Questioning norms and bodies

SHALINI MAHAJAN

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THERE is no consensus as to when we first started speaking of lesbian women’s issues, lesbian and bisexual women’s issues, LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual and transgender) issues, and then queer women’s or even just queer issues and issues of queer women and transpersons within the women’s movements. But there have been several transitions and changes in what we have spoken and how. This enquiry is not either a historical recounting nor a comprehensive treatise on the issue, since neither can be effectively told without the expanse of a book. I do hope, however, to place into focus some of the political strands that have emerged in the interactions between queer-feminist organising (mainly lesbian, bisexual and transgender – LBT, for short) and the Indian women’s movements.

While any starting point will be somewhat laboured, clearly one can identify the series of discussions and letters of support for the reinstatement of the expelled women police officers Leela and Urmila, in 1987, in Bhopal.

Admittedly, it is not a question of whether there were/are X or Y number of lesbians in the movement or not (when have there not been), or whether they have been visible/open about it. Like all other marginalised identities, the question is whether the ‘woman’ in question (at the centre of the women’s movements) could be lesbian, and later transgender, or not.

It is not mere frivolity on my part to pose this as the central question. The term ‘woman’ has taken quite a bit of twisting and turning and several reformulations long before lesbian could begin to be a part of it.

In other words, identifying the ‘woman’ in the women’s movements has always been a vexed issue. Dalit women have continuously felt (and sometimes made to feel) that she was not dalit. So have several others, be they Muslim or with any other religious/community identity, as they were more defined by class (so working class women have felt marginalisation), by the urban/rural/small town divide, by status accruing through marriage (married, abandoned, separated, divorced, single, never wanted to be there…), by assumed severity of victimhood (okay, so maybe that is not exactly right, but let me stretch the point for the time being) making it so that a prostituted (and trafficked) woman was more to be pitied and made a subject of discourse than a sex worker speaking of conditions of work and freedom from harassment. And such like.

 

The political point of the above is that it became clear very early on that while we were all feminists (in our own separate ways) and activists (several of us from movements which made the women’s movement seem colourful and vibrant and diverse even in the 1980s and which it was), there were several women and several women’s movements. The sooner we realised this collectively and figured ways of sharing power and redrafting our politics, the better it would be for us. For besides being women, our realities encompassed several other identities which we were loath to leave behind in the women’s movement.

In this series of redrafting and revisioning agendas and politics, the lesbian is a rather late entrant. But in the last decade (give or take a couple more years), she has made an impact and in this space I will examine some of these concerns.

 

Organizing around lesbian and bisexual issues started around the late 1980s with the Delhi group and some women in Bombay, and then there was Sakhi in Delhi which started in 1991. Stree Sangam (now Lesbian and Bisexuals in Action, LABIA) came about in 1995 and then there was a minor boom with groups starting in Pune, Delhi, Calcutta, then Bangalore, Kerala, and later in Vadodara as well.

There are a few different strands of organizing and work that these groups did, and some continue to do, which are worth recounting.

* Autonomous non-funded collectives like Stree Sangam in Bombay, OLAVA in Pune, Prerana in Bangalore (with or without support from established women’s groups).

* Autonomous collectives which have taken funds for specific projects or have registered like Sappho for Equality in Calcutta, Sahayatrika in Kerala, Parama in Vadodara.

* Service providers and NGOs (within LGBT rights groups or human rights groups) like Sangini (with Naz Foundation) in Delhi, Aanchal (initially with India Centre for Human Rights and Law and then independently) in Bombay, Humjinsi (also with India Centre for Human Rights and Law) in Bombay, the Lesbit Group (with Sangama) in Bangalore.

* NGOs working on sexual rights like CREA and TARSHI in Delhi.

* Specific networks and platforms (issue based as well as based on common politics) like Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) and Voices Against 377 in Delhi and Sappho for Equality in Kolkata.

Then there are groups working with other women’s groups as well as some LGBT groups and networks and within conglomerations of various groups.

A major component of the work and advocacy of these groups has been around the assertion of desire and rights and campaigns. At the same time the agendas of LBT organising have been multifold – questioning the normative, creating a political language to talk about our rights and bodies, connecting and forming common ground with existing movements and campaigns, moving towards a politics that is multifaceted and progressive, creating spaces for diverse cultural expressions and also providing specialized services to queer people.

Besides, the queer and queer feminist movement has produced several documents, papers, books, studies and reports which help us understand the direction that we are moving in. Several of these have been in collaboration with other groups or as part of campaigns and larger collectives. Thus issues of sexuality and gender are slowly becoming part of the larger politics of change.

 

Some crucial political issues that all this work has raised are:

* Speaking of women who do not want to get married or want to talk of rights outside the sphere of the natal or marital family; critiquing the institution of marriage and hetero-normativity; reiterating ‘personal is political’ but also relooking at ‘political is personal’ by bringing into further question issues of sexuality and the privileges of marriage (as had been done earlier on caste, class, and community to a large extent).

* Speaking of women’s desire and sexuality and not just from the standpoint of victimhood or violation.

* Seeing the body as sexual as well as diverse (the whole discussion on women and masculinities also shifts the debates).

* Bringing the notion of ‘woman’ itself further into question by fuzzing up the sex/gender divide that the IWM had grown comfortable with.

It will help to examine these in some more detail.

 

First, the whole issue about hetero-normativity. The women’s movement has always had a critique of patriarchy and its institutions, especially marriage. Issues of women’s labour, production and reproduction, domestic violence, gender norms and stereotypes and breaking them have all been important campaigns and concerns for the last three decades. Women’s position within marriage has been seen largely from the viewpoint of power within the patriarchal structure.

What has come about in the last few years has been a growing critique of marriage itself as an institution that accrues a certain social and individual power even to the women within it and as an institution that promotes and regulates hetero-patriarchy itself. This critique has arisen from those outside the institution, largely the queer movement and the sex workers movement those who find themselves at the margins of a society that posits marriage and family thus defined by it at the social and cultural centre. It is of note that the autonomous women’s movement, generally seen as the more radical fringe of the more mainstream women’s movement/s, has been more eager about these discussions and debates and take them further in their politics.

Critiquing marriage from this standpoint also means confronting the social and cultural power that marriage provides to individual women, even though within the hierarchy of the persons in the marriage they may have a very raw deal. This power also translates into several social and legal rights, which are denied to those who do not enter the institution or have been left out of it.

But having a critique of marriage has led to its own unique set of debates around the issue of gay marriage. The question that several feminists too have asked of queer groups has been somewhat along these lines – if you are so against marriage, and it is such a strong pillar of hetero-patriarchy, then why are you for gay marriage? Would it not be better for lesbians and gays to stay out of it?

The answers to this have been multiple and have come not only from queer-feminists, but also other groups as well. Yes, we do have a critique of marriage and do see it as an oppressive institution, and in the current scenario, also one that is the only way of forming a family beyond the one that you have been born to/or have been adopted by, and thus the only access to the rights that accrue by such recognition. So till some people have the right to marry, to form families, to have recognition of relationships, socially and legally, till then we believe that this privilege must be extended to all people, without prejudice.

 

The case in point is the number of runaway lesbian ‘marriages’ that are reported by the media with a tenacious regularity. Women, from all parts of the country, urban and non-urban areas, in the face of opposition from family and society and largely without any support from anyone else, are trying to live with each other, proclaim their desire to be with each other, to marry each other, and have the right to be left alone to lead their lives. In cases where they are not able to do so, they run away from their families, seek the media in order to get some visibility and hopefully some safety from families, and in even more tragic cases, commit suicide in lieu of being able to live together. Till marriage continues to define the social, cultural and legal fabric, it is but fair that this be available to all people whether they be in same sex, or different sex relationships.

At the same time, one of our calls, which has not yet been taken seriously, and perhaps it may not be, is that if we are willing as the women’s movements to seek an end to all marriages and all benefits that accrue from it, then it would make sense to not ask for it for those who anyway do not have access to it.

 

Let us now take a look at desire and the assertion of it by LBT organising. In some ways identity itself is based on a recognition of desire, of body, of sexuality. Not that lesbian can be defined only in such terms, but unlike other identities which one may be born into or might accrue to one because of circumstance, there is a degree of choice that applies here (the sex workers that do not want to get into ‘reform’ or ‘rehabilitation’ also have to deal with this ‘choice’ thing when they start talking about their rights and demands). This debate is not a reference to whether one is born gay or one becomes gay; in some sense that is irrelevant and has never been one of the major concerns for the LBT groups. Rather this is a question crucial to religious persons (if one is born so, then one cannot help it except not ‘behave’ as if) or homophobic persons (some trauma/perversion/failure must have led to one becoming so, since it is against nature and thus cannot be normal) or worse still, the eugenic homophobes (ah, so it is such and such gene, let us identify and destroy).

The point being simply that choosing to live a lesbian life, or asserting that as one’s identity, is itself a ‘coming out’since it can be kept hidden, in silence. This silence is a reality for most queer people (unless they visibly do not fit into the normative, and this has problems of its own) even today. Contrary to some earlier feminist points of view that this silence was empowering as it kept women’s spaces hidden and private and thus safe, the last decade of activism has continuously stated, and the experience of these groups has amply corroborated, the fact that for most queer women this silence is violence, not empowerment, and that the most private of spaces (those within homes and family) are the sites of most violence and abuse.

Thus, speaking of LBT rights has been a sort of coming out within the movement/s as well as an assertion of identity (in reality several identities) that would not be visible if not spoken.

 

But it is not just the sexual body that has been brought into discourse, the notion of which body has been challenged as well. Various groups and their articulations have continually changed our notions and understandings of our bodies, the body that our politics tirelessly articulates. So the dalit woman’s body has been brought to the fore in debates on sexual violence inflicted on them through their presumed availability for men of the upper castes, and the ensuing discussions around sex work. The feminist critique of Hindutva has brought into focus how the bodies of Muslim men and women as well as Hindu men have been constructed in their discourse and how these have been played out most horrifyingly during the Gujarat genocide of 2002. The writings of feminists have also added to our understanding of the partition and the violence that followed.

Our notions of race, nation, community, class, caste, have all been made more complex by understanding how women and women’s bodies have been constructed within these structures, and how they have been repeatedly acted upon. Our understanding of resistance has also followed from the comprehension of these very same bodies becoming a part of acts of defiance, change and power.

 

To this discourse the lesbian/trans body has added, along with the dimension of active desire, the questioning of the feminine/masculine binary as well. While there has been a critique of gender roles and how we ‘become’ women, and a corresponding resistance within the women’s movement to conform to these roles, to notions of femininity and female beauty, to body norms and such like; there has been a corresponding analysis of what is ‘masculine’ or ‘male’ behaviour and it has generally been understood as something undesirable. (One is forced to wonder though, if this is so undesirable, how do heterosexual feminists then reconcile their dislike of all things ‘masculine’ and their desire for those that are generally the carriers of these traits, namely men? Or are these questions that one must not ask, since they smack of some sort of ‘hetero-phobia’ or its more vulgar cousin ‘man-hating’ sentiment?)

The fact of the matter is that the feminist discomfort with masculinity then translates into a discomfort with women who are not ‘feminine’ and also lays open the question of how feminine is feminism. Several women through the ages have laid claim to masculinity (but not to the power that comes from being male, and we must make that distinction) and continue to do so. I think the conversation among us started with the words ‘butch’ and ‘femme’, but soon entered grounds that were much more contentious, not to say, complex. So while some finetuned to stages of ‘butchy-femmes’, ‘femmy-butches’, ‘futch’ and ‘bemme’ and such like, several refused to enter these terms at all, especially if the talk meandered into roles within relationships and such like.

But a growing discourse recognised that degrees of masculinity and femininity are more about one’s gender identity, the relationship with one’s self and body, and also about gender expression and gender performance. These are complex issues and crucial to how we lead our lives, and are seen by the world around. Since each expression of self and body is so culturally prescribed into normative gender, even small acts of self expression can be dangerous. What is true for life in general is often, unfortunately, true for the women’s movements as well.

So gender plurality and openness towards gender performance in private and public are slow to be validated, though the tolerance may be a bit higher. Also, since it is easy to conflate a woman’s performance of masculinity with the power that comes automatically to men, there is often a simplistic reading of gender. This is being increasingly challenged and the interaction with trans groups and persons is adding a dimension that had been missing so far.

 

Which brings me to my other main contention that interaction with queer groups and politics is changing the very basis of the women’s movement/s – the idea that there is a biological body bound by the politics around it!

Besides focusing on women, and in time with all possible variations of class, community, caste, etc., the women’s movements have also made an important distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in trying to understand the socialization process that creates ‘men’ and ‘women’ and the kind of social, cultural power differentials that get built into them. Thus, the campaigns and the politics have focused on both the impact that this socialization has on various levels, from the very personal to larger structural issues, as well as how the world can be made more equitable and just by addressing these issues of power and structures based on them.

 

But, by and large, what remained unaddressed was the constructed nature of ‘sex’, of the bodies that we are born with, and the simplistic binary classification into two and only two sexes, which leaves out a lot of people or marks them as ‘deviant’ from the norm and which also forms the basis of compulsory heterosexuality, marking our bodies with arbitrary yet compulsory desires for that which is ‘opposite’ thereby precluding other possibilities altogether.

LBT women’s groups, transpersons groups and hijra groups, along with some individual feminists and feminist groups, have raised these questions over the last few years. In fact, in the run up to the Seventh National Conference of the Women’s Movements, one of the more intense points of debate was the possible participation of hijras and other trans identified persons. By the time the conference took place in September 2006 in Kolkata, it had somewhat been resolved uneasily that those hijras and transpersons who politically seek women’s spaces could be part of the conference.

Finally, several transpersons and hijras did attend and there was much discussion around the commonalities of concerns. One of the sessions, ‘questioning gender’, generated lively discussion on whether one needed to question the category woman as a biological one, and give up on the notion of biological sex altogether, and what this might mean for us as women’s groups and activists. The closing plenary on the challenges ahead for the women’s movements addressed and acknowledged these debates and the questions they raise for the political subject ‘woman’. So at the plenary, along with dalit women, women with disabilities, women sex workers, lesbian women, trans ‘women’ also spoke claiming a space for newer ways of being ‘woman’.

 

Where do we go from here? We, as feminists, exist in exciting times when newer definitions of gender and sex are changing the way in which we looked at them ourselves. The complex questions that this revisiting of body and desire demands are not easy. Especially not in a situation when the classical understanding of earlier feminisms is itself under a backlash. The attempt is to find a path ahead without losing any of the ground already gained.

One of the most positive signs is that issues of sexuality and gender are slowly, but steadily, becoming part of the larger politics of change. The agenda today is not just that the world be made a more equitable and just place for people with diverse sexualities and genders, but also that the socio-political and cultural understandings of sexuality and gender change as well.

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