New Internationalist

The Fire Inside

Issue 416

Lesbianism in India has traditionally been the great unmentionable – and the treatment meted out to women who love women still leads many couples to opt for suicide pacts, often burning themselves to death. But in the wake of a groundbreaking film, lesbians are asserting themselves more – and seeing some encouraging signs of change, as Nick Harvey reports.

Queen Victoria refused to believe women were capable of such  ‘ghastly’ behaviour. So when it was suggested back in 1885 that Indian law be adapted to criminalize lesbianism as well as male homosexuality it was rumoured she was horrified and rejected the idea outright. For Indian lesbians this story remains a droll commentary on the benefits of not being taken seriously. But it is precisely such invisibility that is the biggest obstacle for this super-marginalized community.

‘We paralyze ourselves with anxiety,’ says Sita, 27, from Delhi. ‘There are so few references to what we are, what we feel, that when you are growing up you start thinking, either I’m going crazy or everything’s already crazy.’

In a country where married couples can raise eyebrows if they hold hands in public, the day-to-day life of the lesbian can only be imagined. Within this male-dominated society they face a double discrimination – first because of their sex and then because of their sexuality.

Photo: <b>SIDDHARTH NARRAIN</b>
A happy couple from the fantastically successful first Gay and Lesbian Pride March in Bengaluru (Bangalore) on 29 June 2008. Photo: SIDDHARTH NARRAIN

‘We don’t have the same freedoms that gay men do,’ says Amrita, 21, from Bangalore. ‘We can’t just pop out to a gay night when we feel like it. Our families want to know where we are going. Even if we lie they will find out.’

It is the family and the relentless pressure it puts on daughters to marry that causes Indian lesbians the most suffering. When a woman comes out, or her family finds out, the reactions can vary from denial or rejection right up to the thoroughly horrific.

‘There have been many cases where women have been raped by their husbands, their brothers, even their fathers, in a bid to “cure” them,’ says Betu Singh, co-ordinator of the Delhi-based support group Sangini. ‘Some have been locked in a room for days and starved until they admitted it was all lies.’

For those forced into marriage, what the rest of their life will entail is an incubus all too real. ‘Women are not only prevented from expressing their sexuality, they are forced to go in the complete opposite direction in living and having sex with someone they really don’t want to,’ says Rex Watts, co-ordinator of the Bangalore-based support group Sangama.

In the light of such treatment, it comes as no surprise that the suicide rate for lesbians in India is high. Hardly a week passes without a story appearing in the papers about young couples who have chosen to die rather than live in a society that refuses to believe they exist – there were 24 documented cases of lesbian suicide pacts between 1996 and 2004 in the state of Kerala alone.1 In May 2008 there was the particularly shocking case of Christy and Rukmini from Chennai. Both had husbands and after years of torment from their families they set themselves on fire. Relatives found their charred bodies still hugging each other.

It has been suggested that the high suicide rate is also related to the fact that support structures for lesbians in India are scarce. Chennai, for example, does not have a helpline for lesbians. Some say resources are dwindling even further.

‘When we started in 1997 there were six members of staff working here,’ says Betu from Sangini. ‘Now we only get a very small grant, so there are just two of us left.’

International organizations and donors provide the bulk of funding to agencies supporting sexual minorities in India. Yet, due to HIV and AIDS, most of this money goes to operations working with men who have sex with men, leaving lesbian support groups hopelessly underfunded.

Extreme prejudice

This lack of funding means Sangini is one of only a handful of organizations in the whole of India that works exclusively to support lesbians. But the Government will not allow it to be registered as a ‘lesbian’ support agency so it works under the umbrella of a ‘Women’s Sexual Health Organization’. They run a helpline and arrange support, including legal assistance and counselling for women wanting to leave home.

‘If a woman tries to leave, the husband or her family simply pays the police to go and pick her up,’ says Betu. ‘We find her a safe place to stay and we get a lawyer involved to draw up the proper papers so she can’t be taken back. We have about six cases of this kind every month.’

There are also organizations operating from outside the country that raise money and provide support networks for lesbians in India. Molly Blackburn is the director of the Lesbian Association of India (LAI), which is based in Cambridge, England.

‘So many people travel to India and have no idea what is happening there,’ she says. ‘They remain unaware of the shocking bias against these women that runs through every level of society. They are simply not supposed to exist.’

LAI is developing a resource network for Indian women to access on the internet and it already has a blog space, Break the Silence, where they can share poetry, stories and messages. The relatively new phenomenon of the internet is one of the few spaces where, protected by anonymity, lesbians are able to express themselves. But access to a computer is a luxury that most Indian women cannot afford. As is the case in so many other areas of society, it is the poor who suffer the most.

‘Women with money and an education are able to deal with these things much better because they are given more freedoms: they can work and study, they can leave the house,’ says Betu. ‘Poor women don’t have these choices, they must get married and work in or near the home.’

This could be why an already incredulous population often dismisses lesbianism as merely a luxury excess of bored high-caste women or a fashion plagiarized from the West. Yet the regular recordings of suicides, and even marriages, among women from the lowest classes, dalits (people beneath the caste system, formerly called ‘untouchable’) and adivasis (indigenous people) from small villages, who have never been exposed to Western culture or even heard the word ‘lesbian’, seems to disprove this.

Just as lesbians are part of all walks of Indian life, so is the extreme prejudice against them. Whether it is at home, in the workplace or at the doctor’s surgery, lesbians are frequently seen as being in some way sick or misguided.

‘Many doctors and psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as some sort of a disease or perversion and continue to treat it as such,’ says Molly from LAI. ‘There have been guidelines in Indian medical books telling doctors how best to spot a lesbian. They are told to look out for things like short hair and tattoos.’

In the Indian school system, where even sex education is a thorny topic, there have been reports of expulsions for the slightest allusion to homosexuality. Perhaps the most ridiculous example was back in 1992 when seven girls were thrown out of a government high school in Kerala. Their unforgivable crime? They had formed the Martina Navratilova Fan Club.

Bollywood’s treatment of the issue has managed to anger activists from all sides. The movie Girlfriend (2004) outraged right-wing religious groups and queer activists with its titillating depiction of women loving women. The film portrays the main character as a lesbian and a man-hater due to an incident of childhood sexual abuse, while her partner becomes gay after a night on the booze. The twist comes when the latter falls in love with a man, prompting her girlfriend to become a murdering psychopath.

Girlfriend successfully managed to include all the negative stereotypes and clichés about lesbians,’ says Sita. ’I’m sure it was just put out there as something for men to get excited about.’

Violent protests erupted after the film was screened. Conservative Hindu groups, such as Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal, attacked cinemas showing the film and burnt the film’s posters.

There were similar protests in 1998 to Deepa Mehta’s lesbian-themed film Fire. ‘It is an explosion of obscenity, a denigration of womanhood and an attack on Hinduism!’ was how one Shiv Sena leader summed it up at the time. This film, however, received a much warmer reception from queer activists. It has even been suggested that the violent reaction to Fire was a defining moment in the emergence of the lesbian movement in India. Hundreds of women showed up outside the ransacked theatres, holding candles and chanting.

‘For the first time we could be seen protesting about exactly what was causing us the most pain, the sickening reaction to us from society and from men,’ says 38-year-old Parvati from Bangalore.

Signs of change

In 2006, the issue of women attracted to women was further explored by British film-maker Pratibha Parma in Nina’s Heavenly Delights. The film, set in Glasgow, is a light-hearted story of how a Scottish-Indian woman falls in love with her colleague whilst trying to win a national curry-making competition. It received praise from critics both in India and Britain yet was shown in hardly any cinemas in India itself. The Indian entry to last year’s London’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, The World Unseen (2007), a story about two Indian women who fall in love in apartheid South Africa, was similarly ignored by cinemas inside India.

Despite this slow start, activists insist that attitudes are beginning to change in both Indian society and Indian lesbians themselves. ‘Compared to 10 years ago, not only are more women feeling confident enough to come out but, when they do, more are being accepted by their friends and colleagues,’ says Betu. ‘Even their families usually come around in the end – though this can sometimes take a few years!’

Importantly, the media, despite a less than sympathetic history with queer issues, also seems to be more onside after years of being harangued by Indian pressure groups such as Sangama and Queer Media Watch.

‘Whenever a paper would print a trashy story we would ring them up and give them a hard time about it,’ says Rex from Sangama. ‘It has taken a while but now they usually go through us before they print something.’

The decision in May by Delhi’s High Court to hear petitions against section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC 377) that outlaws ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ is another positive sign. Lesbians are not technically included in its ambit since the legal definition of ‘intercourse’ requires penetration. Though any victory would be largely symbolic, state authorities have been known to use IPC 377 to threaten and intimidate lesbians as well as the traditional gay male targets.

In the capital, Delhi, lesbians are even starting to make up the numbers at the weekly gay night. ‘When we go there we have a good time but we are still hopelessly outnumbered by the men,’ says Sita. ‘I’m out in every way now; my friends know, my family knows and I really don’t care who else knows. And if somebody else has a problem with it from now on, that’s all it will be – somebody else’s problem.’

Nick Harvey is a freelance journalist from Northampton, England, currently knee-deep into a 4 year overland world tour. India is his 17th country so far...

  1. VN Deepa, ‘Queering Kerala: Reflections of Sahayatika’, in Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan, Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, Yoda Press, Delhi, 2005.

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