Shaina does not want us to publish her full name. This may seem ironic considering the organization she belongs to – OLAVA – stands for Organized Lesbian Alliance for Visibility and Action. But in India, where homosexuality is still illegal and imprisonable under the penal code, it makes sense. ‘This is a colonial law given to us by the British,’ she explains, ‘and we have not changed it since.’
Mostly gays are not directly prosecuted. However, the penal code is often used to blackmail or threaten. Gay men, hijras (eunuchs) or transgender people – who tend to be more visible than lesbians – are the usual targets. ‘But the law is vague enough to accommodate women too,’ says Shaina. ‘We know of women who have been threatened with it and detained by police.’
While the repeal of this criminal law is ‘the first step towards equality’ for lesbian women, Shaina’s agenda must incorporate a great deal more. For despite the publicity and protest that surrounded Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire (about two women finding love within the boundaries of a traditional Indian family), most lesbian and bisexual women in India are still ‘invisible’.
‘They are forced to be,’ says Shaina, ‘because there is so much homophobia and because the whole institution of marriage and what we call “compulsory heterosexuality” is so firmly entrenched. The pressures on a woman to get married are there at an extremely young age, often when she hasn’t even had the chance to complete her education – let alone come to terms with herself as a sexual being.’
These pressures – often hostile – don’t just come from the community. ‘In India we are extremely embedded in our families. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can lead to extreme harassment from the family.’ As a consequence, OLAVA helps women who are facing violence at home because of their sexuality – or who have left home and are being hunted down by their parents.
There is another reason for Shaina’s caution in revealing her identity here in print. She is a Muslim and therefore part of a minority that, especially in recent times, has been violently targeted by Hindu nationalists.
‘On the one hand, you are part of the Muslim minority that is under attack, so that one aspect of your being is questionable. Then you get a lot of pressure from within [your own] community to keep quiet because if you raise these kinds of issues, others can point a finger and say: “You see, Muslim women are wayward and this is what they do.” So we are accused of providing ammunition against Muslims.’
This makes it even more difficult for Muslim lesbians to be ‘out’ and for their struggle against discrimination to be viewed as legitimate. ‘People say: “The question right now is survival. It’s making a living; it’s getting an education. People don’t die if they don’t have sex.” And [this perspective] is being used to close the lines of who gets to represent the Muslim community in India. Just a few bodies are referred to and those are male-dominated and extremely conservative.’
OLAVA has a few Muslim members but exists for women of all communities. Created in Pune in 1999 it is ‘a space for lesbian and bisexual people, to meet and talk and come out of their isolation and just to know that other people like them exist. And it is a space for political activism.’ Outreach is an important part of OLAVA’s work, as is making connections with other political struggles such as the global justice, anti-caste and women’s movements. ‘We have a lot of issues in common with the women’s movement. We are all trying to fight patriarchy, and “compulsory heterosexuality” is one of the ways that patriarchy manifests itself.’