Session 6a: India Indefatigable
Chair: Mustafa Abdalla
Gender and Religion: Exploring Sexuality in Globalized India
Department of Sociology, Faculty department of Women’s Studies, Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow, India
With globalization and liberalization the Indian society is undergoing socio-economic change. Discussing sex and sexuality is no more a taboo. Media flashes image of modern educated middle class women as the new woman, the liberal woman who is ready to explore and experiment. Liberalism has got associated, with notion of ‘empowerment’. Media has linked globalization and liberalization of economy with the ‘globalization of body’. But the question remains whose empowerment?
Paradoxical though it may seem, changes have certainly taken place but yet things remain the same. Female embodiment still remains located in the ‘traditional’ image, which mirrors social relations. The persona of Indian woman is still ambivalent, located in myth and popular culture, as powerful and to be worshipped yet their sexuality can be dangerous and destructive and so needs to be controlled. Female Sexuality only circumscribed within marriage and with the main aim of procreation is acceptable. The body of single woman is dangerous and likely to be polluted.
Thus the institution of marriage then results in the containment of the woman’s body, at the expense of her personal freedom and autonomy. Fertility through marriage is auspicious as it exemplifies duty, while sexuality is potentially dangerous. Even in conjugal relations duty governs desire and pleasure. Despite possibilities, agency might remain limited, as they have themselves internalized the ideology of ideal Indian womanhood with virtue of chastity.
The contours and mechanisms of global system have aggravated latent cleavages of communalism and casteism and resulted in hardening of identities. Women’s body has been taken over by the community to establish and legitimize its image in society as can be seen in the recent hue and cry over the screening of film ‘fire’, dress codes for women in premier educational institutions, violence on woman’s body in communal and caste conflicts as symbolic gestures of punishment.
The aim of this paper is to show how in globalized India, the ideology of women as carriers of tradition still governs the lives of both men and women through socio-religious practices and disguise, mitigate and contest actual changes taking place. It would show how we make women responsible for ‘attracting’ and ‘provoking’ sexual assault.
Despite being the land of Kamasutra, exploring sexuality for pleasure, especially for women is still morally incorrect. It would also try to locate how women’s body not only remains site of violence, exclusion but also site for agency and negotiation. It would also try to analyze how for modern Indian women conflict rather than passivity governs whether or not she is able to give expression to her sexuality. Finally it would not only try to contextualize the role ‘purity and pollution’ in governing female sexuality but also critique the role of globalization and media in objectifying the same.
Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Woman
Centre of English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
Are all coming-of-age stories the same? Are Indian “homosexual” rituals of passage different in kind from Indian “heterosexual” ones? Will “Indian” lesbians come of age, into knowledge (and hopefully wisdom and happiness) in the same way as, say “West-Indian” lesbians?
This paper will try to map the creative topography of Indian lesbian writing, (problematising both “Indian” and “lesbian” in the process,) via select authors and texts, by examining the various rituals of passage the lesbian Indian heroine undergoes. To this end, I will consider a variety of narratives, including the explicitly lesbian ones of writers like Suniti Namjoshi and Abha Dawesar to name but two authors in the field (and whose literary debuts are separated by a few decades), as well as less explicitly lesbian narratives of writers like Manju Kapur, Kamala Das and Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, in addition to several other less-fictionalised narratives of coming into (sexual) knowledge, and cinematic texts like Fire.
By way of this rather variegated set of representations, I shall try to define the various Bildungsroman structures that are emerge in lesbian Indian texts, comparing these with a few “canonical” lesbian texts from other cultures, mostly Western, that feature dis/similar rituals of passage to understand better the imagined community of desire these texts script, a community of desire that, I argue, has been possible both in spite of India, and because of India (the title of one of Namjoshi’s works). Some of the questions the paper will ask are: Where is this writing to be located, both geographically and imaginatively? How are cultural specificities, especially those to do with sexuality and desire, coded in these texts? And above all, what are the consequences, for the larger project of decanonising eros, of the often overwhelmingly diasporic locations of lesbian Indian literature? What is the nature of the possibilities that their utopian moments of passage hold out for the retriangulation of eros, to use Terry Castle’s phrase? Or are these utopias too evanescent for any real coming of age to happen? In other words, is the lesbian Indian woman’s staking of her claim to sexual and creative autonomy validated by these narratives, and if so, to what extent? Thus, this paper will examine the contours of this portrait of the Indian lesbian as it gradually “comes out” into our ken.
Mundane Prostitutes and Divine Wives: the Sexual Economy of India, 1600-1800
International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, The Netherlands
The prostitutes and devadasis were some of the women who belonged to the world of entertainment in medieval India. Whereas the former were recognised more for their bodily attraction, with an addition of talents and elegance, the latter were nityasumangali (ever-married) on account of being devoted to the temple deity. Prostitution, as a profession, was inseparably associated with professional entertainers and they were perceived as a product of feudal society. And as far as Medieval Indian period is concerned, the women employed in this profession combined it with a large number of other skills, such as dancing, singing, and so forth. At another front, the devadasi’s were assigned specific duties in the temple but when temple as an institution started expanding and by twelfth century became ritually complex, it began to resemble the king’s court, and the devadasi’s relation to the deity approximated a courtesans’ relation to the king. The ‘scared prostitutes’ gradually became the custodian of the arts of singing and dancing. The efficacy of devadasi as a woman and dancer began to converge with the efficacy of temple as living centre of religious / social life in all its political/ commercial and cultural aspects. Crucially a woman-dedicated status made it a symbol of social prestige that is the economic /professional benefits were considerable and most importantly not lacking in social honour.
This research paper argues that the sexual aspects of the prostitutes’/devadasis’ reproductive labour is (a) detached from its procreative adjunct; (b) subjected to a network of commercial relations. Thus these professions belonged to the world of entertainment and were more expression of sexual politics- of oppression and male domination rather than an alternative society. Even though the labour of such entertainers was deeply integrated with other forms of entertainment in medieval society and there had been no hesitation in using the fruits of their labour, they have been looked down upon in society. For performing so crucial a role in society, they were treated with almost no respect and dignity by the society in return.