Published: 08th March 2019
The 'brown girl' interview: Aranya Johar is speaking the 'Language of Equality' in her latest poem
Aranya's new poem 'The language of equality' was released ahead of International Women's Day, kickstarting a campaign called #PatriarchyKaPackup
The urban social circles in India were not very familiar with the idea and power of spoken word poetry until a few years ago. And then one day, a lot of us started seeing the video of a young woman in a pretty black dress, in front of a mic. The title read 'A Brown Girl's Guide to Gender'. In that two-minute long video, Aranya Johar explained patriarchy and misogyny in a simple, but hard-hitting spoken word poem. Many lauded her work, but there was a flipside. From being called a pseudo-feminist to a hatemonger, Aranya even received death threats and rape threats for her work.
"I would show those comments to my mother and tell her that in case I get shot in public, it would be the author of a particular comment," laughs this 20-year-old. Just in case you're wondering if the trolls managed to scare her, the answer is no. Just like how Malala took a bullet, fighting her cause, Aranya says that she wouldn't mind getting killed, but she will still write poetry about misogyny and continue performing.
Ahead of the 2019 International Women's Day, she's collaborated with the spoken word collective UnErase Poetry and put up a video titled 'The language of equality'. The collective is also conducting a campaign called #PatriarchyKaPackup to smash patriarchy and bring more girls to schools. We caught up with this young poet and she had a lot of insights to share about how our society can be misogyny-free. Not just that — she also spoke to us about her life, her introduction to feminism and her experience of working with Emma Watson. Excerpts:
Can you tell us more about #PatriarchyKaPackup?
After you start learning about feminism, you see that patriarchy seeps into everything. One of the most prominent platforms is education. As the years passed, I realised that it was actually a privilege for me to get educated. A lot of women in India still have no access to it, which is one thing that everyone deserves. The minute we start educating women, we will see a difference — there will be more women speaking up and there will be more leaders. We'll see a tangible change. So here, we're looking at different people sending their work to us about how they are packing up patriarchy.
I'm amazed by your understanding of feminism, patriarchy and sexism at this young age. How did you get introduced to the issues?
I was very young when I started writing and reading about feminism. My brother, rapper Enkore introduced it to me. He was very active on the internet and he told me that I need to read up on feminism and I will need this understanding, especially after I grow older. Apart from that, I studied sociology. That was when I had a deeper insight into issues. A big part of it was understanding how patriarchial and matriarchial households have changed the world and how everyone is affected by it. There is no one who isn't affected by patriarchy. The minute we start talking about hypocrisy, we find ways by which we can better ourselves. Education opened my eyes. Mostly, you only get to see one perspective when you come from a certain background. But with education, perspectives are changed. You're forced to view the same issue from different backgrounds.
How have your parents been reacting to your work?
My parents have always been really supportive. Very often when I speak to young girls, I hear them tell me that they're afraid that their parents may get angry, if they enact the sort of performance that I did. Which is true because I'm incredibly young and I use cuss words in some of my work. Nevertheless, my parents have been supportive of the work that my brother and I do. They are doing a wonderful job of educating us and acknowledging our views.
You are still ineligible to go inside a bar in India. Also, your first open mic was in a bar, when you were really young. Take us back to that time and tell us more about it.
I literally had to sneak my way in. I started writing poetry at 11 or 12 and performing at 13 or 14. There was only one open mic in Mumbai at that time and my brother insisted that I go for it. He said that way, I meet more poets and get feedback for my work. But then we realised that it was at a bar and I was really worried. I was never a party person. So, I asked my mother to come with me. When I told her that it was happening at a bar, she started laughing because my first visit to a bar was not to have fun, but to recite sad poetry. My mother was walking in front and my brother was behind me, and I snuck between the two of them (laughs). But a couple of visits later, the bouncers realised that I was there for poetry and not alcohol. That made it very easy for me.
Your work has inspired and influenced many. But at the same time, there is a lot of negativity and trolling about you on the web. How did you deal with it?
Initially, I couldn't speak about it to anyone. This was happening for the first time to poets in India and Priya Malik and I were the victims. But then, I started talking to a lot of influencers and my therapist, who made me realise the difference between critique and criticism. I also realised that people who aren't criticising my work but have a problem with me are trying to take me down.
Women and activists have been facing this for centuries. There will always be backlash for new thoughts, but this means that you're getting the right people angry.
I follow button poetry and listen to a lot of hip hop. Rap has had a huge influence on my poetry
Aranya Johar, Poet
You have also been advocating a lot about mental health. Do you think the current narrative that we have to discuss the topic is healthy?
As much as it is important to sensitise the conversation on mental health, you must be careful about the language. You have to make people realise that this is the reality, but with the right conversation and education. Mental health is important to your bai and your boss. This conversation must be started in lower classes and castes where it matters the most. Me going to a therapist is a privilege. This is because therapists are expensive and most of them speak English. You don't usually see a rickshaw wala going to a therapist. When people from lower and marginalised castes go to a therapist, that's when you can say that casteism isn't there.
You recently worked with Emma Watson and Emmanuel Macron in the G7 summit. How has that experience been?
Surprisingly, Emma (Wason) had watched my videos. When I wrote all of those poems, I was only thinking of the Indian context and wasn't trying to appeal to a western audience. But now I realise that something that started off with a small idea has reached bigger platforms. People who aren't from certain social contexts may still agree with it. Emma and I were working on the G7 council with the UN. We spoke of how we need more women of color and youth. In a conversation President Macaron, I told him also that the youth have to be included in conversations and that is the need of the hour.