From gender-based violence to the challenges of being an outspoken woman, Indian writer and activist Meena Kandasamy talks with Graeme Green.
Your second novel, When I Hit You, is about a young woman who’s the victim of domestic abuse and violence, as you were. How much of it is based on personal experience?
A lot of it is first-hand. [Domestic abuse] is so intense that going through it defines you and alters you; so, as an artist, it would be a shame not to use it for what it’s worth. But it’s not a memoir. Some parts are altered; some parts are left out.
What impact did your experience of abuse have on you?
Domestic violence is a particular kind of violence. It’s often accompanied by elements of emotional torture and intellectual belittling and judgement. It happens to women on multiple fronts.
What’s also difficult is to get people to believe it happened to you; that you could be a victim. When you’re outspoken, and especially outspoken on causes, people assume: ‘Oh, she speaks for so many of us, so naturally she should be able to speak out for herself.’
Why is there a particular issue in India with violence and attitudes towards women?
I come from a culture where if a woman says her husband is hitting her, people will say: ‘Well, that’s one side of the story and the other side of the story is: what did you do to make him hit you?’ If a woman is raped, they’ll say: ‘What did the woman do to make him rape her?’
Every time something happens to a woman or her body – in terms of abuse, assault, trauma – there’s all this victim-blaming and ‘slut-shaming’. People start to sit in judgement over your life and your personal story. That is why women don’t speak out as much as they should.
Why do you think some men are so desperate to control women, physically and mentally?
There are thousands of years of patriarchy, but it’s also how the idea of ‘masculinity’ itself is defined. I think there’s an element of society having an image and expecting men to behave in a certain manner, in order to prove ‘manhood’ or ‘masculinity’. If a man can’t control his wife, he’s a powerless man, or a henpecked man.
You’re known in India for your outspoken views. How much resistance is there in the country to strong, outspoken women?
Recently, journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in her house. This isn’t just men shouting words – the anger can spill over into real threats and real killings. So many women, such as student activists, get these kind of threats – people say they should be tied to the back of a tank.
[British MPs] Diane Abbott and Jess Philips have both talked about the threats and abuse they get on Twitter. When I had my own bad experiences on social media, it was the US police who responded to me. They tracked a man down and talked to him. He had threatened an acid attack, and that kind of threat is a felony in the US
[as in the UK].
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a controversial figure. What are your views on him and the current direction of the country?
It’s not only Modi. When you have a repressive government in place, state governments feel empowered to use repressive measures in controlling their own populations. I’ve had friends who were incarcerated on the flimsiest of pretexts, just because they’re dissidents. Gauri Lankesh was someone I knew, someone who engaged with my work, someone I’ve interacted with, and in a flash, she’s gone.
This kind of anti-writer, anti-intellectual, anti-dissident environment is very much alive. There’s a subculture of fear. It is quite scary.
Are there any positive changes you see happening in India currently?
I should hope so. All this repression is going to have a blowback; [people] are going to speak out. When a regressive state obviously holds a patriarchal ethos, a caste ethos and a religion-majority ethos, I think people, especially young people, will start to call it out. I’m only slightly optimistic about how far people will fight it. But I think there will be enough resistance eventually.
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (Atlantic Books) by Meena Kandasamy is out now.
Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @greengraeme and Instagram @graeme.green