A huge section of the feminist movement has shifted online. Harnidh Kaur is one of the leading online feminist voices for the younger generation in India. With her poetry, honesty and positivity, she has turned her Twitter and Instagram pages into safe spaces for women to be heard, for women to understand feminism and for women to feel safe.
We spoke with Harnidh Kaur to get some insight into her brave vulnerability, her encouraging and curious words, her candour and where she sees the online feminist movement going in the near future.
men will tell you exactly how a single game of a sport they love will play out by comparing the body language of the players on ground and will still say shit like ‘I didn’t understand the negative cues she was giving me.’
— Harnidh Kaur (@PedestrianPoet) January 16, 2018
Ruchika Agarwal: As a child of the internet, you have used your social media presence and voice online to talk about feminist issues. Was there a particular moment when you realised this is what you can do and this will work to bring social change?
Harnidh Kaur: As I learnt about feminism, I found myself being able to understand concepts better if I reiterated them somehow. The internet became my portal for doing the same. If I learnt about something, I tweeted about it and I asked for opinions. The thing with social media, in general, is that it allows you access to an incredible number of people – most of them much smarter than you.
So, I would hound people and say, “Explain this to me!”, “Let’s talk about this.” It allowed me to make mistakes. If I didn’t know something, someone would correct me, even it wasn’t very nicely corrected, it was a correction.
I think when I tweeted out, “Tell me if anyone diminished your experience of sexual assault, and if you’re comfortable with it, quote the tweet with that.” And that went viral! And a little scarily viral in fact! This was my first understanding of how a safe space works and how conversation facilitates healing. And that’s when I realized, “Shit! I have this platform. I can do something with it.”
Instagram became another huge platform. A bunch of younger women follow me on Instagram. I often feel like people talk at women. People don’t talk to them. So I decided to talk to people. I built conversations. I engaged with them. I tried to help. It came to point where people felt they were comfortable reaching out to me if they felt confused about things. And it was a very organic growth.
The only aim I have with what content I put out in terms of the poetry I put out, in terms of the social media content I put out is that everything has to be honest. Everything has to come from a place of humility and of the urge to learn more. I am not an authority. But I do hope to be able to start conversations.
I find it damn funny when people get randomly offended when I talk about dating. My favourite reaction always is ‘oh? You’ve dated before?’ that comes with a body scan quickly taking stock of how I look. (Very) sadly, this comes mostly from women.
— Harnidh Kaur (@PedestrianPoet) January 13, 2018
RA: Social media, since its inception, has put the pressure on a lot of younger girls to be perfect – look perfect all the time, have a perfect social life. But with your honest portrayal of your life and you making mistakes, you challenge that norm. What are some of the responses, specific examples, of your followers reaching out to you regarding that honesty on social media?
HK: I think I found it relatively easier to not portray a perfect life because I never had a quintessentially perfect life. As a fat, young kid, you’re bullied. You’re not particularly happy. So when I decided to put out stuff on the internet, I never had a perfect template to look at, so that helped in being honest about things.
It’s incredible how many people reach out. It’s incredible how many people empathise. And it’s amazing how many people tell me, “I read what you said, and I felt heard.” That’s something! To be told that I read this poem and it hit me so hard and I am crying because I didn’t realize people still think that way.
I shared screenshots on emotional abuse on Instagram once. It started a conversation on Twitter, yes. But my twitter audience is slightly older. So that was a more sharing experiences kind of conversation. On Instagram, when it blew up, I had a bunch of girls coming and saying, “I didn’t realize it’s emotional abuse. I see it now. I feel vindicated. I feel like I am not insane,” which is HUGE!
The moment you are honest with women, they are honest with you. They are just looking for avenues to do that. I have been lucky enough to have the access to provide one to a large number of women.
RA: Along with the positivity that comes along with being such a prominent voice. I am sure there are a lot of trolling and haters that come in too. How do you handle those trolls and the online harassment that you face? What are your coping mechanisms?
HK: My real life keeps me grounded. There is a reason I am very very close to my family. There is a reason I have a bunch of friends who I am extremely close to. Because I can always turn to them and get perspective on things again.
Perspective! A lot of people forget that it is important. There have been times when stuff people have said online, got a little overwhelming. That’s when I just WhatsApp my best friend and go like, “Just talk to me! Just talk to me and get me through this.”
Initially, there were hiccups. Initially, I couldn’t demarcate between these two. Because social media is not real life anymore. It is as big a part of normal life as anything else is. But I have a super great group of friends. I am very very close to my sister. And I have parents who spoke to me about social media safety, about how I can always log out very very early in life.
I went in educated. That helped. Also, eventually, you build a thicker skin. It’s not something that I endorse. No one should have to build a thicker skin. It’s just a very callous idea. But over the years, you just tend to sift through the hate and find constructive criticism somewhere.
"So is my body a shrine? No, shrines can be desecrated. Shrines are built by someone else and modified to please the men who create them. My body is a city. It has layers and layers of cacophony and history. They build themselves up every time they’re razed to the ground, despite the odds of the same. That’s what my body is, a city." Harnidh Kaur @harnidhk. Our collaboration with @half.full.curve and @dsgnfbrc, photographed by @anaibharucha, concept and styling by @shirinsalwan, creative director @sanketavlani, makeup and hair by @alisha_mua, text by @woohoochild and produced by @vanshika674. #poet #artist #inspiration #bodypositive #beauty #fashion #indiandesigner #photography #style #girlpower #realpeople #realstories #halffullcurve #designfabric #ripemag
RA: One of the issues you have especially been vocal about online is body image. You were recently part of a photo story that has done really well on social media and has been really well-received. But that is something that is so personal and so difficult for most people to even accept to themselves. How did you find the courage to come forward with such a personal issue on such a public platform?
HK: When I went for that photo shoot, I was terrified. That’s a lot of skin to show. But at the end of the day, I thought of myself when I was 16, 17, 18. I felt like an outsider because I never saw any representation that looked like me. I could never log into something and say, “Oh fuck, that person is like me. That person thinks like me. I am not alone!”
It’s only when I grew a little older I started exploring more feminist media that I found body positivity as a concept and I found I could relate to it. So, the aim of putting this story out was two-fold. One, of course, to face my own discomforts. Second was definitely about creating representation. When I did that photoshoot, I realized that, “Shit! Some kid is going to see this and feel less alone!” That’re more than enough for me.
RA: You’re also a poet. You have written two books already and you’re now on your way to writing three more. In Mumbai especially, there has been a surge in the number of poetry events. And a major theme at these events is feminism. How important do you think are words and poetry to change patriarchal ideologies over time?
HK: You know poetry is a great gauge to know how and where you’re fucking up. A lot of the poetry emerge in these circuits and these events have been very problematic. However, while there is a larger, overarching theme of the fact that while there are people trying to commodify feminism and trying to build their rep off it, there is a huge chunk of women, especially who are finally finding a vocabulary for their feminism via poetry.
A vocabulary is something that we are not gifted as children. The lexicon of a femme-positive existence is very difficult to acquire. Even the language you speak now has so many constructs that make it inherently patriarchal. Poetry is inherently subversive. Poetry as a construct doesn’t adhere to grammatical norms, it doesn’t adhere to syntax.
So when I see women twisting and turning language into something that they can wear around themselves without feeling uncomfortable it’s great! For every one person writing a pandering piece on feminism, there are 20 women with not as large an audience, but with 10 times more honesty who are creating art that makes them feel more comfortable in their own skin.
RA: With everything happening in the world, what do you see as the future of the feminist movement online?
HK: Immense instability. For every overarching discourse, there’s an equally virulent counter discourse. You’re already seeing it with those French actresses who have signed a petition saying that a man trying to seduce a woman is not sexual harassment. The next couple of years is just going to be a lot of friction and a lot of confusion.
Once you reach a stage where you say, “I have a voice,” you spend the next few years trying to define that ephemeral voice, which is the stage we are at now. And this is the time you need to power through and keep the tempo going. It’s very easy to dissipate at this stage.
You have to consolidate, sit down and understand where you’re going next. It’s a very boring task. So the next couple of years are for consolidation, are for definition, are for thrashing out things and most importantly for remembering what the end goal is.
It’s very easy to commodify anger. We need to resist that. And let this momentum not be claimed by anyone trying to benefit off it materially. This is ours! It is time to reinstate that ownership and reiterate it again and again till we understand it ourselves.
RA: One thing I have noticed about your online presence is that everything you do is with a lot of positivity and joy. It’s not what people generally associate with feminism – anger. Were you always like this?
HK: I had my phases of depression and terrible times in general. But feminism for me a construct, as a concept, holds a lot of joy in it. There is a very fierce happiness to my feminism. My truth is essentially positive in nature.
I find it exhausting being angry all the time. I will rage, but I will rage for a better future, not at the stagnant status quo. And I choose positivity. I choose it very consciously. It’s not something that comes easy. There are costs to it.
There are days when I go home and I say, “I cannot! I cannot be happy today. I am on the verge of tears. I have nothing left in me today.” But, one thing I will always stand by, is that, again, there are very few pools of emotional reserve I have.
And I must invest them in something solid. My work brings me joy. My ideals bring me joy. My poetry brings me joy. So I choose those actively. I engage, yes, but I will not engage with people whose aim is to rile me up.
When I say I am positive, I don’t mean it in a sunshine and rainbows kind of way. It’s a positivity that is born out of a lot of darkness. And I think that is why it is sustainable. It’s not that manic happiness coming out of somewhere. It’s just a conscious decision to choose better. That’s where I come from.
RA: Finally, any advice for anyone who is trying to make a difference online or offline?
HK: Take care of yourself! There are a lot of people who will tell you a lot of things to do. But first and foremost remember that you are your biggest resource. That you are your only resource. If you expend it there is nothing left. And that is a very tragic place to be in – when you want to make a change but you simply cannot.
So make decisions that don’t exhaust you. Mentally, emotionally, physically, monetarily. Be wise about your investments in those same lines. Have a strong circle of people pushing you and supporting you. Trust me you will find them online if they are not in your real life at any point in time.
Remember that this is a fight that is as personal as it is political. You cannot disassociate yourself from it. You must consciously remember that this is as much about you as it is about the larger circle of things. So take a breath. Back off when it’s difficult. Come back refreshed.
We wish Harnidh Kaur all the best with her upcoming books, applaud her knack to make a scary place like the Internet a safer space for women, and thank her for her being such a refreshing and impactful feminist voice for the younger generation.