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Fundamentalisms and sexuality

By Maya Indira Ganesh

Confronted with chaos, the fundamentalist believes that his role is to protect and defend his tradition, fighting back with absolutism and violence. The uncontrolled woman, the woman with rampant sexuality, the outsider, the migrant, is the most tangible symbol of chaos, and the easiest to control

Bar dancer in Mumbai: Unlike the dream girl on celluloid the bar dancer can be touched, bought, sold - and controlled.
Don’t use your right hand for that.
You must always use your left hand for 
Don’t point your feet at the books.
Don’t go to the temple on ‘those days of the month’.

Anyone who has grown up in an Indian household has to have heard this at some stage of growing up. Indians are obsessed with purity. And as humans we are in love with our neat little binaries. The amorphous, the shadowy, and the unclear inspire a deep fear in the human brain that is trained to simplify. The world is thus conveniently ordered into right and wrong, dirty and clean, black and white.

In recent events that smack of this desire for purity, Dr Sanjay Aparanti, a doctor turned IPS officer recently appointed to the Mumbai police, initiated a campaign “…to rid Mumbai of all obscenity”. This drive, led by Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil, and supported by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, called for the shutting down of dance bars in and around the city of Mumbai. Film posters that show too much skin and sex also came under the state’s purity Geiger. The state’s concern is that youth are being “led astray” by a surfeit of sexual content in public and media spaces. Small wonder that no one asked the youth what they think. Or that we have no alternative other than to scissor out what we deem offensive.

But this is not just about dance bars. The state’s crusade is symbolic at many levels: it is set against the backdrop of Hindu notions of purity and pollution that grow frighteningly more strident, as fundamentalism uses the bodies of women as their locus of control. The discourse around the representation of sexuality has been so widely appropriated by the censorship/anti-censorship brigades that all analysis has been suspended, as has been solution-seeking.

Purity, pollution, and sex

In Tantric worship and philosophy, much maligned and poorly understood as it is, one of the key challenges the spiritual seeker has to wrestle with is the artificial division between the sacred and the profane. In a world that is artificially fragmented, the seeker has to be united within himself and the universe to achieve moksha. By affirming the spiritual worth of all that is considered forbidden, he disarms it of the power to pollute or degrade.

The stories about the sage Ramakrishna are not apocryphal; a follower of Kali and the left-handed Tantric path, he did handle faeces and urine and wine in his worship. Through this he sought to realise the state of consciousness where all things are essentially unified and related; a space where nothing is dirty, forbidden, or degrading. By removing its potential for negativity, the dangerous polluting object ceases to be of harm. No wonder his friends and followers thought him mad, for Ramakrishna dared to taste the world in its most disgusting and forbidden manifestations, in order to detect its underlying sanctity and unity, which he discovered is the great Goddess herself (Kinsley, 1998).

Academic Martha Nussbaum notes in her essay on the Gujarat riots that “disgust plays a powerful role in human life…Disgust is an emotion heavily caught up in symbolic and magical thinking. Its objects are reminders of our animality and mortality, either because they are in fact corpses or waste products or because they come through a process of association to symbolise waste, excrement, and mortality. Disgust works by shielding human beings from too much daily contact with aspects of their own humanity that are difficult to live with. Thus if we don’t touch corpses or oozy, decaying, smelly things, we may be able to ignore our own mortality. If we neatly dispose of our bodily waste products, we more easily forget that we are made of stuffs that end up on the dungheap.” (1)

This feeling of disgust is projected onto other groups of people, thereby restricting disgust and dirt to an identifiable field, and further insulating those who are in control of such constructions. In many European societies, Jews have played that role. In the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, dalits, formerly called “untouchables”, played a related role: through their contact with waste products they were regarded as themselves contaminated, thus not to be touched by the pure person. Their very existence in the community shielded the pure from the decay and stench of their own animality (Nussbaum, 2004).

In Hindu thought, women’s bodies simultaneously present the opportunity for honour and glory by producing sons, but can also be impure, dangerous, and polluting. When women mourn, are menstruating, or after childbirth, their hair is let loose to signal their impurity and pollution (2), their departure from socially acceptable femininity. Menstruating women cannot enter temples, or touch pickle, so powerful are their bloody wombs that God, man, and preservatives would quake and lose their strength.

In the context of sexuality, Indian culture has been deeply influenced by notions of purity and pollution. The pursuit of pleasure is considered one of the most dangerous -- to individuals and to a society. Myths about masturbation leave young men worried that they will go blind or mad. So Victorian are our notions of sex and pleasure that the Supreme Court still cannot abolish Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises non-procreative sex acts such as oral sex and anal sex. It says that “deletion of the said section [Section 377] can well open the floodgates of delinquent behaviour and be construed as providing unbridled license for the same. The purpose of Section 377 is to provide a healthy environment in society by criminalising unnatural sexual activities against the order of the nature.” (3) Sex and relationships that are thought of as lustful, hedonistic, and individual-centred are expected to destroy the fabric of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.

So sexuality circumscribed within marriage and procreation is acceptable, and anything outside is not. But there is a double standard at work here. Male and female sexuality are constructed differently, such that men are thought to need more ‘outlets’ and (sexual) experience before marriage, so pre-marital and extra-marital sex by men is silently condoned, whereas women who do the same face the stigma of being ‘bad women’. This tacit acceptance of male sexuality tends to make it invisible. The man who has an extra-marital affair, who visits the prostitute, the dance bar, is a shadowy being who doesn’t feature in the purity-pollution equation.

Ideas of purity and pollution worm themselves into us from very early on and are not easy to cast off. It could be theorised that the item number girl, however, is still prey to sexual morality. Distanced by class or background as she may be, she is still conditioned and policed by the moralities she has been brought up with. A brief glance through interviews with item number girls underscores the good-girl image; many will say that they are either God-fearing, or that they still live with their parents, or that they will only marry someone chosen by their parents. It is as if they are even distanced from the sexuality they market, that it is somehow all sanitised by leading a private life that is ‘good’ and ‘respectable’. Perhaps this eases the cognitive dissonance of us all?

Positioning the bar dancer alongside the prostitute, she is constructed within the space of sexual deviance, making it morally convenient for the state to justify its actions. The bodies of the prostitute, the single woman, the divorced woman, the woman whose hair is loose, the Other woman, the Muslim woman, the dalit woman, have all been positioned further towards the pollution end of the purity-pollution continuum. Thus giving the mainstream male the authority to objectify them, make them appear less than human. From de-humanisation to violence then, is a short road.

Fundamentalisms and women’s bodies

“In overwhelming chaos Krishna, women of the family are corrupted; and when women are corrupted, disorder is born in society.” (4) --­ Arjuna to Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita

There is controversy surrounding the term ‘fundamentalism’. It was first coined by the American Protestant movements in the late-19th century to identify their own brand of literalist interpretation of the Bible, but has been transformed in recent years by the press to refer to extremist religious groups.

At the core of any fundamentalist project is a sense of siege: to fundamentalists themselves, to a community that they are part of. However the danger is defined -- Islamic terrorists, an encroaching decadent West -- it is the source of chaos. But fundamentalists do not choose to insulate themselves from the danger or retire to a life of purity in the mountains. Instead they fight back with absolutism and with violence. (5)

The sources of impending chaos are many in Mumbai and India: political and economic instability, crumbling infrastructure, rapid urbanisation, migration, globalisation, changes in patriarchal structures and systems, and women’s changing roles in the family. The uncontrolled woman, the woman with the dishevelled hair and rampant sexuality, the outsider, the migrant, is the most tangible symbol of chaos, and the easiest to control.

The fundamentalist believes that his role is to protect and defend his tradition, which he understands as something fixed and identifiable. In fact just as fundamentalists engage in a process of inventing the self and the Other, they also construct both tradition and modernity, the former that they cling to and the latter they react to (Freedman).

Women are central to the fundamentalist project in defining and mythologising tradition. But this is not new. In many cultures the discourse around women -- their behaviour, body, reproduction and sexuality -- positions them as symbols of cultural identity, nationhood, and ultimately as vehicles of social control. The memories of the Taliban are still-fresh reminders of this.

Fundamentalists have often used or rather interpreted religious texts to unearth ‘proof’ of what women’s roles are. In an analysis of sati, Lata Mani asserts that while women are emblematic of tradition, the debate around satireally has little to do with women, but is more about ‘what constitutes authentic cultural tradition’. The colonial debate about satibecame a debate about scriptural interpretation, not a debate about the interests of women.

“Given that the debate on sati is premised on its scriptural and, consequently, its ‘traditional’ and ‘legal’ status, it is little wonder that the widow herself is marginal… Instead women become sites upon which various versions of scripture/tradition/law are elaborated and contested.”(6)

The sexual nature of the dance bar space is heightened through words such as ‘obscenity’ and ‘modernity’, and the familiar traditional Indian woman is painted as a helpless victim. By closing down dance bars the politician also becomes a cultural saviour, a hero.

In the context of fundamentalism, the control of women’s bodies takes on a hysterical urgency. Faced with a sense of destruction, the cultural identity under siege has to be strengthened, defended, and its borders policed. There is heightened concern about racial and genetic purity because culture can be faked and manipulated if need be. Women’s sexuality and fertility are viewed both as vulnerability and opportunity. In extreme situations as in Nazi Germany, women’s wombs were used to produce the ‘pure race’. The shadowy lebensborn phenomenon was where blond, blue-eyed women were sheltered in secret homes to breed with elite SS troops to produce ‘pure Aryan children’.

“If the female body symbolises culture, tradition, and thus the nation, then in the struggle of two emerging nations the possession and impregnation of women is a potent weapon in consolidating power. In genocide operations in the former Yugoslavia rape was used by Serbian forces to terrorise, humiliate and drive out Croatians and Bosnians. Forced pregnancy and rape was used to demolish the Croatian identity and produce future children for the Serbian State.”(7)

Closer home, during the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, the rape and disembowelling of pregnant Muslim women is part of the same phenomenon. In any war, rape is the ‘accepted’ collateral damage. For a man to be victorious over another, all he has to do is humiliate the women on the other side. This is how wars of culture and identity are won and lost.

Un/real women

By achieving the status of item number or model or starlet, there are privileges of insulation by celluloid, where the realities of class, caste, education and religion are superseded; the woman is distanced from the mess of demographics that determines destiny for most of India. The dream factory metaphor of Indian cinema grows more relevant. There is something distant and unattainable about a woman reborn on celluloid, she becomes a dream and an aspiration for the masses.

The bar dancer however is a tangible flesh-and-blood woman who can be touched, sold, and bought. Being working-class and poorly educated means that she is that much easier to control and manipulate. It is likely that for every bar dancer there are three stories of discrimination, misfortune, and poverty back home. The impact of the state’s fundamentalism thus affects her many times over.

Mumbai has been constructed in popular Indian consciousness as the city of sin and cool. A city where ‘anything goes’, where women can walk safe at any time of day or night. In a few short weeks all these perceptions were questioned. An honest picture of Mumbai, and the solutions to the dance bar issue, will take us into uncomfortable spaces, to the heart of the moral voice within us all. It looks like this is not a journey Dr Aparanti wants to take.

(Maya Indira Ganesh writes on issues related to gender, health and sexuality. She has been associated with several organisations working with gender, sexuality, child sexual abuse and domestic violence)


  1. Nussbaum, M C, 2004, ‘Body of the Nation: Why women were mutilated in Gujarat’, Boston Review, July 2004
  2. See Hershman, 1974, ‘Hair, Sex and Dirt’ Man 9 (1974): 282-83
  3. Government of India, affidavit filed in response to Naz Foundation petition
  4. Hawley, J S, 1994, Hinduism, Sati and its defenders, Fundamentalism and Gender, Hawley J S (editor), Oxford University Press, New York, quoting Bhagvad Gita, 1.41 translated by Miller B S, 1986, The Bhagvad Gita, Columbia University Press, New York
  5. Freedman, Lynn, P, 1996, ‘The Challenge of Fundamentalisms’, Reproductive Health Matters, Vol 8
  6. Mani, L, 1990, ‘Contentious traditions: the debate on sati in colonial India’ in Sangari K and Vaid S (eds), Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N J
  7. Freedman, L P, ibid

InfoChange News & Features February 2006