While sexual violence is an area that is well mapped by feminist scholarship, this volume
focuses on transgressive and marginalized sexualities. It brings together writings on India
that highlight the transgression of norms-of heterosexuality, of feminine and masculine
behaviour, of recognizably gendered bodies-that declare ungoverned desire to be
illegitimate. Sexualities also includes a selection of campaign documents from diverse
sexuality movements in the country.
About the Author
Nivedita Menon is a feminist scholar and political theorist who has published widely
in Indian and international academic journals. She is currently reader in the Department of
Political Science, University of Delhi. She is the author of Recovering Subversion: Feminist
Politics beyond the Law (University of Illinois Press and permanent Black, 2004) and the
editor of Gender and Politics in India (Oxford University Press, 1999). Menon has been
involved in a wide range of political and social movements, especially against the rise of
sectarian politics and the mass displacement of workers.
I ssues in Contemporary Indian Feminism is a series that is premised on the need for an
overview of the substantial writing available on a variety of issues in Indian feminism.
Each individual volume will relate to an issue of some moment, specifically one on which
there has been a wide variety of views and positions. The mapping of these complex and often
contentious issues- around 'feminism' itself, caste, dowry and inheritance, censorship and
media representation, to name the topics of the first few volumes-is intended to serve as a
point of entry and guide to what might be unfamiliar territory to some; to those closer
home, themselves perhaps participants in these debates, they would indicate some of the
shifts in the direction various feminist debates have undergone.
With these volumes we hope to construct a long overdue archive of writings relating
to gender issues in India. The materials have been selected from a large mass of several
decades of feminist writing scattered in journals and books, pamphlets, manifestos, speeches
and official documents. By bringing them within the covers of a single volume, we hope to
provide handy reference to otherwise hard to access resources. The series is therefore
particularly intended to serve the needs of research scholars, teachers in Women's Studies
courses, and activists. These collections will at the same time, we hope, bring to
prominence a substantial, complex and important body of feminist writing that is closely
related to the issues tackled by the women's movement in India. Viewed in this way, it
becomes evident that these engagements, at once topical and far-sighted, make a major
contribution to global feminist theory.
The editors of the individual volumes are experts in their areas. Their introductory
essays will provide an overview of the debate discourse on each topic, identify its
landmarks, and offer a distinctive perspective on the theoretical tendencies that determine
its frames of reference. The selections are based on implicit criteria, such as the
influence a work may have exerted on subsequent thought or policy, its representation of a
prominent trend, the contribution it makes to a particular debate, or its intrinsic
Introduction Nivedita Menon
Tempted away from grey complexity to the drama of stark contrast, one could title this
volume Sexuality in Indian Feminism: from Violence to Desire. It would not be entirely off
the mark. The 'second wave' on Indian feminism in the 1980s appears to have crested with
making visible sexuality in the public arena in the form of heterosexual violence on women,
seeking and attaining legal remedies of different kinds (Agnes 1992). Through the 1990s
though, and into the first years of the new century, sexuality began to appear in feminist
politics and scholarship in a variety of forms, still concerned with sexual violence
certainly, but increasingly recast as desire goi9ng beyond the bounds of
Feminists continue to write, theorise and agitate about sexuality in terms of
reproductive health, rape and domestic violence, caste and communal conflict worked out on
the bodies of women, ;state violence that takes the form of sexual assaults by army and
police, and about the more quotidian forms of gender-violence a manifested in sexual
harassment, especially in the work-place (Omvedt 1990; Gandhi and Shah 1991; Jayawardene and
de Alwis 1996; IAWS 2001; Saheli et al. 2003; Saheli nd.). Feminist scholarship on Partition
has focused on the question of 'abducted women' and the manner in which both State and
community were destabilized by, and attempted to contain or live with, the sexuality of
these women that fitted into neither conventional narratives of citizenship nor of community
(Butalia 2000; Menon and Bhasian 1998; Das 1995.
Apart from feminist scholars, international NGOs have produced reams of reports on
the issue. Much of this work is framed in the rubric provided by United Nations agencies,
that of Violence Against Women (VAW) which is described by UNICEF, for example, as one of
the most serious forms of gender-based discrimination in South Asia, arising from
'deep-seated and unconscious perceptions that value women less than men.' UNICEF provides a
list of what VAW in South Asia includes-female infanticide, dowry deaths, acid attacks,
trafficking for prostitution, honour killings, rape and wife-battering (UNICEF 2001).
However, it might be necessary to question the analytical and political usefulness of
placing such a wide range of 'sexual' and Non-sexual' manifestations of patriarchal
structures and ideologies under a single term-Violence-particularly when South Asian
societies manifest an equal degree of violence against ethnic and religious minorities,
lower castes and the poor, often with women as the agents or inciters of violence. A related
question is whether the framework of 'rights' in which International NGO and much feminist
discourse is framed, is useful or appropriate to address all these issues (Menon 2004).
These are not however, questions we will address here.
While acknowledging that sexual violence is one significant form in which sexuality
manifests itself for women, precisely because this is an area that is well mapped by
feminist scholarship, what this volume intends to do is to frame the field of sexuality in
such a way as to focus on transgressive and/or marginalized sexualities. We will here turn
the focus to writings that have highlighted the transgression of norms-norms of
heterosexuality, of feminine and transgression of norms-norms of heterosexuality, of
feminine and masculine behaviour, of recognizably gendered bodies, norms that declare
ungoverned desire to be illegitimate.
What do we mean by the term 'sexuality'? In one of the earliest collections of
Indian feminist work on sexuality, the editors Mary John and Janaki Nair refute the idea
that sexuality is 'a question of silence'. Following Foucault, they argue that 'A focus on
the conspiracy of silence regarding sexuality in India, whether within political and social
movements or in scholarship, blinds us to the multiple sites where "sexuality" has long been
embedded. In the spheres of law, demography or medicine, for instance, sexuality enjoys a
massive and indisputable presence that is far from prohibited' (John and Nair 1998: 1). And
yet, in order to move away from these realms in which sexuality enjoys a 'safe public
existence', John and Nair suggest that we think of sexuality, not as signifying biological
genitality, but as connoting 'a way of addressing sexual relations, their spheres of
legitimacy and illegitimacy, through the institutions and practices, as well as the
discourses and forms of representation, that have long been producing, framing, distributing
and controlling the subject of "sex" (John and Nair 1998: 7).
Many of the papers in that volume, as well as John and Nair's introduction, draw
attention to discourses of control of sexuality, both by the state and non-state patriarchal
institutions. For instance, the editors note:
it is not enough to discover the variety of
instances and historical moments when the intemperate and unpredictable force of female
sexuality was so named in order to be subjected to institutions of containment. What is
needed is a better sense of the specific and historically mutable sites where such modes of
incitement and control were deployed, and an exploration of how women and men were being
sexualized and desexualized in the process' (John and Nair 1998: 9).
Technologies of surveillance and laws of prohibition are indeed central to
understanding sexuality, and determine what will be termed as sexuality at all. But it is
also imperative to note that such forms of control and hygience, including the 'cleaning up'
of uncontrollable forms of sexuality, come with modernity and the values that accompany
it-progress, the inevitability of historical forms, the language of rights. Thus, while the
language of rights did enable many subaltern sections against indigenous elites, this
language was not uniformly empowering, and had devastating consequences for many other,
equally subaltern groups who were drastically marginalized and disciplined by these new
codes, norms and forms of identity.
Therefore, when John and Nair dismiss as 'yearning for a "golden age," or as
'narratives of decline', feminist analyses that see colonial practices as homogenizing a
rich array of familial and sexual practices (1998: 11-12), they seem to miss the point. It
is misleading, I suggest, to read the argument of such feminist work as being about
pre-colonial/pre-modern India-as arguing that it was a golden age or a haven of justice for
the weak and marginalized. It is more revealing to read this work as being, rather, about
modernity; leading us to the realization that the values of modernity have not been
unambiguously emancipatory, have often eradicated spaces of relative autonomy, and produced
new forms of subjection. Or to put in the words of Ashis Nandy (1983: ix-x)
Faced with an idea of history in which that which comes later in time is necessarily
'better' and 'more progressive' than what came before, one must ask the question with Walter
Benjamin-with whom do the adherents of this historicism actually empathise?
To accept what comes later in time as necessarily 'better' is in other words, to
assume the moral superiority of the tendencies that were victorious. Such a view of history
prevents us from seeing that 'There is no document of civilization which is not at the same
time a document of barbariam' (Benjamin 1968).
It is impossible to engage with what is called 'sexuality' in contemporary India
without recognizing its passage through the complexity of the practices that were
homogenized under the sign of Modernity. It is equally important to insist that this kind of
scholarship is not an 'indigenist' critique of 'the West'-that is, what is at issue is not
discourses of Place, but of Time. We must therefore, revisit an older terrain of debate
before we move on.
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