The Female Gaze: Rupi Kaur on The Freedom of Expression
In 2015, Instagram censored an image of an artist on her period. Rupi Kaur, the Toronto-based spoken word poet and illustrator developed a photo series called ‘period’ in her final year at university. The goal she said “was to challenge a taboo, tell a story without the use of words”. The picture was deleted by Instagram barely 24 hours after it went up.
Kaur fought back. Reporting the event on Facebook, she countered, “Thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique… I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified and treated less than human.” Her powerful response was liked by over 53000 people and shared over 12000 times.
Rupi Kaur uses her Instagram account to post poetry (accompanied by her own illustrations) about violence, abusive relationships, love, loss and healing. Inspiring over a million followers, she published a book of poems titled Milk And Honey.
In an immersive conversation with Verve, Kaur revisits her Instagram history and talks about using the same platform to do what it is supposed to — empower.
What were the first thoughts that went through your mind when Instagram took down your menstruation-themed photo?
That project was a part of photo assignment I did for my university. So I think I was very naive because I never thought that it would be taken down. Nothing about that photo was explicit. So I posted it and I had written about periods and menstruation before, and to me, this wasn’t any different. But the fact that it was an image was a big deal, and I was shocked to see it taken down. That’s when it went from being a project to a protest because I got a message from Instagram telling me that this image was deemed unsafe. It made me angry because why is something so natural considered unsafe?
How did you feel when you received support from people across the globe?
I wondered about the attitude we have in the West. Because in other parts of the world women don’t have access to sanitary napkins and they are not allowed to go to school. This is absolutely ridiculous, so I continued to post the image and they continued to take it down. It was a very difficult time for me because my post went viral and fifty per cent of it was a lot of love, and fifty percent was hate and anger that I had never ever seen before. I was getting death threats and people were telling me that they were going to hunt me down and rape me. And I read thousands of comments like that and realised that it’s a wake-up call.
People from the East said that this is something I shouldn’t be talking about, and the West questioned why was I talking about this since it is something we don’t face here. And this proved that it’s a worldwide issue and we haven’t overcome it yet.
Your poetry looks at women and violence. What prompted you to write about this?
Just watching the experience of women in my community in my neighbourhood, seeing the different things they were going through, aunts and friends at school experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse…. I used to think that these are rare issues, but when more girls in the community got together and spoke about it, we realised how normal it was. That’s when I began to write poems because I think no one should have to endure that kind of violence on their body.
What made you share your writing on social media?
I think for a large part of my life, I felt very voiceless. I’ve always been silent in the family — quiet and unheard. Even in school, I was like a fly on the wall, never having the chance to say anything. At the same time, I didn’t want to be the centre of attention. So I was facing a predicament because I had all these things that I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to put up a stage in the middle of nowhere and scream it all loud.
Sharing my writing on the internet was my way of expression. At first, I thought about doing it under a pseudonym because I didn’t want people to think that I had written it. One of my friends stopped me and explained that it was important for people to know me and what I look like. Because it is a representation, and we rarely have that kind of representation for young brown women.
Do you remember your very first post?
My first Instagram piece was posted in 2013. It was a poem about a wife who was dealing with her husband’s alcoholism, there was violence in their household. And I remember posting it and it felt very freeing. Like I dealt with something and then I was letting it go into the sky. Every time I would post something, I would feel a little bit lighter.
Does your online community influence your writing?
I have a loving and nurturing online circle. I was afraid at first because my writing came from a place that was so honest. People enjoy certain topics like love and heartbreak, so I wondered whether I should stop posting about other things and continue focusing only on this. I was questioning myself, and then one day, after talking to a few friends I came to a realisation that what has allowed me to have this amazing community is my ability, to be honest with myself. And to continue to have that community I must be sincere. So I work really hard to not let them influence what I’m going to write about, but I let them influence me to only write honestly.
Since you write about topics related to women, what is the one thing you feel a man can take-away from your book Milk And Honey?
There’s as much a woman can take away as a man. A lot of men read the book because it helps them understand what their girlfriends have gone through in previous relationships, or what their sisters are dealing with or what their mother’s experiences have been in the household. It’s important for us to understand that and each other. I’m a person who finds it difficult to have a conversation about my feelings, so I’m really great at writing them down. Similarly, if people find it hard to talk about how they feel, the book can explain a lot of things. If you’re not reading it for yourself, you’re reading it to understand somebody you love.
Your work is called feminist poetry. Do you agree with that?
Since grade 10 I’ve been aligning myself with the term feminism. In English class, the teacher came in and asked us, ‘How many of you are feminists?’ I wanted to raise my hand even though I didn’t know what being a feminist meant, but I just knew it had the word ‘female’ in it, and I am proud to be a woman. But then I looked around me and everyone was looking down at their desks in shame and so I quickly put my hand down for fear of embarrassing myself. My teacher continued, ‘How many of you believe that men and women should be equal?’ and everybody put up their hand up. ‘How many of you believe that violence against children is wrong, and how many of you believe that our religions are equal?’ and she gave us different examples and said that if you believe in all of this, it means you’re a feminist. Since then I’ve associated myself with that word. All feminism is asking from me is that men, women, children, and all genders be treated equally.