A Language for Love
Late 2005, at a small press conference in Delhi, a significant moment in the history of the Queer movement in India went almost unnoticed. A Hindi translation of 'Rights for All: Ending Discrimination Against Queer Desire Under Section 377' - a report published by Voices Against 377, a Delhi-based coalition of NGOs working on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues, and women and child rights - was released. 'Adhikaar hon sab ke liye - Dhara 377 ke tehet yonikta-adharith bhed-bhav ko khatm karne ki ore' is by no means the first such report. Indeed, over the years, the now nation-wide Queer movement in India has produced a significant amount of material. What makes this report unique is that it is the first of its kind in Hindi.
'Adhikaar hon' carries testimonies of human rights violations of people with same-sex desires; and perspectives on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (the colonial anti-sodomy law) from the women's movement, child rights and human rights NGOs, groups working on HIV/AIDS and other civil society groups.
The Hindi translation - by virtue of the language itself - performs three crucial functions.
Firstly, it responds to the most commonly voiced objection to social movements concerned with sexuality, and with same-sex desire in particular - that they talk of something 'western', something apparently alien to 'Indian culture'. This has in the past been the basis for violent attacks carried out by the Hindu rightwing (for example, when the Shiv Sena attacked theatres screening the film 'Fire'). It has also been the basis on which successive governments have refused to accept that Section 377 violates basic fundamental rights.
The argument is that 'Indian society does not approve of homosexuality', and therefore, that 'these people' cannot be given basic rights of equality, life and freedom of expression. And one aspect of this argument has been that these terms - gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender etc - have no counterparts in 'Indian' languages.
Now this argument can be, and has been countered on a range of levels. To begin with, the mere absence of a word for 'gay' does not mean that there is no same sex desire and love; there has been same sex love long before the term 'homosexual' was coined in the late-19th century. Then again, English is an Indian language, one that has been spoken here for over two centuries, and which interacts with other Indian languages in complex ways. We do not, for instance, question the need for formal education simply because the word 'school' is English.
And, importantly, it is untrue that languages such as Hindi do not have terms for same-sex desire. Historically, in literature over the centuries, in art and sculpture, in the Hindu 'scriptures' and even in the sciences, there has been a recognition of not just same-sex desire, but of a correlation between desire and personhood. Particular literary and cultural practices have had a range of words to describe same-sex lovers and relationships - the examples of the 'dogana' and 'zanakhi' being two such from the Rekhti tradition in Urdu poetry. And at an everyday, colloquial level, the words 'sakhi' and 'masti ' are commonly used to describe same-sex relationships between women and boys, respectively. Then of course is the plethora of idioms and metaphors that are contained in the realm of 'gaali', or abuses. The gaandu, chhakka, laundebaaz, are all homoerotic references. Or consider the biggest insult to the masculine - that of 'wearing bangles' (choodiyaan pehen-na).
While not all of these examples reflect that gender non-conformity and same sex desire are 'accepted', what they establish is that these concepts and experiences are not alien to Indian languages. That is to say, expressions in Indian languages other than English are richly homoerotic, or related to gender and its transgression.
The cultural argument, therefore, does not stand to scrutiny. And 'Rights for All' is the most concrete manifestation of a long-running challenge posed by civil society activists to this myth.
Secondly, this report plays a significant role in filling a particular gap in the discourse around sexuality. Thus far, the minimal material on sexuality in Hindi has been in terms of 'life skills education', reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. All of which have been largely framed either in medical, instrumentalist terms, or worse, in moralistic, fear- and shame-inducing ways.
'Rights for All' negates this trend, and establishes the relationship between sexuality and processes of socio-economic and political marginalization. It calls upon us to recognize our political reality from a 'Queer' perspective - i.e., that the political economy is regulated by the principle of 'hetero-normativity' - where the only recognized economic and social unit is the heterosexual family (constituted of married, procreative couples of the same caste and religion and of opposite genders).
The fact that this report is in Hindi opens up the possibility of understanding and responding to the complex ways in which this principle works at an everyday, local level.
The third important aspect of the Report is the fact that many terms used in English to talk about gender and sexuality cannot be directly translated. The term 'transgender' is a good example. In English, the term is most often used to refer to a very particular life experience, a desire to 'change over' from one gender to another - i.e. the experience of a "woman trapped in a man's body" (and vice versa). This understanding is already based on the presumption that there are only two genders - male and female, and inevitably, that these relate to two 'biological' sexes. This has been recognized as the basic premise of patriarchy - that there are two 'natural' sexes that are radically different from each other and which are expected to fulfill different and particular roles in society.
This understanding is thus a point of tension and debate within the Queer movement, as it does not refer to other experiences and choices of gender non-conformity - i.e. expressions of gender and sexuality that are not bound by the dualisms of male-female and heterosexual-homosexual. But the fact that there is no equivalent word in Hindi has opened up the possibility of understanding gender transgression in a broader, more inclusive manner and also the possibility of understanding gender itself in a more nuanced way. The translation of 'transgender' in the report, for example, is (roughly) "people who are not bound within the definitions of 'man' and 'woman'."
This is significant in at least two ways. First, it allows us to talk about our realities of gender and sexuality without binding ourselves to understandings that have been articulated in Euro-American contexts. Second, it opens up the possibilities for contesting restrictive understandings of sexuality and gender that dominate the politics of development at a global level.
These are all exciting developments that offer much for a wide range of civil society activists and movements. How these developments play out remains to be seen.
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