The Perpetually Invisible Indian Lesbian — Where Is Miss Rich When You Need Her?

Author’s Note : Hello BLOG! reading people. I have a new post up at Womanist Musings.

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This might not surprise you so much if I announced that I’m going through a pre-quarter-life-life-crisis right now; caused essentially by my mum and her troupé of LadyFriends who have become a caricature of women fueled by patriarchy in my head. It’s really not my fault that I seem to be staring at the space above her head, imagining smoke coming out of her eyes when she’s yelling at me (again) for whatever mistake I’ve made in the past two minutes. She was ranting about the days gone by, the days to come, the unstable government, her ‘flabby’ thighs (in her opinion) and then ultimately how God should descend and intervene otherwise she would just lose it. I’ve heard this speech so many times, in perfect chronological order, that I know the track it’s going to go next : The State Of Our Daughters Today And What Should We Be Doing About Those Tights Wearing, Cigarette Smoking, Consensual Sex Having and Ignoring The Holy Duty Of Cooking Girls with infinite series of question marks. I fit in a few of these categories, as do most Ladies I know my age, the only varying factor is if they spray their lungs with DeathJuice or not. So predictably when she’s reached the point where she’s imploring Zee Gods to come down, I snuck out to write. This way I can momentarily preserve my LadyBrain as well as remember to talk about something über important as this.

Turns out, I’ve got quite a past. Last week my friend was teasing me of being “in love” with one of my girlfriends when I was about eight or nine. I remembered suddenly the kisses we’d shared, the secret we had to keep and how deliciously mischievous we felt when we used to go in that room, “role-play”, knowing full well that the grown-ups knew nothing on the other side of the wall. It ended quickly, I think I fell for a boy right after and I forgot all about my first love, kept it away in some unhinged part of my memory. No one noticed anything, I wasn’t ever questioned or even asked to explain just what did I do all those hours locked up in my room with her. I was shocked to see I’d forgotten completely about her and I never thought it was anything abnormal that my first love was a girl. When I teased mum days later that I had a lesbian encounter right under her nose, instead of the moral outrage and cultural shock I’d expected, she just laughed it out saying, “You both were just girls! What harm will come off of that“. These words may seem silly to you but I’ve heard them so many times, everywhere, it seems like a system for erasing lesbian existence.

In most weddings or cultural events, women are allotted a separate room to change clothes, do their make up etc and the men occupy another room. In “No Man’s Land” (literally) one would see women in various stages of undress, helping each other to wear sarees, pinning their hair up just right, laughing, exchanging lewd and bawdy jokes. The room is charged with completely homo-erotic vibes that every one ignores. No one makes a big deal out of seeing other women in their underclothes, or even naked (in extreme cases). After all, as one of my great aunt loved to say amid loud guffaws and chortles, “We’re all women here. Every one has the same parts! Nothing we haven’t seen before“. Now you should imagine a stadium of screeching fans when the Beatles played at Shea Stadium, take that intensity and double it to correctly arrive at the decibel of screaming in the room if a ManPerson (age doesn’t matter) entered the room. Because the only threat to out ‘chastity’ comes from the y-chromosome. Women pining over other women’s bodies only happens in that ‘vulgar western culture’, not here; we worship Radha and Sita remember? Probably the two most well known Goddesses of the Hindu culture, both tragic stories of stubbornly heterosexual love plots.

This isn’t to say that Indian lesbians don’t exist. That will be akin to asking the general public to stop making fun of Sonia Gandhi’s accent — impossible. There are a lot of writers who do speak of this ‘tenuously sweet’ nature of lesbian relationships, there is also a myth of two lesbians making a son out of the earth and bringing him to life out of their love in the ancient texts. There are carvings on various temples of South India that do depict homo-eroticism, always in the presence and benefit of a male voyeur. Poets and writers like Gauri Despande, Kamla Das, Ismat Chughtai, Sarojini Naidu do address these “urges” and feelings, always under the blanket of patriarchy, remaining frustratingly ambiguous and detached. Only when Deepa Mehta’s Fire was banned by annoying fascist groups the Shiv Sena, for the first time we could see Indian Lesbians out on the street, protesting and being out and there (the Indian Gay community is much more visible than their woman-queer-counterparts).  Leaving these brief snatches of history, Indian lesbians are pretty much invisible from the public eye.

We’re afraid of our bodies, we don’t explore our sexuality and we’re told that when we get married, we have to do our WomanlyDuties. Sounds a tad bit familiar to Victorian England doesn’t it? A complete antithesis to our sex-kittens of Bollywood cinema, we’re told to ‘cover’ our bodies, to be virtuous and ‘good girls’, asked to stay within our limits — all this is only in relation to how we behave around men. With women, one can be as free as she desires. There couldn’t be anything there, not even by remotest possibility, right? I’m allowed to sleep over at my girlfriend’s house as often as I want; the moment I bring a boy in the equation, suddenly I’m facing judgment from the DudeCouncil for being a two-bit whore who is desperate to “give it away”. The concept of “lesbian” is alien to us. We will however dissuade our sons from playing with “sissy” boys, otherwise they will all turn GAY! Gasp! Women, ladies, little girls walking hand in hand, being close, even intimate is them just “being girly”.

I want to believe this is co-incidental, that there is no agenda behind re-orienting women’s love as being “sisterly”. You and I both know, that isn’t true. It serves patriarchy’s purpose to ritually deny women agency and control of their bodies and sexuality by keeping them confined by  chronic heteronormativity, till they believe that is all they can be. This is why, we could have a blockbuster film like Dostana — regardless of how homophobic it was — where two straights Dudes could pretend to be gay to get the girl they wanted, but a film like Fire* was banned all over the country because two Hindu women choose to love each other. This is the reason my my mum and her friends think my “first love” was hilarious. This is why a part of my sexuality is negated.

* Fire isn’t the only film on lesbian existence in Bollywood. There are others like ‘Girlfriend’ etc that are made to cater to the omnipresent boner of the default human i.e. a man; which is why I refuse to acknowledge their existence.

[H/T] to Komal for the Default Human quip.

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8 Comments

  1. Komal

     /  July 28, 2010

    Great post. This is an interesting issue that can be analyzed in different ways. One benign sort of explanation is that lesbian sexuality is morally unproblematic, whereas male homosexuality isn’t (especially from an Abrahamic religious perspective). But that only explains why there’s less homophobia against lesbians, not why the existence of lesbianism is denied.

    I think your analysis is accurate, in that women are not seen as having any independent sexuality at all. Sexuality as we now know it is patriarchal, and so has developed in the context of certain property relationships. For a woman to be with another man (other than the husband) is a violation of monogamy because it violates the ‘contract’ (i.e. the husband’s right to ownership over the ‘means of reproduction’), whereas for her to be with another woman is not such a violation (since women cannot own women). Additionally, patriarchal sexuality is phallocentric, and since women don’t have penises, they can’t have sex with each other (you have no idea how many times I’ve been asked ‘what do two women do anyway?’ or ‘how can two women have sex?’).

    I’m going to think a bit more about this, then get back to you if I have anything to add.

    Reply
    • I’m glad you could relate to my words. I was actually worried that maybe I was being too general. Thanks.

      Reply
  2. I’m gonna leave my usual boring comment saying “Wow, I learn so much every time I come here!”. Maybe I should template that, for this site. :)

    Reply
  3. But you are absolutely right in that in India one of the major factors is that a girls is raised alienated from her own sex and sexuality. There have been studies done that show that even married Indian women often don’t know that there are 2 “holes” for urine and “babies” or “menstruation.” They don’t know their own bodies! And she is raised as a sexual and reproductive commodity for men! Almost like a urinal!

    Reply
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