‘I’ Column - Nandini Ghosh
... on how sexual rights affect one personally, and how they are affirmed and/or violated in one’s local cultural setting.
I think that the affirmation and violation of one’s sexual rights while being very personal, are at the same time, completely social, deeply rooted within what a particular culture considers to be acceptable or within the permissible bounds of sexual activities.
For most Asian women sexuality can only be acceptable if expressed within a conjugal relationship. Any other expression of women’s sexuality, though pleasurable for the man, is denied to ‘good’ women, those who are daughters, wives and mothers of the men who make the rules in society. In societies where marriages are arranged, women who ‘deviate’ from the norm are considered as asexual, and undesirable as marriage partners but ironically still remain objects of sexual gratification for men.
In a society which places premium on certain valued characteristics, like height, fairness of complexion, gracefulness, culinary capabilities and various other criteria, I am an anomaly. Along with being dark (by Indian standards), I am also very short. There may be some medical condition, which aptly describes me, but I do not know what it is and nor do I wish to. That’s because in my family I am who I am and have always been treated as an equal member of the family. All my relatives have always been very fond of me. However, now at a later age, I wonder if all that love wasn’t a form of pity for someone they always expected to be denied the tag of ‘woman’. They refer to me as my ‘parents’ son’, as if being a daughter I cannot really be the strong and independent woman I was reared to be. People in public spaces are crueler and deem it impossible for a girl like me to have any sexual inclinations – ‘Who would ever think of marrying her?’ – a comment I have heard many times and still cringe in disgust every time I hear it.
All my life, I have consciously sought to avoid negative connotations that society loves to attach to people like me. I shudder every time I hear words like ‘dwarf’ or ‘disabled’ used to describe me because as a person rooted in a particular socio-cultural milieu, I also associate negative connotations to these words, which do nothing to affirm my self-image. Yet, although on a conscious level I refuse to accept a devalued image of myself, I realise that society, and even my relatives consider me ‘unmarriageable’. I have internalised many of the messages sent by the cultural community I belong to, where parents start scouting for a prospective groom the moment a girl reaches adulthood. But the fact that I am in my mid thirties and still no one, except my parents, is in the slightest bit concerned about my marriage is something which makes me pause and think. Even my younger female cousins are being married off – at their marriages I hear of proposals being sent for other younger girls, but till now none for me. In a society where sexuality is accepted only within marriage, doesn’t that set me apart in a way that denies my sexuality right to its core?
The worst situations that again negate my sexuality, instead of affirming it, is when men in public spaces have a good time feeling me up – to check out whether, despite being a short person, I have the ‘essentials’. Of course, I do have the essentials – that is what gives me my idea of me, my self, my identity as a woman.
Nandini Ghosh is a women’s rights and disability rights activist. She has worked for six years in disability related NGOs in West Bengal and Jharkhand. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.