sexuality, Hinduism and ‘Western deviance’

I spoke at a Cutting Edge Consortium event entitled ‘Faith, Feminism and LGBTQ Women – Is Anyone Listening?’ on 18th January 2012. The following is reconstructed from my notes for the evening.

When it comes to sexuality, many of our cultures push forward a myth that modes of sexuality that deviate from heterosexist marriage are Western disease or imports by foreigners and invaders. Apparently in the UK, Anglo-Saxons blamed the Normans for introducing the ‘vice’ of homosexuality whereas Normans in turn blamed the French. In India, the ‘blame’ has been laid at many doors – Muslim invaders, European colonialists or American capitalists. When I told an ex-colleague that there were many lesbian women in India and even a thriving LGBT movement, I was queried as to whether there were any women among them who had been ‘uncontaminated’ by the West. If you look to the realities of history and literature, this way of thinking easily disproved. At most times and places in pre-nineteenth century India, love between women and between men, even when disapproved of was not actively persecuted. I’m not saying that we lived in a pre-colonial paradise where there was free expression of gender and sexuality – even when and where same-sex love was romanticised and encouraged, people were rarely able to chose and live it in refusal of marriage and had to mold existing institutions creatively. However, it is telling that the only example of someone being executed for homosexuality in India is that of  a boy executed for sodomy by the Portuguese colonial powers when they occupied Goa.

Although there are many Hindu texts, it is a philosophy which is primarily passed down through the oral tradition: the stories that your parents and grandparents tell you and the ways in which you are told you must behave. It varies according to region, community and social status to such a degree that there is a strong argument to be made that ‘Hinduism’ was an idea imposed by English colonisers to a whole set of practices which may or not have been related before. All of this makes religion very difficult to separate from culture.  Of course, there is a lot of valorisation of women as good daughters and good wives, interpreted to mean chaste, loyal and devoted to family and husband, but Hinduism also abounds with relationships of love, desire and sex between women and women and men and men, of women becoming men, of men becoming women, of women expressing sexual desire openly to objects of that desire, with women having children together and men having children together – and all of this normalised. There are also many examples of people who live outside the norm of heterosexual marriage.  I wanted to give a couple of examples but the stories are too long to go into in ten minutes – do let me know if you’re interested and I can tell you the story of Shikandi, the Hindu world’s most well-known example of the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity.

Many societies have viewed romantic attachments between women and between men as normal and compatible with marriage and procreation.  Only relatively recently that the heterosexual monogamous marriage has come to be viewed as a married person’s chief emotional outlet. In many parts of India, both these views still coexist. ‘History’ and ‘culture’ are not objective: they are interpreted, re-interpreted, imagined and constructed in ways that ensure they are seen as and used in ways that are wildly different to what was the actually the case for our ancestors.

There is a tendency to construct the ‘liberated’ West in contrast with the ‘unenlightened developing world’, but we know that neither of these constructs is true. Patriarchy, homophobia and heteronormativity play out differently across the world but they still exist everywhere and everywhen – as do women and men who resist, mobilise and create new ways of living and being. In the words of The Mahabharata which is one of the two ancient Hindu texts through the stories of which all Hindu children learn to think about and debate morality, “The lamps of history destroys the darkness of ignorance.”

Reclaiming what is perceived to be ‘history,’ ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ is important. Why? When these ‘deviant’ modes of sexuality are seen as unnatural and not part of culture or heritage, it fosters an atmosphere of dangerous ignorance where many people hate themselevs, try to find cures including by forcing themselves into marriage and attempt to commit suicide while families react with disgust and blame themselves for failing their children. I raise this because this is the reality of the lives of many African and Asian people living in the UK and it is a reality that the LGBT, feminist and other movements do not do enough to address.

We cannot talk about these issues without talking about race and marginality. Sexuality is constructed in the way seen as popular in metropolitan Euro-American cities. The very words and categories used – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, trans – are not how people view themselves in different countries. As Erin Power from the UKLGIG says, “gay is a word most of our clients have never heard or used.” People seeking asylum on grounds of sexuality-based persecution are expected to head down to Soho to engage in a series of sexual relationships almost as soon as they land in the UK and have lived similar lifestyles in their countries of origin in order to prove themselves.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard of Asian women and men who have been queried when entering gay and lesbian bars and club because they ‘don’t look gay’. The so-called ‘progressive’ movements fail those who live ‘between movements’, for example can we say that the LGBT, feminist or anti-racist movements really address the realities of being gay and black and woman? We live in a world in which patriarchy combines with racism, homophobia, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world. Yet, our movements do far from enough to ensure that they are for all and to reflect the reality that within the marginalised group of ‘women’ and ‘LGBT’, there are further oppressions. We need to respond to this and disrupt all existing power structures to be truly meaningful. We live in a world of interlocking hierarchies and oppressions and it must be part of our mission to dismantle all of these.

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go feminist: moving from the margins to the mainstream

I was part of putting on the Go Feminist conference in 2012. Beforehand, I wrote this piece for The F Word together with other organisers of the conference.

On 4th February, the Go Feminist conference will be held in London. Throughout the programme, we aim to highlight feminist perspectives you may not normally hear.

We do this as a response to feminism’s most sustained critique: that it is not for all women. Although women from all backgrounds and communities identify with feminist beliefs, the movement still does not completely take into account their needs and realities. Too often in our feminist spaces, the voices of a few are privileged. Race is inadequately dealt with. Our spaces, both physical and virtual, are inaccessible to women living with disabilities. Trans women’s involvement isactively discouraged.

We set up Go Feminist partly to respond to this. However this conference is not an answer but more a continuation of a conversation. Our starting point is the recognition that within the marginalised group of “women”, there are further oppressions. Our movement needs to respond to this and disrupt all existing power structures to be truly meaningful. The feminist story belongs to all women everywhere. Broadening our analysis to include forms of oppressions in addition to patriarchy and focusing on the most forgotten, vulnerable and marginalised gives a better chance of capturing all women. We also believe that we need to make the links between feminism and other movements. 2011 was an exciting year for activism, but from Tahrir Square to Liberty Square, women struggled to have their voices heard. Feminism should be the thread that connects across these struggles, but we have yet to make these connections systematically.

Go Feminist is our attempt to make these connections, to promote a feminist discussion that is representative of, and responsive to, these intersections of oppressions: a feminist movement for all women.

After all, this is a conversation of many voices. Go Feminist was set up by activists for activists. In the spirit of representing the multifaceted concerns of feminists, we have garnered most of our workshop and panel ideas from suggestions received. The conversations are not set in stone: we believe that we need to create spaces for honest sharing and learning so that we see how our feminist action connects across and within different locations to make women’s equality reality. It is through a wider, more holistic examination of our lived realities that the richness of our movement can be realised and genuine alliances forged.

We are by no means a singular voice crying out for a more representative picture of our movement. Women have been raising these issues for many years. Currently in the States is a campaign, led by men against all white male panels. They too understand that a lack of in the diversity of opinion makes for a stagnant conversation. It means the same ideas are worked over. Go Feminist recognises that ensuring our spaces reflect this philosophy is not easy. However, this is not enough of a justification for the failure of attempt that we have sometimes seen. We ourselves are by no means beyond criticism. For example, all parts of our venue are not fully accessible. Although this is the result of financial constraints, we nevertheless agree that it is not good enough and will ensure this does not happen again. In future, all spaces we use will be fully accessible.

We need to shift and broaden our gaze to reconfigure the terrain of what is feminist, to look up and see the interconnectedness of our world. We live in a world of interlocking hierarchies and oppressions. It must be part of our feminist mission to dismantle this. Go Feminist actively works to combat ableism, ageism, class privilege, heteronormativity and homophobia, rascim, sexism, transphobia and all other forms of discrimination and prejudice. Please join us on 4th February for a day where we can share ideas and create change.

Tickets are now available on a sliding scale from £0-£50, depending on what you can afford, at www.gofeminist.org.uk.

 Adunni Adams, Caroline Varin, Chitra Nagarajan, Giordy Bunting, Ilse Morgensen, Kate Rowley, Lola Okolosie, Mary Bonett, Sandhya Sharma, Shannon Harvey and Charmaine Elliott.