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The silence of same sex desiring women

By Ponni Arasu

Same sex desiring women in India are living their lives and fighting their battles in homes, streets, courts and police stations. Their lives are complicated by virtue of them being women, and further complicated by class, caste and regional subjectivities. Over the last two decades, however, there has been a greater visibility of same sex desiring women in the public sphere, giving them some space for contestation -- and thereby assertion -- of their rights

In 1998, filmmaker Deepa Mehta made a film called Fire. The movie tells the story of two middle class Hindu housewives in Delhi who find refuge in each other in the midst of their unhappy married lives. This refuge takes a sexual turn as well. The touching story has a not-so-happy ending.

The film took same sex desiring women to the front pages of the country's newspapers and to the attention of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists. It also brought some lesbians onto the streets. Cinema halls that screened the film were attacked by the Bajrang Dal and, simultaneously, Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI), one of the first groups to engage in public campaigning on these issues, was formed in India.

Even before 1998, in the 1980s, there were small groups in various cities in India running helplines and other support services for same sex desiring women. We know that there were scores of individuals from various backgrounds who lived their lives at a time when an article like this would not, and could not, be written or even thought of.

One such couple that not only lived their lives but had it discussed widely in the media was Leela Namdeo and Urmila Srivastav. The two policewomen married as early as 1987 in a temple in rural Madhya Pradesh. They were promptly thrown out of service. Theirs was one of the first known lesbian 'marriages'; many more followed. While none of the marriages have any legal standing in India today, they remain a significant source of emotional strength and security for many women.

Many of the same sex desiring women we hear about are from poor backgrounds and also regions where access to education and independent employment for women can be a formidable challenge. Other same sex desiring women from upper and middle class backgrounds who live in cities, are educated and, in most cases, live independent lives have their own set of issues to deal with. These women have put in place support structures such as e-groups and regular meetings.

Lesbian suicides

A recurring theme in any description of same sex desiring women in India is that of suicide. While a number of suicides are reported in the mainstream media, many others are known only to activists working locally on such issues. Same sex desire is often coupled with threats of or instances of forced marriage. Many of these suicides involve two women who die together. In every case there is some sort of 'deviant' desire and violent oppression of it, primarily within the home, which leads the women to end their lives. Their lack of mobility and limited or no access to education and employment by virtue of being women only propels their decision.

There has however been a significant change in the direction of support. There are helplines for same sex desiring women in all major cities in the country. There are organisations that, although they don't run helplines, assist women who ask for help in this context. They include Sangama in Bangalore, Sangini in Delhi, Stree Sangam and LABIA in Mumbai, Sahayatrika in Kerala, and PARMA in Ahmedabad. Many of them work primarily with lower middle class women from rural backgrounds. Various women's rights and human rights organisations in most cities acknowledge the issue of same sex desiring women well within their mandate and provide spaces and forums for discussion of issues.

These resources, while improving the state of support structures for same sex desiring women from what it was a few decades ago, are still not adequate. Chennai, for instance, is still waiting for a helpline, a shelter or any other resource centre/space that same sex desiring women can access in cases of emergency.

The law

The law that is often viewed as being significant in the lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities in India is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This law criminalises "any carnal intercourse against the order of nature". While the law is the only statute that addresses child sexual abuse not involving peno-vaginal intercourse, it is also one that criminalises adult consensual same sex activity. A case challenging this law is currently being heard in the Delhi High Court, essentially based on two arguments. First, that the law is absolutely inadequate to deal with child sexual abuse and that a more comprehensive statute needs to be put in place for this. And second, that it goes against the Indian Constitution and various international dictates as it violates the basic human rights of LGBTs in India. The case is in its final arguments stage; a verdict is expected within the next few months.

The position of same sex desiring women vis-à-vis the law is a bit more complicated. Section 377 does have a profound impact as a statute that criminalises the desire and very existence of a whole community of same sex desiring people. But there are a range of other provisions in Indian law that have been used against same sex desiring women as also others in the LGBT community. These cases have just begun to be documented.

Section 340 and Section 339 of the Indian Penal Code make confinement in a wrongful manner a crime. Wrongful confinement means being confined by a person who does not have the authority to restrict your movement. In cases involving heterosexual women this section has been used by natal families to file charges against male lovers or husbands. It has been used in the case of same sex desiring women both by parents against their daughter's lover, and vice-versa.

Under Section 361 -- kidnapping from lawful guardianship -- if a person 'entices' or takes a minor (under the age of 18 in the case of girls) from legal guardianship without the consent of the legal guardian, they can be charged with kidnapping. The court does not take into consideration the consent of the 'kidnapped' woman/girl. In such cases, as in others, it's interesting to note the trouble that's taken to prove the minor status of the woman in order to keep her in the family's custody. In fact, the courts have also often sent an adult woman back to the home that she does not wish to live in. Section 362, or abduction, which is also used, is a variation of 361; the allegation is that one of the women enticed the other away with the intent of committing a crime such as having an illicit sexual relationship.

Section 366, which criminalises kidnapping with the intention of compelling someone to marry them, has also been used in the case of same sex desiring women. This section is used widely by the parents of heterosexual couples who elope. In the case of same sex desiring women however, use of this law is inconsistent as no legal marriage is possible between people of the same gender in India.

Section 377, combined with the social stigma surrounding same sex relationships, leads most parties involved in a case, including same sex couples, to actively hide the nature of their relationship during the course of the trial. Activists, couples and lawyers know that declaration of a same sex relationship could lead to serious repercussions in court and outside it, legally and socially.

The focus therefore of all those who support the right of these couples to live together is on the age of the women in question, to prove that they are majors and thus have the right to live with whoever they please. This fact also makes many such cases legally flawed; a factor almost never considered by the police or the courts. And the argument does not always guarantee a favourable judgment, as women, no matter how old, are always to be taken care of and must 'belong' one way or another to the family. And so, many same sex desiring women are forced to fight for the right to live with their lovers without ever declaring (and in fact carefully guarding) the fact that they are lovers. This silence, ironically, is their strength both in court and in the world at large.

Support

As mentioned earlier, support for the rights of same sex desiring women both in emergency situations and otherwise is slowly emerging in the Indian context. While at least one organisation exists in most major Indian cities, others also function in places with a stronger stigma, such as Sahayatrika in Kerala or PARMA in Ahmedabad, which exists in the midst of Gujarat's strong Hindu fundamentalist politics.

The LGBT movement has been in constant conversation with women's organisations of various political leanings in different parts of the country. The immediate point of connection, apart from the larger politics of gender and sexuality, is that of women's rights, thus making same sex desiring women the focus of many of these conversations. Numerous NGOs and other autonomous women's groups have begun to acknowledge and/or work actively on the issue of sexuality in general, making their organisations spaces that are supportive of same sex desiring women. This is not a general trend but is one that is progressing gradually. Conversations have come a long way since they began with left-based women's groups in 2000. In 2004, same sex desiring women might not have made it to the list of issues on the handout of the March 8 protest rally organised by these groups in Delhi, but they did march with placards declaring their sexual identity.

Issues of funding are very real for any group that hopes to work on issues of same sex desiring women. Unlike groups working with gay men, hijras, sex workers and so on, which have received financial support as a result of the boom in HIV/AIDS funding in countries like India, funding for same sex desiring women's issues is harder to come by. However, many groups working on HIV/AIDS and LGBT rights have managed to create some space and resources to address the issue. Besides, many small groups function without any formal funding and have done substantial work. Issues of funding are often not so pertinent when it comes to organising public events to create awareness on these issues as they are in being able to provide emergency help, helplines and short and long-term shelter homes.

Over the past two decades or more we have seen the growing visibility of LGBT people and struggles in both the mainstream media as well as academic writing. Same sex desiring women are also part of this trend. Not all the visibility is desirable, but the hope is that if the issues are discussed in the public sphere, at least there will be space for contestation -- and thus assertion -- of rights.

In the meantime, the lives of these women, by their very existence regenerate older questions and contentions vis-à-vis feminism and patriarchy, while creating newer challenges in looking at issues of gender and sexuality. The subjective positions of many same sex desiring women also symbolise challenges to the LGBT movement that are often not acknowledged enough, like the fact that identities and the resulting politics of caste, class, region, gender and sexuality are all related, and one cannot be addressed without being placed in the perspective of another. The most apparent manifestation of this intersectional perspective is the way the lives of same sex desiring women are complicated by virtue of them being women. This is then further complicated by their class, caste and regional subjectivities.

It is important for the LGBT movement and the women's movement -- among other human rights movements -- to acknowledge these issues and productively engage with the challenge same sex desiring women pose to these movements. Meanwhile, same sex desiring women in India, like many other oppressed communities/individuals, will continue to live their lives and fight their fights in homes, streets, courts and police stations. This fight, we hope, will be strengthened by small support structures, growing social movements, increased visibility and the broadening of minds to facilitate the basic right of any human being to live life with dignity and respect.

(Ponni Arasu is a queer feminist activist and researcher currently working at the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008