The Bigger Picture: Why I Do What I Do - Pramada Menon
My mother often asks me what I do when I facilitate trainings on sexuality – do I train people on how to have sex? I think that it worries her that I may be doing this and she is not sure how to tell her feminist daughter that this may not be such a good idea. For a long time, my parents were uncomfortable about mentioning the fact that I worked on sexuality and gender, as though it somehow made me more of a tart than I was considered to be. It was safe for them to say that I was a consultant, and as we all know, consultants can work on a whole range of issues. A silence creeps into conversations at parties when I say I work on issues of sexuality and gender, since everyone is unsure of how to deal with the mention of sexuality in a public space.
So if you were to ask me why do I do this work, I would say that it is to create spaces where issues of sexuality and gender can be discussed, nourished, disagreed on but definitely spoken about in loud voices rather than hushed whispers. The silence is incredible and I watched it grow as I grew up. As a child, I wanted to know why boys had handy tools that they could whip out when they wanted to pee and could do it standing up, whereas we girls had to look for a secluded place, and had to sit down and ensure that no one was looking and only then could we pee. I was curious about how their mechanism worked since it seemed to be a wonderful invention. But this was not a discussion that could be had at all, and all matters below the belt and above the thigh remained in darkness and shrouded in silence.
As I grew up and recovered from the shock that I did not have cancer and the bleeding was only my body letting me know that it was functional, I realized that most girls are not told what periods/chums/ whatever name you wish to give it, are all about. Everyone is allowed to guess what it could possibly be and then elaborate efforts are made by all around to try and hide the fact that this biological event happens. Shop-keepers wrap a pack of sanitary napkins in paper and then place it in a black plastic bag. Most other products are dumped into a white plastic bag and handed over to the customer, but this is something that needs to be kept hidden from human view. I thought that the 80s was the time when menstruation was a taboo subject, but to my horror, I discover young girls today who still have no clue. I am not talking about those who have progressive parents, but the many others who don’t. Tampons are not discussed in the Indian context, since many people believe that inserting a tampon may result in the hymen getting punctured (which is not true at all) and we do not want non-virgins wandering around. The arranged marriage market would be very seriously affected! Very clearly, no understanding that the hymen can be ruptured by cycling, strenuous exercises – any mundane physical activity and does not need any sexual activity to be performed.
Menstruation also brings about the recognition that one is now fertile and therefore the process of control and protection sets into automatic motion. Without any explanations given, girls find themselves being sequestered in girls-only spaces, warned about men, and told that they should not be out late at night, and nowhere in the sermons delivered is there any true explanation of the act leading to pregnancy. Dire stories of pregnancy are recounted and girls are led to believe that looking at a man, touching a boy would all result in pregnancy. I believed that if I necked my boyfriend I would get pregnant and that my mother would instantly get to know. The closest I got to getting any information on this subject was the entry of Johnson and Johnson, the pharmaceutical company, into our school and the screening of a film that explained to us how we were now ‘women’. The film was so academic and so pedantic that none of us truly understood what was going on, and then, to our shame, we were all handed a small packet with two sanitary napkins in it. All of us walked out of the hall in silence. Too embarrassed to even catch each other’s eye.
Growing up is never easy – especially since one has to deal with the hormones that are racing around the body and the fact that crushes for someone or the other develop every day. My college life was full of stories of heterosexual gaiety and finding anyone expressing their desire in a way that was not the ‘usual’ was almost an impossibility. We gossiped and proscribed gayness to those we thought behaved ‘femininely’ whatever that indicated to us at that point. I do not recall any stories of women who were lesbian, or, may be, at that point in time I did wear blinkers and was unable to conceive of any relationship other than one that involved the penis in some way or the other. Sexuality was not discussed in Delhi University, except may be as part of the English or Hindi Literature courses and that too, in a manner that was completely academic and lacking any real passion. This was the early 80’s. The situation is completely different now.
Years of talking and working on issues of sexuality and gender have opened up spaces within colleges in Delhi. I am amazed to see the number of colleges that have discussions, film shows, plays on these issues, and across disciplines. Ingenious ways have been thought of to introduce the subject within fora in women’s colleges. Sexuality and the law was a hot topic for some time – precisely because the subject was vague enough for the introduction of the issue of same sex desire – and no one could accuse us of subverting the young people, we were just in the field of education!
I have been working in the social justice field for more than twenty years now. For a long time after I began working, there was very limited or no understanding of issues of sexuality. What we did have was the heady excitement of gender analysis, something that allowed us to bring women within the ambit of the work that we did. We did have many discussions and programs that touched upon the woman’s body, but that was always in the context of violence or reproductive health. There was no celebration of the woman’s body. This was also the time of blackening of film posters that showed women wearing bikinis, it was the time that protests were organized against beauty contests. And, as a fellow activist once remarked at a protest against one such beauty contest, she heard an invitee for the show saying, ‘Look at the women who are protesting, they all look so down and out and ugly! No wonder they are protesting.’ At that point she hated it, but now she laughs and says what a rag tag bunch they were, protesting against glamour and dressed in true ‘NGO-type’ type clothes. By which I understand that means handloom clothes, which look just a bit shabby, a shoulder bag and a general unkempt look. Protests looked like that then; now, I think the nature of the discussion around beauty contests has changed – we have gone beyond the commodification of women to also accommodate the agency of the woman who actually participates in events of this nature. There does seem to be some kind of understanding that one rule cannot apply for all.
By the late 80’s, early 90’s, the lesbian word had entered the lexicon of some of us working in Delhi. We heard of ‘real life lesbians’ networking, and we tried to guess who within the women’s movement were in same-sex relationships. For those of us for whom this was not a personal issue, as yet, but a political one, we were amazed at the homophobia that we found lurking within the women’s movement. This was the ground that I grew up on and learnt a lot from and yet, I was warned about sharing a room with a woman at a conference because she was lesbian! Amazing, isn’t it? One understands violence in very direct ways, but this form of violence always goes unnoticed and one tends to dismiss it as ignorance.
Around 1993, I recall many heated discussions with activists on the immaturity of discussing lesbian issues in the context of India since poverty / sustainable livelihood / water were far more important issues; and why should a country be held ransom to a fringe group of women talking about lesbian rights? This discussion came up in the light of the process leading to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the fact that someone at a preparatory meeting had challenged the UN declaration that made 1994, the Year of the Family. Interestingly enough, at the National Conference on Women’s Movement in India, held at Tirupati in 1994, ‘the declaration of the conference itself clearly acknowledged and supported the right of all women to make choices about our bodies, our sexuality and our relationships. It recognized that women in patriarchal societies are further marginalized if they identify as lesbian or bisexual women’1
I was negotiating all these battles while working at an organization that provided sustainable livelihoods to crafts people. There wasn’t much scope for interactions with mainstream women’s organizations working on what seemed as more ‘hard core’ issues. Yet, one learnt a lot from looking around and seeing what was not being talked about, what was not getting included and what were the areas that everyone tended to ignore. The endless and acrimonious discussions had forced me to start linking the work that I did on sustainable livelihood, gender and the world of sexuality and more importantly the right of all human beings to live their lives with dignity. Heterosexuality also was not as hyped up as it was made to be. Many of my friends and I were running into trouble because we chose to live unorthodox lives where we made decisions regarding our bodies, our lives and our relationships. That wasn’t acceptable. I was a participant at a workshop on HIV/AIDS where one of the exercises required that the group be sub-divided on the basis of married older men/women and unmarried men/women. The subtext was that unmarried meant those who had had no sexual activity in their lives. The assumption was also that all the participants were heterosexual. I remember the facilitator looking a bit shocked when I exposed these assumptions and some of us moved away from the group that we had been forced into.
1998 was an important year in many ways for what I wanted to do. It was the year the film Fire was released in India. I will not discuss the film, since that is something that has been done to death. What was important was the fact that the film depicted desire between two middle-class women living in the same family in Delhi and that was not palatable for the Right Wing in India. What aggravated matters was also the name of one of the women – Sita, also the name of the consort of Lord Ram, the hero of the Hindu religious text Ramayana. The theatres were attacked and many statements were issued in the press: ‘Two women having a physical relationship is an unnatural thing’ – Pramod Navalkar, the then Minister for Culture of the State of Maharashtra, and, ‘Why are such films made here? They can be made in the US or other western countries. A theme like lesbianism does not fit in the Indian atmosphere’ by the then Union Minister for Home, L.K.Advani 2. The right wing anger enabled the placing of sexual desire within the public domain and more importantly it opened up spaces for discussion on lesbianism, same sex desire and sexuality. CALERI – The Campaign for Lesbian Rights – came up following broad-based protests against the Right Wing Shiv Sena’s attacks on the film. The individuals and groups that had been actively involved in the protests, decided to develop a year-long activist effort to forefront lesbian issues in public spaces. I was active in this campaign and learnt a lot through this. It was the time that organizations working on women’s rights were forced to take a stand and it was interesting to see the excuses that some of them came up with, so as to not have to take a stand. It’s also the time that I found myself having to explain that I was involved with the campaign not just because of what my personal identity was, but because I believed it to be about human rights violations. While I worked with craftspeople, nobody ever asked me whether I was a craftsperson, but suddenly when working on lesbian issues I had become partisan and one of them and therefore militant and so on…
That was twelve years ago. The firmament for action has altered radically now. There is a proliferation of organizations working on issues of sexuality and sexual rights, a large number of programs are organized with college students, academics are publishing, Bollywood has gay and lesbian characters – a lot of them completely hateful, columns in newspapers… a multitude of new ways to deal with issues of sexuality. Most importantly, a case is being fought in the Delhi High Court for exempting consensual adult same-sex sexual activity from the purview of Section 377 (Unnatural Offences) of the Indian Penal Code which reads: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Interestingly, on February 26, 1999 CALERI had submitted a memorandum to the Committee on Empowerment of Women: Appraisal of Laws relating to Women (Criminal Laws) and the subject was Repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code 3. The intervening years have seen the media become supportive and there are many more queer images in public spaces. In 2008, India saw Pride Parades in four major cities and I was fortunate to be part of two of those. The sense of exhilaration and joy was palpable in the two cities that I was present. The very streets, which can be threatening to people who do not conform to gender identity or desire as defined by society were now being occupied by them legally and the police was safeguarding their interests!
It has been a long journey and a fun one. The last ten years has seen me active in an organization working on issues of sexuality and sexual rights and I have facilitated innumerable trainings on these issues across countries, cultures, ages, ethnicities, religion, disability, sexual orientation and race. I have learnt immensely and equally have unlearnt immensely from the work that I have been doing. It’s been challenging too, doing this work. While I can see the palpable differences in the world that I now occupy, I also see the same processes happening yet again for a newer set of people who have to learn afresh. In 1983, I found myself having to explain to people that masturbation was not a sin and was not wrong and in 2009 I find that I still need to say it. I think I will have to repeat until my dying day that homosexuality is not abnormal and that lesbians are not women who have faced violence at the hands of men. The important change is that I won’t be one of a fringe group saying this. There will be many more who will be loudly proclaiming this and many other issues relating to sexuality.
As I said earlier, there are innumerable challenges in the work that is being done in this field of sexuality and sexual rights. One of the discussions that I have had with a friend is about the tenuousness of the binary construct of man and woman. If there was no construct, it would mean that there would be no man or woman and then there would be no identities that we could use to define our desires because then we would just be people who desired other people! What would that do the world of identity politics? If the binary construct did not exist then there would be no differentiation based on gender and then we would once again be set free from labels of any sort.
Similarly, our worldview precludes all those who do not have able bodies. A disability activist once named us those of the ‘temporarily abled bodies’. That has really made me reflect on what are the ways in which we address sexuality and disability, and, do we really do so in any meaningful manner? Do we understand the desire for a sexual partner from someone who has a motor nerve disorder, or someone who has spina bifida and is on a wheel chair or someone who is mentally challenged and unable to explain to us what she feels except that she repeatedly says she wants to get married? Do we realize that we may become that disabled body? The world of disability studies or Crip Theory has a lot that we have to learn from.
Technology has advanced rapidly and we now have to deal with the fact that people form intimate relationships on the Internet and that chat spaces have proliferated and there are chat rooms for practically every kind of desire and dream. Young adults are able to access information that may or may not be appropriate to their age. Sexual relationships have taken on a new meaning in this landscape and we are not really equipped to deal with the public nature of the Internet. We are also not completely sure about the camera on the mobile phone. There was a safety in public spaces, but now there is no guarantee that someone is not photographing your body while you sit down in a mall.
We are unable to understand the ways in which we allow ourselves to create sexual hierarchies within our worldview and place people and activities within it4. Often times we pitch the homosexuals against the heterosexuals and the abled against the disabled. Sexual acts, which result in reproduction, are valued higher than those which do not. Violence and victim narratives are listened to more often than stories of pleasure5 and identity.
Are we able to understand that people have sex or do not have sex for various reasons? That desire and lust are good enough, that people may exchange money for sex, that people may be in multiple relationships, that identities are transient and sexuality fluid?
I continue to do the work that I do because although some bits of the world have changed, there is a lot more of the rainbow that I want to grasp and share with people. I want to be able to live in a world where I do not sit in judgment of others; where I can recognize consent and consensual relationships even though they may clash with my world view and I can learn that not everything can be best described as black and white, but also as grey, light grey, dark grey and many other permutations. And I do what I do since I believe that change has happened in my lifetime in the world of sexuality and that I still have to learn and challenge myself and others if I want to move anywhere closer to the ideal that we can create.
1 Fernandez B, Radhakrishnan M, Deb P. 2007 Report on a Lesbian Meeting, National Conference on Women’s Movement in India, Tirupati, 1994, in Nivedita Menon (Ed) Sexualities, New Delhi: Women Unlimited
2 Cited in Lesbian Emergence: Campaign for Lesbian Rights. 1999. A Citizen’s Report, New Delhi
3 Memorandum in Lesbian Emergence: Campaign for Lesbian Rights. 1999. A Citizen’s Report, New Delhi
4 Rubin G. 1984. Thinking Sex: Notes For a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality in Carole S. Vance (Ed) Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
5 Vance, C. 1984. Pleasure and Danger: Toward a Politics of Sexuality in Carole S. Vance (Ed) Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Pramada Menon is a queer activist and an independent consultant working on issues of sexuality, sexual rights, gender, violence against women and organizational development and change. She has spent the last two decades of her professional life questioning, challenging, and seeking answers to questions of women’s human rights. She would like to develop new ways of learning and teaching and is currently exploring ways in which humour can be injected into the world of social change through her stand up performance Fat, Feminist and Free. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.