The Bigger Picture: Sexuality and Women’s Empowerment - The Fundamental Connection - Srilatha Batliwala

The relationship between sexuality and empowerment is very deep-rooted and fundamental to gender power relations.

Srilatha Batliwala

In the South Asian context, women’s empowerment has generally been equated with strategies that improve women’s social, economic, and political power and autonomy, and with enhancing women’s self esteem, participation and decision-making in a number of spheres.  But it has NOT been linked to sexuality – at least not explicitly – in either concept or practice.  Even if I look back at the landmark framework that a group of us developed in the early 1990s – ‘Women’s Empowerment in South Asia: Concepts and Practices’ 1 – there is no mention of sexuality in the entire document, which was much more concerned with increasing women’s access to resources, with challenging the gender biases within social, economic, and political structures, and in institutions like the family, education, and the media. It even talked about transforming the ideology of patriarchy or male domination which subordinated and subjugated women. But it never spoke of empowerment as connected to sexuality in any way, and certainly not to women’s sexuality.

This could be because that document and others like it were developed for activists working in the field with usually very poor women for whom economic and social discrimination and poverty were the critical issues, so that the focus was on strategies for the social, economic and political empowerment of women. But more probably, these empowerment frameworks reflected a deep discomfort with the entire subject of sexuality.  Even more, it was a sign of how little serious thinking had been done on the connection between the two concepts – again, probably because of the awkwardness surrounding the ‘hot potato’ of sexuality. This unease is in fact a clue to the location of sexuality within the development discourse – i.e., nowhere! – until the HIV/AIDS pandemic hit the sub-continent, and particularly India, in such a massive way, and forced a conversation for which most of us continue to be ill-prepared and ill-informed.

In fact, the relationship between sexuality and empowerment is very deep-rooted and fundamental to gender power relations. To understand how and why, however, we must enter a time capsule and take a journey back to the earliest stages of human civilization.

The story begins at the dawn of human history, when human beings formed the first clans and semi-nomadic tribes. At this time, there was no knowledge of the male role in human reproduction. All people knew was that women had the power to bear children – a power that was considered magical and divine. This amazing power of creation, of giving and nurturing life, began to be worshipped, so that the earliest form of divinity that was worshipped by human beings was the mother goddess. In prehistoric Europe, she was worshipped as the Crowned Butterfly Goddess (Crete, 4000 BC), the Bird Goddess (5000 BC, Spain), and Goddess of Laussel and Lespugne (20,000 – 30,000 BC).  In different parts of Africa she was called Ala, Anansi, Bahuba; in Latin America, Chicomecoatl, Coatlicue, Tlalteutli: in Egypt, Au-Set and Aniket, in other parts of the middle east, Al-Uzza, Arianna, Anuket, Hathor; in Greece, Isis, Demeter, Gaea, Galatea; in India and Tibet, Kundalini, Bhavani, Kali, Chomo Lung-ma, Khon-ma; in China Mat Chinoi and Kwan Yin; and in North America, Awitelin Tsita and Butterfly Woman. The earliest depictions of these divine figures show their life-giving capacity in exaggerated forms – huge breasts and bellies.

These early societies soon made the connection between the lunar cycle, menstruation and child-bearing, which is why many of the mother deities were called ‘goddess of the moon’ (Ngame, Isis, Aniket). There was consequently a celebration and deification of menstrual blood and afterbirth, not the disgust that they elicit today. We also know from ancient historians, archaeologists and from cultural relics (such as poetry and legends) that women enjoyed a high status in these societies. Partly because of the female role in procreation, societies were matrilineal – i.e., children traced their descent from the mother. Indeed, there was only certainty about who one’s mother was, since the connection had not yet been made between sexual intercourse and conception.  A sex-based division of labour had also developed – in early hunter-gatherer societies, men were sent out to hunt, because this was a risky activity and clans had to protect women from such risk, because the survival of the young (and therefore of the clan itself) depended on women.

Two critical factors led to the dramatic change in this situation, and to the rise of what we now call patriarchy – literally, the rule of the father, but socially, the system of male dominance and privilege. One was the discovery of the male role in reproduction. We can only surmise how this might have happened – possibly from the time when animals were domesticated, and people realised that ewes would not conceive if they were separated from the rams.  However it happened, the fact is that it did.  This discovery, on its own, may not have had a far reaching impact on women.  After all, women were still the ones who bore, fed, and nurtured the next generation. And indeed, early civilization continued to revere and celebrate women’s sexuality and the sexual pleasure of both men and women. Unfortunately, it was the rise of the concept of private property – between 10,000 to 5,000 years ago – combined with the knowledge of men’s role in reproduction, that really did women in. 

This shift took place at a time when human groups were shifting from the hunting-gathering of earlier societies to the more settled ways of life that animal husbandry and early agriculture allowed. With increased food security, the human pop-ulation increased, but the amount of habitable land remained static, since the technology to master and live in difficult terrain had not yet been created. This created competition between tribes over land, leading, for the first time in human history, to conflict – what we now call war. 

When battles over land became a reality, early societies made an extremely rational decision about who could fight and be sacrificed in wars to protect or expand the community’s habitat: young men.  Simply put, a society could survive with just a handful of men to ensure procreation, but it would be seriously threatened if its population of women was decimated in battle. Gradually, the men who fought for the tribe not only claimed greater say in the tribe’s affairs, but rewarded themselves with private tracts of land and privately owned herds of animals. 

And here was the turning point: once private property became accepted as a concept and in practice, and its protection became a male duty, men also became concerned with the paternity of their children – they wanted to ensure that those who inherited their property were indeed their own biological offspring, their own ‘blood’. And the only way to ensure this was to restrict women’s sexuality – to control their freedom of movement, their access to and interaction with other men, their independent ownership of resources (which might enable them to leave a particular man and pursue an independent life), and the multiple other freedoms that women had thus far enjoyed. In short, women were disempowered in order to control their sexuality in order, in turn, to control the paternity of their children. No such restrictions, of course, were placed on men, who were free to engage sexually with multiple partners.

This transition obviously did not happen overnight. And women did not submit meekly to this change of what had been the natural order of things for millennia. Feminist scholars have found evidence of various forms of rebellion and resistance – one  celebrated example, of course, was the founding of the society of women on the island of Lesbos in ancient Greece, and their rejection of all sexual relations with men.  Many tribes in South Asia continue to give women equal or greater social and political power than men, and practice matrilineal forms of descent and inheritance (the Khasis of Meghalaya, the Jena Kurubas of Karnataka, and vestiges of it survive in some communities in Kerala). But despite this, over time, not only the ideology but the social organisation we call patriarchy became the predominant order throughout the world.

Other important historical events facilitated this subordination and subjugation of women.  The rise of slavery - also attributed to the early wars, when members of the losing group were captured and brought home as subjugated labour – was one key development in both sociological and ideological terms.  It sanctioned the idea that human beings could be owned, subjugated, and controlled much as only animals had been until this time. And with the rise of the institution of slavery, the enslavement of women became more socially acceptable. Like slaves, women also became commodities.  

Though it sounds like one, this is not a fairy tale – it’s the ‘underside of history’2 that is rarely taught in class, and which was pieced together through the meticulous research of feminist historians around the world. 3,4

Initially, controls over women’s autonomy and sexual freedom were imposed through brute force – but no system of oppression works for very long through such crude means. It would require far too much time and energy on the part of the oppressors.  So over time, the subtler control mechanisms of social mores, cultural norms and values are created to sanction, justify, and perpetuate the oppression. The institution of marriage was created to ensure female monogamy, though men were permitted to be polygamous.

The idea of the ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’ was created, with different sets of attributes ascribed to each, the principal being sexual chastity. The notion was perpetuated that sexual freedom, desire, and pleasure are ‘necessary’ for men and unnatural for women. Most importantly, women were converted into active agents of their own subordination, teaching and perpetuating the patriarchal norms, enforcing compliance, and policing and punishing deviance.

Even a passing glance at any set of South Asian behavioural norms for women demonstrates how these are essentially constructed around the control of women’s sexuality: virginity and chastity are valued above all other qualities in women; women’s mobility is strictly controlled, especially before and during the reproductive stage of their lives; and women pass on these norms to the next generation and stigmatise those who violate them as whores and harlots.  Even the clothing women wear became designed to hide their bodies from the lustful gaze of other men. Yet, only a few millennia ago, our ancestor mothers wore very little clothing (far more suitable to our weather), travelled freely, owned property, and ran village councils. 

Religious doctrine was also artfully used to consolidate the growing controls over women and their sexuality.  In the Hindu Manusmriti,5 for instance, women are considered as lowly and unclean and most likely to distract men from their dharma (duty); men are advised to beat their cows and wives with a stout stick to ensure obedience. Eve the temptress, who seduces poor hapless Adam and drives him from paradise, has an equivalent in many other traditions whose doctrine depicts women as inherently wanton, sexually promiscuous and incapable of controlling their desires, and hence in need of strict control.  What is most interesting is how mother worship was gradually replaced with male deities. The promotion of the institution of marriage as a form of control of women’s sexuality is clearly evident in the Hindu tradition where the powerful female goddesses of old were neatly converted into wives and consorts of the emerging male pantheon. 

Perhaps the ultimate expression of religiously enforced sexual control is exemplified by Brahminical ideology regarding women’s sexuality, which led to the cruel ill treatment of widows in upper class Hindu society.6 In this tradition, women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity was considered the property of one single man – her husband.  Once he died, even if she was a young woman, she was prohibited from sexual contact with any other man, and was not even allowed to re-marry, something most other societies allowed. To ensure that young widows didn’t attract the men of the household, their heads were shaved, they were forced to wear shabby clothing, treated as unclean, and kept in physically separate quarters of the house. Of course, such norms were not imposed on women of lower castes, since upper caste men needed sexual access to these women.

With the rise of patriarchy, the whole idea of sex and sexuality was rendered taboo for women, particularly among the middle and upper echelons of society. In South Asia, the parts of women’s bodies associated with sex and reproduction became converted into ‘polluting’ and ‘tainted’ organs, to be shunned, hidden, and abhorred.  This is why it is still so difficult for women to seek treatment for even simple disorders like a urinary tract infection. Women were taught to be ashamed of their sexual organs, and to fear their sexual desires.

Sex became a taboo subject, surrounded with silence and shame, sanctioned only in the context of marriage and procreation. Women were made responsible for the safeguarding and transmission of culture from one generation to the next, and culture is not simply a matter of rites and rituals but beliefs, mores, and values. This was particularly true with respect to sexuality, where women became the champions of patriarchal standards and tend to be the first to brand other women who deviate from the ‘path of virtue’ – which meant, just a century ago, daring to wear a shorter-sleeved blouse, or going to school to learn to read and write. 

The connection between sexuality and empowerment is therefore both deep and profound.  The sexual subjugation and control of women was the prime cause of their disempowerment in multiple other dimensions of their lives. It is at the heart of the denial of their right to equality in every sphere of society. It led to women’s economic disempowerment, because if women could own productive assets, have independent incomes and control that income, there is little chance they would tolerate some man dictating terms to them. It led to their physical disempowerment, since women had to be physically cowed down into accepting male dominance, but also because they had to be prevented from interacting with other men to whom they might be sexually attracted. They had to be socially disempowered in order to deny them a voice in community affairs which might lead them to challenge male authority and power. And they had to be politically disempowered so that they could not change or challenge male laws and patriarchal institutions at a larger level. 

It is time, therefore, for programmes of women’s empowerment to begin to address this fundamental source of women’s subordination, this profound connection between sexuality and social power. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has demonstrated the high cost of a social structure where women have no negotiating power in sexual relations, and no control over their sexual lives.  We must seize this opportunity to launch a region-wide debate that explores the meaning and practice of sexual empowerment – not only for women, but also for men. 

  1. Srilatha Batliwala, 1992, Women’s Empowerment in South Asia: Concept and Practice’, New Delhi, FAO/ASPBAE
  2. Elise Boulding, 1992, The Underside of History  Vol. 1, London, Sage Publications.
  3. Rosalind Miles, 1988, The Women’s History of the World, London, Paladin
  4. see
  5. The first codification of Hindu law, attributed to the Sage Manu, sometime in the 11th century AD.
  6. See Uma Chakravarty, 1998, Pandita Ramabai: Rewriting History, New Delhi, Kali For Women.

Srilatha Batliwala is an Indian feminist activist and researcher who has worked on a range of social change, gender justice, and international civil society initiatives. She is currently the India-based Civil Society Research Fellow of The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Harvard University.