls who are able to make the shift immediately, they have always believed in embracing their identity and they were just waiting for someone to tell them it was okay. However, there are some girls who are still really reserved and will not talk about their background.
Parallely, we are also helping each girl to challenge her identity. The fact of being treated as an untouchable, for example. If someone labelled as untouchable came one day and slept with your mum, does it make you untouchable? Where do these identities even come from? Who is stamping this identity on you? The stamp of religion does not make sense, the stamp of caste does not make sense, the stamp of gender does not make sense. Thus we are trying to teach the girls to get rid of these stamps for themselves and when interacting with others.
I believe that “feminist” is also a label of some sort. This is the reason why we are not trying to teach them to become “feminists” but, instead, we are using feminist values to tell them that it doesn’t matter what their religions are, what their beliefs are, who their parents were. Each life should matter equally in this world, whether Indian, American or British. You, as an individual, should be equally valued no matter what, this is the philosophy that we are trying to ingrain in them throughout the healing process.
OFC: Speaking about feminist principles used as a way to heal wounds of violence and discrimination, in Kranti you believe that art is an important part of the process. You have created a play to give the girls a voice so they can share their story. How does this initiative help the girls become agents of social change?
I think theater is not only a way to give the girls a voice but also an opportunity to develop public speaking skills, confidence, stage presence and an ability to express themselves. It all started five years ago, we were doing small shows here and there, one was for a youth art festival, one was for an NGO workshop. There were a lot of different contexts in which we would do theater. Then we began to tour: London and New York for example. It was an amazing experience to see the girls growing through this powerful means of expression.
Our play is very much about demanding our rights, using the struggles that we face, the discrimination that we face, the abuses that we’ve been dealing with on the individual scale. Sex workers will face discrimination no matter what. But what does it look like on an individual scale? What does it feel like to be trafficked? What is it like to be beaten up by the police? What is it like not to be able to provide your child with education?
What is interesting with theater is that the girls are really sharing their own stories. It’s a very dynamic, shifting kind of process. The story keeps changing as some girls leave and newer ones take their place. Moreover, the play is very interactive. The girls would play games on stage, meet the audience, ask around about their attachment to their mums as a deep part of who they are for instance. It is a healing journey for the girls. It is about inviting members of the audience on this journey with them and asking the public to speak about their own experiences as well. It is wonderful because people share the most incredible stories. They cry a lot and several times after the show, some would come and talk about how they felt watching it and even confess “you know I was sexually abused as a child as well”.
So I think that the journey is beautiful for the girls to realise that it is not only about them; it is not only the fact that we are sharing our story and you are learning about what it is to be a sex worker. Rather, everyone is learning from each other and this is how social changes come about. Everyone needs healing in some way.
OFC: To finish with, we want to know what is the direction feminist justice ought to take today? Is feminist lawyering an efficient approach to achieve substantive equality for all genders?
I am very feminist, no question about it, I believe in feminist values and in the feminist implementation of laws. However, I also feel that when it comes to social change you need something that will really connect and unite people. Feminist justice, in reality sometimes, just does not do that. Not because there is something wrong with the philosophy or the beliefs of feminism, but because people just feel too alienated by it in some ways. This is the case everywhere, world over and in a lot of different contexts. However, it is never the case that the law has changed, and, society, all of a sudden wakes up, convinced that gay marriage should be legal or that child marriage should be prohibited.
This is where, I believe, feminist values matter to produce social change in the future.
Maelle Noir is Program Officer at the Feminist Justice Legal Center, One Future Collective.