Hot off the Press: Review of ‘Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India’ - Maya Ganesh

Maya Sharma
New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2006. 

Maya Ganesh 

Writing about women’s sexualities is bound to be a two-step with silence. The obvious silences of denial and suppression. The silence of as-yet-un-worded sexualities and emotions. Maya Sharma’s new volume, Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India, opens out another space of silence - the sexuality of working class women. The volume is also a welcome addition on the Lesbian Writing shelf. For the first time here are unexpected, poignant stories of working class women-loving-women. Women who do not know what the word ‘lesbian’ is. Women who do not have support groups or help lines or getting-to-know-you parties. Women who are simply led by their desire. The simplicity and honesty of this desire, and the struggles to enjoy it, are humbling indeed. 

Loving Women is structured as a collection of ten stories of same-sex-desiring women and couples. Clearly being Indian and lesbian is a vast theatre of love played out within the realities of class and caste hierarchies, the pressures of making ends meet, religious conflict, family control, expectations of heteronormativity, and crushing poverty. The stories here effectively challenge the notion that same sex love between women is a Western or upper class phenomenon, or that working class women are always victimized sexual receptacles. Here are women with full sexual lives and a sense of their own sexual agency. There is the headstrong angry shirt-pant wearing Vimlesh always questioning and seeking. ‘Why create categories, such deep differences between male and female? Only our bodies make us so. We are all human beings aren’t we?’ 

There is the fascinating story of Sabo and Razia who have for decades skillfully navigated their families, religious divides, and marriages through the innocuous vehicle of ‘female friendship’. Their friendship allows them to care for each other’s children, celebrate festivals, mourn their dead, and thus remain enmeshed in each other’s social and personal lives. Then there is the story of the snuffed out flame of love between Menaka and Payal. Teenage school girls who ran away together, only to be found and forcibly brought back to their families, they could not withstand the pressures of their society despite saying ‘we love one another and want to live together’. They part, and nothing more is heard from them again. There is Mary, a survivor of horrific domestic abuse who eventually finds comfort in the arms of her special friend. Manjula and Meeta, the ‘husband-wife jodi’ (couple) whose relationship is a transparent, open, equal relationship unlike many husband-wife jodis around them… and so on. Each story reveals a different facet of pleasure-seeking-and-giving, of agency, and of hope. 

The scope of the introduction in which Sharma has chronicled the history of the lesbian rights movement in India is impressive. From an academic perspective it is a treasure to have this all down in one place. For the uninitiated reader it grounds the book in a specific context. From something as essentially political as ‘why we use the word lesbian’, to the implications of the Fire protests, to the frictions between the lesbian and women’s movements, to Maya’s own story and her questioning of her identity and privileges, the introduction lays bare all the tensions in being (and researching) Indian and Lesbian. 

But are you a lesbian if you don’t know or use the word for yourself? The women in this book describe their relationships as deep, intense friendships, but they do not refer to themselves as lesbian. Sharma establishes her position in needing to name these women lesbian, or politicize their sexualities, even if they themselves don’t: 

However the usage of the word ‘lesbian’ represents our continual efforts to build a politicized identity… these stories continue to pose an ethical dilemma… one way to confront the socially imposed silence regarding issues of alternative sexuality, as well as mechanisms of sexual policing and censorship, was to ‘write in’ these stories… subjects’ insistent categorization of their homosexual relationships as ‘female friendships’ can be seen as evasions and deceptions, yet these apparent lies are in fact the existential truth. 

Maya’s open statement, and the ‘evasions and deceptions’ she encounters in her research throw up important questions for practitioners in the field of sexuality and rights based activism. These women’s right to be sexual is in fact tied in with all their other human rights, most of which are grossly violated because of their social location. The politicization of this struggle is perhaps what bumps up against the women’s ‘existential truth’. As Maya goes on to say: ‘How could they undertake the risk of disclosure and its repercussions without the assurance of external support… no politicization of their issues, no collective demand that their needs be addressed?’ This is perhaps why it is Maya’s everyday work to organize women to understand the indivisibility of all aspects of their lives and rights, and is what this book and its politics hints at. 

But bridging politics with research and with story-telling is a complex exercise. Reading research, even ethnographic research, is usually taxing and at times this text becomes pedantic with the rigours of the investigative process. Writing in details of how, where, and when meetings and interviews occur take away from an appreciation of the stories as stories. ‘We entered the threshold, we had tea, we walked out into the courtyard, we wrote letters, there was no contact for three months…’ etc. I would have preferred to see extracts from the letters, or Maya’s personal notes to herself. Perhaps a poem to a lover, or the words of a song playing in the distance. This structuring of time and place creates a sort of linearity, when in fact really enduring stories are more magical and meandering. Is there a way to write love and politics in a less NGO, less forced sort of way? It cannot be easy, but it is an exercise worth attempting. Also, the cadences of sensuality, pleasure, love, and desire have perhaps been lost in translation. The subjects of this book speaking in Hindi or in Urdu might just be that much richer. But this is the limitation of writing intimate experiences in what can often be a flatfooted language. 

Loving Women will definitely be a useful reference and guide to anyone working in the area of sexuality. It is also endearing because it is a nod to the magic and loneliness, the bewildering, enchanting, hopeful multiplicities of women’s sexual lives. For this I applaud Maya. And for surviving trails gone cold, investigations aborted by families, for hovering on the lip of the ‘unspeakable’, for writing out the silence, and for the courage this personal journey has clearly entailed. 

Maya Ganesh is an independent writer with NGOs working on gender, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS. She is based in Mumbai, and is currently on a one year study-sabbatical in the UK.