Spinning a fine Web

Is heterosexuality easily assumed to be inevitable? Is heterosexual marriage as strong an institution as it appears be? These are some of the questions Nivedita Menon asked and addressed in her talk at Films of Desire.

Nivedita Menon teaches political science at Delhi University. She has been a Centre Fellow at the International Centre for Advanced Studies at New York University. Her work on contemporary politics in India has focused mainly on feminist politics and she has been active for over a decade in non-party non-funded citizens’ initiatives around issues of democratic politics including workers’ rights, sexualities issues, and anti-communal politics.

Nivedita talked about some of the ways in which private and public imaginations get structured by the assumption of the inevitability of heterosexuality. Through her talk, Nivedita used the metaphor of a web spun of fine filament that shows up only when light glints on some of the filaments at certain angles. The whole purpose of weaving such a fine web is so that it is not seen, but there are moments when some of the filaments get lit up and we are then able to see the web. The carefully constructed web is a metaphor for the effort that goes into producing the kind of discourse that upholds heterosexuality and marriage, while the lighting up of the filaments is a metaphor for the circulation of different discourses that sometimes collide with the one on marriage and sexuality to provide a moment of insight. She illustrated these glints in the web through four different stories.

The first story is about how Nivedita’s great-grandmother, who belonged to the matrilineal Nair community, was aghast to discover that at the village school, her grandson was being taught the concept that family meant wife and children. This was in the 1930s and the great grandmother herself was not uneducated. The idea that a family means a man’s wife and his children appeared to be unnatural, anti-traditional and disgusting to this proud old lady. That was one glint of the web.

Second story. This one is about the mother-in-law of C. Kesavan who was a leader of the Ezhava community during India’s struggle for independence. Towards the end of the 19th century, one of the big movements for caste reform required the women of the Ezhava community in Kerala to cover their breasts. For centuries, women in Kerala had walked around bare-breasted. Then, towards the end of the 19th century, ‘higher caste’ women began to clothe their breasts and Ezhava women were not allowed to do so because of caste hierarchy rules. Years later, Kesavan’s mother-in-law recounted to him an incident from her life during those times. It so happened that while this militant caste reform movement was going on, Kesavan’s mother-in-law, who was accustomed to go about bare-breasted, received some saree blouses from her sister-in-law (these are the tight little blouses, rather like a bustier, that Indian women wear with a saree). She hid them away. One day she wore a blouse and was admiring herself secretly when she was caught by her mother and berated for being a slut and asked if she wanted to walk around dressed like a ‘Muslim woman’. Scared of her mother, she hid away the blouses again, and later told her son-in-law that she would only wear them ‘at night, for the delectation of my husband, who came to me like a divine lover.’

This story clearly illustrates how the secrecy and the forbidden nature of the act of clothing, actually sexualised the covering of her breasts, whereas today, the act of uncovering is more likely to be sexualised. It is also interesting how the ‘public’ act of caste defiance and the ‘private’ act of sexuality come together in such a way that there is no longer a clear difference between public and private. Transgressing the rules of the caste hierarchy itself brought along its own sexual thrill for the young couple. It shows how public politics and private sex come together to create heterosexual desire. The point of Nivedita’s story was that heterosexual desire is not inevitable; it is created and influenced by different factors, including acts of transgressing caste norms.

The third story is about the hullabaloo that ensued when Khushboo, a Tamil film star, said, in an interview to a national magazine, that society should free itself from outdated ideas that a woman should be a virgin until she marries. She went on to say that women should practise safer sex and insist on condom use to prevent conception and HIV. These remarks were met with vociferous outrage by different groups who saw it as an insult to Tamil women and to Tamil culture. Five women advocates filed a case of defamation against her, saying that if she says this, it means that as Tamil women they can be assumed to have had sex before marriage! Khushboo’s remarks were construed to sully the caste and the religious purity of Tamil women. Incidentally, Khushboo is from North India and is a Muslim, as are many Tamil actresses. Both of these identities were alluded to when demands were made that she go back to her native Mumbai. Political groups of different hues jumped into the fray, and to cut a long story short, the matter ended weeks later, when Khushboo issued an apology. During this fracas, all kinds of discourses were used: that of religion, culture, caste, class, and purity.

This incident and the ensuing drama reveals the tremendous anxieties around keeping the institution of marriage safe so that religious and caste identities remain unsullied and unquestioned. Religious and caste identities can remain safe only when the caste or religious lineage is pure, or in other words, when there is complete control over women’s sexuality. A simple statement promoting condom use threatened the rules of who could sleep with whom and under what circumstances in the fragile kingdom of heterosexual marriage.

And fragile, it does appear to be if one looks at the recent debates about adultery in India. If prosecuted for adultery, a man can be jailed for five years with a fine. Women cannot be prosecuted for adultery and only the husband can prosecute his wife’s lover. There has been much debate over this, and in the name of gender equality, some groups want women to also be made prosecutable for adultery. This is a ridiculous situation when you think about it, because what is adultery an offence against?

It is an offence against an institution – the institution of marriage. According to Nivedita, adultery is a word that makes sense only within a dictionary called marriage. If you believe in that dictionary and you want to speak that language, do it. But it may equally well be a language that you can do without, like many other languages. Then, the word adultery makes no sense.

Fourth story. Some months ago, in a little village in West Bengal, a 16 year old girl was beaten, and tortured by her own village community for dressing like a boy. What was so alarming about this 16 year old, who in newspaper photos, looks like a thin little 12 year old, wearing boy’s clothing? The real issue was that Mamata, who had been dressing like this for quite some time, had refused to give up her friendship with another young woman who had recently been married off. Mamata continued to visit her and keep the friendship going. This does not imply that they were having sex, but clearly they shared such a strong emotional bond, that the new marriage found itself threatened.

Somehow, in doing this – wearing trousers and shirts, being closely bonded with her female friend – Mamata, who has never read Judith Butler or Adrienne Rich, slipped through the carefully constructed web. She thought it was perfectly fine to love a woman and perfectly fine to dress the way she did. The force of the entire village had to be mobilised to contain the non-conformity of one thin little girl.

Nivedita’s talk shone light on this web around us, to use her beginning metaphor, that we don’t even notice until something happens – moments like the incidents in the four stories she told – that makes us stop for a moment and think, ‘Hey, now what is this all about? If heterosexuality and marriage are such assuredly inevitable institutions, what is the need for strict rules telling us what we can or cannot do?’ What unceasing effort it takes to keep spinning the web, to keep the twin institutions of heterosexuality and marriage in place!