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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