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Interview: Adsa Fatima

Adsa Fatima is a feminist, trainer and resource person working with Sama Resource Group for Women and Health. In this interview, she shares her insights on issues of privacy, safety and inclusion in the context of reproductive health, sexuality and rights, and the family and social environment that influence individual choices and decisions. As Adsa says, “the day to day surveillance of women and girls within marriage and families, keeping a track of their whereabouts or simply expecting unconditional completion of their gendered role or labour within families, highly restricts the time and space for exploring and experiencing the concept of privacy at an individual level”.

Shikha Aleya: Adsa, many thanks for taking out the time and energy for this interview. To begin, please tell us a little bit about yourself and the influences that led you to work in the field of health, sexuality and rights.

Adsa Fatima: As paradoxical as it may sound to begin this interview, I am a very private person who has silently explored the politics and power within social human relationships, within families, interpretation of religion, morality and so on. I was an observer to begin with and found it very compelling (and excitingly rewarding) to think about my personal experiences of having a certain gender identity. It also got me curious enough to look at the lives of other women around me and I found something very structural in operation at the societal level. When I was younger, I was a heavy reader, over-thinker and a lousy dreamer (lousy, because I would prefer dreaming to doing my work!), very obsessed with ideas of good and bad, or right and wrong, while trying to understand and assign meanings to things and happenings around me. This orientation later developed into black, white and heavy shades of grey and complexities that I continue to explore till date. I like to believe the focus of this exploration is a political process at an individual level in the effort to lead the negotiation of power within any and all relationships and interactions. My belief in the possibility of altering power relations and finding beauty and positive meanings within human relationships has kept me an optimist.

As part of my work, I was very keen to contextualise the meanings of feminism and other political ideologies, through exposing myself to experiences of women and to women’s agency and efforts to challenge the dominance of society on them, within different settings and locations. Gender and sexuality as a ‘thematic’ work area was an obvious direction for me. Through this I have largely explored the concepts of women’s collectives as a process and means of individual liberation and collective empowerment; gender and governance as political mobility; and the complex intersectionality of different identities. This has meant debunking the homogenisation of women, and revisiting the concept of ‘woman’ being a gendered identity and not a given form to live with, and therefore understanding the tensions that may emerge from challenging a given identity as it is.

I am a person who has been converted into working in the field of health, public health and right to health. Sama, where I have worked now for over four years, has made this conversion possible. I had joined Sama primarily from the point of it being a feminist space and have learnt since then the critical positioning of health discourses and their essential interlinkages with gender, sexuality and rights. Engaging with meanings and understandings of health offers an intersectional lens to visibilise the gendered nature of determinants of people’s health, and their access to healthcare services. It also offers an important location for a potential transformation of the health systems themselves from a gender and sexuality perspective – engaging with health systems which appear to be gender biased, homophobic and transphobic.

Shikha: Many people will quite likely agree with you there. Adsa, you began by saying that you are a very private person. So, growing up in India, how would you say privacy plays out in the lives of individuals within different family settings?

Adsa: As I recall this ‘growing up’ and my surroundings, I think privacy to a large extent plays out as an exchange in relation to structural norms of family, conformity, etc. If you are conforming to broader roles and rules within family/community settings, privacy is given to you as a reward. Of course, back then, it used to feel right and justified. So, if you are faring well in your school examinations, then you become this important child and then you can bargain for some private/chosen desires like spending time with friends, going for a movie, or even putting up a poster of your favourite sportsperson or Bollywood actor in your room or bathroom. While some of these may sound like socialising moments, they were private in the sense you did not have to do it, rather you had this feeling, and want to do it, which makes it very personal and intimate. Besides, it really depends upon the identity of any individual. I would say privacy is extremely gendered as witnessed in the institutions of families, and communities. Very simply put, the day to day surveillance of women and girls within marriage and families, keeping a track of their whereabouts or simply expecting unconditional completion of their gendered role or labour within families, highly restricts the time and space for exploring and experiencing the concept of privacy at an individual level.

Secondly, privacy has also essentially to do with class and work. Individuals within families engaged to work in the informal sector, with precarious work conditions and daily wage labour, often have to put up with extreme forms of surveillance as part of their day to day work, whether at factories, or construction sites, or in warehouses etc. This directly restricts the idea of privacy, as compared to the organised sector where people often experience and express a sense of building an individual identity, whether based on their performance or in the financial freedom to determine an important aspect of their lives. But, this is not to say that the  middle classes understand, and experience privacy and the poor socio-economic classes do not. Cultural capital within different communities, their notion of entertainment, media, and social interaction is a diverse reality which may very well be holding the meaning of privacy, personal, intimacy and so on for everyone in those spaces. There may be instances or examples of liberating experiences within the cultural norms of underprivileged communities as compared to say the close restrictions imposed within the context of middle class life. Middle class morality places barriers to privacy. However, often we also see the stigmatisation of forms of expressions and culture of the lives of economically disadvantaged classes. Having said this, of course, class remains an essential privilege, and with being from an economically better off class, come privileges, that may hold the promise of individuality, mobility, better access to certain services, etc.

Shikha: Please share your insights on the possible connections between privacy and the creation of safe, inclusive and sexuality affirming space within families. How may such an environment be created, nurtured and sustained across the variety of spaces an individual traverses through life?

Adsa: Sexuality is definitely a fundamental aspect of life and closely related to privacy. Just the restrictions and stigma around sexual expressions, which are so private and integral to any individual, fundamentally violate privacy. Allowing spaces to ask questions, express feelings, share doubts, dilemmas, seek inputs for reflection, the pursuit of finding meanings and make sense of things about oneself, one’s body, things around us…are all constitutive components of privacy. In order for this to happen, it is essential that families create spaces which are non-prescriptive, non-judgmental and inclusive.

It is imperative that we do not assign ‘silence’ as the meaning of privacy, while building and exploring privacy, rather that it should be about the space for speaking up about one’s identity, sexual preference, sexual orientation, individual’s experiences and for promoting an acceptance and inclusion of these. Removing any and all silences on aspects of people’s lives at all stages would be essential to this process. 

Privacy can be aspirational wherein we may find ourselves with expressions such as ‘I want my privacy’ or ‘this is my private space’ and so on. But I think privacy is also something very integral to a person, meaning that no matter what situation or context one is living in, an individual is capable of having held and enjoyed/exercised a sense of privacy, having control on sharing or exchanging of certain information related to their life which may be intimate and personal. This integral aspect is located within emotions, feelings, desires and sharing within human relationships more than the tangible aspects of the physical environment.

Shikha:  What are your observations of the way privacy issues now play out in social media with the overlap between the physical space and the digital space? 

Adsa: Social media and the digitisation of human lives that we have seen over the last decade and a half is revolutionary. So it is difficult to give a simple answer to this question, given the complexities and intricacies of how the digital space has interacted with our lives. To some extent, we as individuals have become a product of the same. Social media in a conversation on privacy is just so complicated, despite it being a compelling and apparent case to inquire into. Privacy has both experiential and imaginative aspects, while there is also something very absolute about it. So social media allows so many people to share their feelings and expressions in a private space and time, yet once it is out, it is for public consumption. I am sure that as individuals we would see these spaces as having contributed to our expression, ability to express, articulate as well as connect with many people/individuals sharing similar experiences all across the world. So at an imaginative level, social media with its number of followers seems to have made a great impact on people’s lives. However, the absolute part of it comes in when we look at the business aspect of it wherein personal sharings, stories, likes, dislikes, opinions are being potentially harboured as data open for commercial logics and consumption, which seems to be contradicting the promise of privacy and safe space that it was imagined to hold.

Shikha: Now, Aadhaar and critical issues of privacy, rights and access to service shave been in the middle of raging debates. The Supreme Court in the 2017 ruling on privacy recognized that privacy is a fundamental right and in the 2018 ruling on the Aadhaar Act declared that the Aadhaar provisions for data collection did not violate the right to privacy and declared various sections under debate as constitutional. In October of the same year, there were media reports outlining the case of a woman who could not get an abortion because she didn’t have an Aadhaar card. Rights activists and advocates protested against this linking of health and social services which continued in different ways across the country. Two years down the line, with the new plan to use Aadhaar for patient records and identification in the offing, what is your sense of the current ground realities of privacy and the right to sexual and reproductive health?

Adsa: Sexual and reproductive health as a ‘right’ remains a distant goal in the context of India. Any conditionality, such as that of having an Aadhar card, just by itself, or linking it with health and other public services, is in direct  contravention of rights and worsens the existing situation in terms of barriers faced by people in seeking timely, sensitive, responsive and quality healthcare. Whether Aadhar provisions violate the right to privacy is a separate debate, but certainly any introduction of a compulsive process like linking Aadhar for accessing services breaches the principles of unconditional public health provisioning, from a rights framework. Ground realities, or rather the experiences of people, work in a multiplier way; any new barrier such as of having to possess Aadhar card compounds the existing barriers faced by different people, communities, sections of people from different marginalised locations. The example of abortion denial cited above is on the same lines. Abortion by itself remains so stigmatised and difficult to access, despite its legality in India, and any new conditionality really makes a case of gross injustice. Abortion care and services along with several other sexual and reproductive healthcare services, should be provided in a timely, gender sensitive and dignified manner.

Privacy often forms a critical component of the right to dignified treatment of a person. Linking abortion services with Aadhar is a step towards the breach of privacy which inadvertently leads to compromising the dignified treatment of people.

Shikha: Adsa, you’ve facilitated training sessions with doctors and other medical professionals on gender based violence and reproductive and sexual health. What has been your experience of the  perspective that healthcare providers have on issues of privacy and sexuality? What would you say are some of the emerging needs in this context?

Adsa: Work focusing on gender-based violence often reveals an extreme picture representing the gender bias and insensitivities inherently located within any system. Engagement with the health system on this issue has also been along the same lines. The health systems remain gender biased, lacking orientation on the role played by gender in determining health situations as well as access to healthcare, for women and non-conforming gender identities; these same people, when they present themselves as survivors of gender based violence (GBV),also experience specific discrimination at the hands of the system. The practice of conducting the two-finger test  in India by medical professionals on survivors of GBV is a very specific example of this. Despite this practice being held discriminatory, illegal and banned through recent legal amendments, medical professionals continue to do this as a routine test for GBV survivors at several places across the country. By doing this test, the doctors basically opine on the past sexual history of the survivor and comment on the elasticity of their vagina/introitus so as to determine whether the person concerned is ‘habitual to sex or not’ and therefore can be ‘raped/assaulted’ or not. These tests are routinely performed, equally on children as well as adult survivors of GBV. Then there have also been practices of documenting built, height, weight, or gait that perpetuates stereotypes about the survivors, to suggest that a woman of a certain height, weight or build cannot be sexually assaulted as she would be able to offer resistance to her assailant. Such examples clearly tell us how forensics, science and medical discourses are also muddled with the societal perceptions around sexuality and gender.

How we understand GBV determines our response to it, and in this case we have seen how the burden of stigma is imposed on the survivors. As a society and parts of systems, we find ourselves invested with a preference to question the survivors for seeking out the ‘ultimate truth’ with ‘hard evidence’ in a way that has systematically worked towards delegitimising the testimonies, voices and experiences of survivors. The very logical relationship between the survivors’ history/narrative of violence with the process of forensic evidence collection seems so challenging to establish. For instance, although the legal definition of ‘rape’ has been broadened to include different forms of penetration (oral/anal/with an object/with a body part other than penis) the orientation of the health systems largely continue to remain very ‘peno-vaginal’. So, unless you ask the survivor about the nature of violence how would you ascertain the right way of evidence collection in the concerned case? If the history is of forceful oral or anal penetration, then looking for sample of semen or injury in the vagina is simply irrelevant and grossly violative.

Orientation on sexuality and privacy is very critical here in this context to address these issues. Building an understanding of different forms of sexual acts and expressions and the essentiality of people’s consent is critical for understanding violence, or violations of a person’s bodily autonomy and integrity when consent is withdrawn or not given at all. It is important therefore to engage with medical professionals towards building a positive, rights based orientation on sexuality and gender. This is an important part of strengthening and improving the existing health system’s response to gender based violence.

Shikha: Thank you Adsa, for sharing your thoughts and insights. A last question – in the 2018 India country assessment by Sama and PLD (Partners for Law in Development) on sexual and reproductive health and rights, privacy is articulated as a human right, along with the right to marriage and family life, and intersecting with reproductive rights.  Specific to this context, the report details out, amongst other themes, a woman’s right to choose her partner, interpreting the notion of family, equality of women, gendered division of work and the rights of women with disabilities. What are some of the practical, personal and social changes required to explore these concepts at the individual level?

Adsa: Articulation of these rights are affirmative stances aimed to promote an individual’s liberty, freedom and protection against discrimination. It is very important therefore to keep engaging with questions of marriage, relationships and gender and to take these conversations to places where they are still lacking. The discourses on rights have predominantly emerged from within given political settings and history, whether it is the language of human rights in the post second world war era, or any other compelling case being made for rights, there is always a given context and narrative around the subjugation and oppression of some people by other people, or by the larger geopolitical or socio-political setting. Issues of location of power underline human relationships.

Global feminist movements historically have given us the understanding and discourses that allow for politicising of spaces that were considered purely intimate and personal, such as families, marriage, culture, relationships etc. Reproductive rights would be difficult to imagine today without acknowledging or recognising the concrete articulation of reproductive labour, power, resources, control of and access to resources, all within the larger patriarchal socio-economic and political set up – as done by feminist scholars around the world. The detailing of various rights under sexual and reproductive health and rights, as done in the Sama and PLD report of country assessment of SRHR, are all located within the framework of challenging the dominant politics of hetero-normative patriarchal structures and institutions. Privacy therefore emerges as a crucial ‘human right’ given the integral need for it, and the absence of it, or struggles for it. For instance in the lives and experiences of many women and gender non-conforming identities and individuals. Many of these rights are intersectional and interlinked with each other. They derive unique substantial meaning and articulation, or application, while transversing different identities, such as of women with disability, or women belonging to marginalised locations in terms of class, ethnicity, caste or religion etc, and the intersections between these.

There is a reason why, while articulating SRHR, we imagine women or other marginalised identities and cannot give up the gender lens, and this needs to be underlined with all the ink available. We cannot delink the assertion of these rights from the historicity of contexts, movements and struggles that have cumulatively formed the genesis of these rights. Privacy, as a human right, emerges as it is fundamentally linked to the struggles about bodily integrity and the bodily, sexual and reproductive autonomy of women, which only means that the struggles for privacy have to be located within the ongoing struggles for the rights of women within families, marriage and the state as well.  The articulation of these rights should be guided by the principles of social justice and equity to recognize power within social structures and consequently the different kinds of marginalisation operating in the lives of many people.  The rights of all such people should also feature within this universal imagination of reproductive and sexual health rights for everyone.

One of the pragmatic steps therefore, in this case, would be to look at these rights as complex, rather than settling for simplicity; it would be appropriate to approach these rights by exploring the issues that emerge in the practical application or exercise of rights. Let us look at the example of marriage (since it features in these articulations and I find it difficult to ignore it without saying a word or two) in the context of privacy and reproductive rights. We think of the ‘right to marriage and family life’ and assert the belief that every individual should be able to offer consent and make this choice in their lives as a matter of right and not because of socio-cultural, economic and political interferences from society and/or the State. There is a constant need at the same time to challenge the existing norms and functions of marriage, and/or the role of the State as an institution, which often restricts or limits the options for ‘individuals’ with marginalised identities (women, trans people, queer persons, persons and women with disability and so on). Even if we just look at the surface of a hetero-normative marriage/family, it would not be that simple to contextualise these rights.

As part of my experience of conducting gender trainings with women from rural communities, I have often come across the experiences and examples of ‘abandonment’ of women by their husbands and the hardships faced by them in terms of access to social, community and other resources for sustaining their lives and livelihood. Marital monogamy and/or legal marriage appears to be a myth when seen alongside of these examples; the socially and culturally legitimitised transgressions in marriage by men across different communities in this country is something that needs to be recognised to lend voice to the experiences of several women with their marriages. We need to acknowledge the supreme leverage that marriage holds for access to social, cultural and political capital associated with lives of people; particularly for women within the patriarchal framework of social relationships.

Similarly, the ‘right to family life’ may interfere with rights of a woman herself. In a situation where, the meaning of ‘family’ has been portrayed as a hetero-normative married couple having children, the essentialisation of motherhood and the burden on women that it adds is huge and discriminatory.

Given this context, it would be challenging to ascertain the absoluteness of an individual’s claim to it as a right in an isolated manner. How do we uphold the right to marriage or the freedom to walk away from it, without contextualising each time, the socio-political constraints and marginalisations  associated with the lives of the people concerned?

These are not easy questions to answer but they certainly do tell us that the rights discourse benefits from engagement with a gendered-intersectionality framework within the larger framework of social justice.

It is important to continue engaging with the concept of ‘marriage’ while challenging its dominance and essentiality in people’s lives, and to continue exploring an alternate meaning to be assigned to it. By acknowledging the need for rescuing desire, intimacy and love (if that is different from the first two) and to locate control within individuals, instead of the existing dominant norms and practices, towards really making it a choice and not a mockery of choice.

Reproductive rights too, similarly, need to be broadened for their interpretation within the reproductive justice framework by looking at the multiple marginalisations of certain people as compared to others. Our pursuit of finding or building ‘individuals’ and exploring the right to privacy should be one that is well informed by the history of struggles of different identities, and the experiences of marginalisation, both at the intimate, personal level and at the larger community level.

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Article written by:

Reads, writes, does Sudoku, grows plants and walks with dogs as a reasonable option to running with wolves. Is a consultant with TARSHI, focusing on health, disability, gender and rights issues. A post-graduate from XLRI, graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University.

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