Why Can't Women Love Women?
It has been a difficult journey for lesbians in India, marked by ridicule, rejection and violence. In a homophobic society, these women who choose to chart a different path pay a price for it - some with their lives. All because they dare to fulfill their desire to love other women.
In a society that decrees heterosexuality as the norm, it is this unacceptability - which often manifests in violent responses - that keeps lesbian women invisible and in fear, say members of OLAVA (Organized Lesbian Action for Visibility and Action), a Pune-based lesbian group.
According to OLAVA members, homophobia pervades all spheres of society. "The realization of being a lesbian is something that we repress within ourselves because we are socialized to believe that lesbians are unnatural, abnormal, unacceptable and worthy only of contempt. It is a realization that brings with it the fear of social ostracism - far too heavy a burden for a single person to face in the absence of a visible lesbian community to turn to for solidarity and support," they say.
Set up about two years ago, OLAVA is an exclusive space for lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people. Members meet once a month and also have a monthly potluck lunch which is open to members' friends. Once a year they organize an event which is open to all friends and is hosted with contribution from friends. It has a resource and documentation centre and functions as a support group. One of its important areas of work is to raise awareness about the issue.
The struggle is not only to give visibility to this marginalized group, but also to begin a concerted action for freedom. Sats Sheba, "Our name, OLAVA, broadly means 'tenderness' in Marathi. It conveys some of our struggle. The struggle for visibility is forced upon us like it is forced upon other marginalized groups that 'don't exist' or are irrelevant in the popular imagination, in history, law, government or social life. The stigma and hatred attached to our sexuality is so great that it forces us to go underground."
Adds Chatura a founder member, "The severe backlash on the film 'Fire' (which showed a lesbian relationship), made us realize that it is not safe to be invisible. Visibility, we felt, is the only amnesty." Dispelling the myth that homosexuality is 'abnormal', OLAVA members maintain that it is far more prevalent than people think it is, and it is morality that renders it invisible.
The journey to OLAVA has marked the culmination of a personal search to find harmony within oneself. Says Chatura, "Growing up, for me, has been a discovery that there are certain aspects of yourself that are not socially acceptable. We have felt close to women but did not explore a relationship beyond a point because of various factors."
In an attempt to follow the social norm, some have been involved in relationships with men, but did not find them fulfilling. However when they explored relationships with women the experience was "powerful and beautiful". But then, point out OLAVA members, there was also a sense of guilt. The experience, they say, led many of them to question why something so beautiful is considered wrong.
Why is loving a woman considered abnormal, unnatural and immoral? Why is it perceived as a threat to the family? The answer, according to OLAVA, lies in a patriarchal social structure. Controlling a woman's sexuality is necessary because it establishes a clear and unambiguous lineage of male
progeny. It is this questioning and the desire to chart new paths that synthesized the group. However, it is not the struggle for sexual liberation alone that is on OLAVA's agenda. What sets the group apart is its larger perspective of joining hands with other progressive movements. "It is important to be different and yet ally with others. That is the strength of OLAVA. We ally with Dalits, people's movements and minorities. Unless we understand oppression per se we can't break barriers," says Chatura.
Some of the issues concerning lesbian women were articulated in a paper presented at OLAVA's first anniversary in Pune: "Whether it is living alone or with your partner, getting housing, health care and insurance, all are complicated and often frustrating. All official documents unfailingly require us to be attached to a man - father or husband - be it the ration card or passport. We are invisible to policymakers and economists who consider the heterosexual family unit as the norm."
OLAVA points out that even the law denies them rights of domestic partnerships like common property, inheritance, maintenance, insurance, pensions, debts, mortgage loans and social benefits. 'Next of kin' privileges in the event of terminal illness, accident or death are also not recognized.
Another issue is the denial of childbearing and rearing rights, since lesbians are considered 'unfit' for adoption (as single parents and as partners) as well as custody of children. Many lesbian mothers have to live with the fear that their children will be separated from them by their ex-husbands using their 'immoral and illegal relationship' to prove that they are unfit for child rearing.
In addition, the legal system does not protect lesbian and bisexual women. Instead, regressive laws such as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code violate their rights by criminalizing some forms of sexual expression. This section punishes anybody who has 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature', and considers only penile-vaginal penetration as 'natural'.
A major area of concern is the oppressive social structure and violent opposition to lesbian love that drives many young women to commit suicide. Two girl students at Nanavati College (Mumbai) committed suicide in September 1998 because their parents were opposed to their relationship. In
October 1998, two young women from Hulipur village in Orissam signed a notarized "Deed of Agreement for Partnership as well as to remain Life Partner". Four days later, they consumed poison and left a joint suicide note that no one should be held responsible for their death.
But then, ask OLAVA members, "is no one really responsible for driving them to commit suicide? Society makes it so difficult for lesbians to live together that they seek liberation in death. Bina Wankhede and Nandita Gaekwad had only one wish as they tied their hands and threw themselves in front of a moving train...that they be burnt together on a same funeral pyre. "For every reported death there are many more which go unreported," says Chatura.
"Many women find it difficult to align with our movement because it will bring 'disrepute'", says members. Chatura notes, "People who call us selfish are those who enjoy the privileges of this system - upper class, upper caste men. Calling us selfish is writing off our basic need to live with dignity and seek pleasure."
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||This is a very informative and well written article, but can someone please provide a contact person to get in touch with Olava member as I am very much in need of help.||