A digital magazine on sexuality in the Global South
Anthology Issue Jan 2020CategoriesIssue In Focus

Community And Sexuality: Learning A Politics Of Unbelonging

After writing the words “Community and Sexuality” as the working title of this piece, I attempted to begin writing many times, but kept getting stuck at “community” and its meaning. I kept coming back to this common phrase that we hear often in conversations, “hamare yahaan…”, “hum logon mein…”,[1] or the many variations of the same. To me the act and ability to say these phrases comes from that sense of a community, and a belonging to it. And as I thought about this further, I came to see why it was becoming so difficult for me to write. These are phrases that I do not use. Often because they just don’t apply and mainly because they create a notion of othering which fractures a larger sense of community. Dr Ambedkar referred to this larger sense of community as fraternity, in the Constitution, and said that it was crucial for the idea of a nation in a society divided by caste. I do not believe in the concept of “a” nation but I do believe in something else uniting us in a sense of community beyond the accident of our birth.

As I thought further, I attempted to understand the reasons why I do not feel part of any of the communities that I naturally inherited through birth. These communities are marked by many things – the food we eat, the dialect of the language used, the rites and rituals we observe, to name a few. Being born, in times when there were fewer assertions around matters of dominant culture, to a newly migrant, non Brahmin savarna, middle class, upwardly mobile, liberal family, I find that some of these norms around food, language, and rituals were broken to a limited extent. Yet there was still a sense of community.

The real rupture happened with my evolving political understanding that we exist in a society where communities are not only thought of as different from each other, but are necessarily part of graded hierarchies. Our belonging and affinity to the community are forged on commonly understood and continuously transmitted notions of these hierarchies of caste and religion. We are never allowed to forget these in all our social interactions. Who is above “us” and who is below “us” is quickly ascertained because that decides all our interactions. The dominant gain much social capital from feeling part of the community, while those more marginalised may identify with their “own” because vulnerability demands that they stay together.

My queer and feminist political engagements further underlined the fact that for such communities, purity is very important and is maintained by control over gender and sexuality norms. For maintaining the purity of the community, reproductive sex has to be controlled. To control that, all sex other than peno-vaginal penetrative sex is made illegal. Simultaneously, through social mechanisms, the sexuality of child-bearing bodies, bodies of those assigned the female gender are controlled so as to maintain the hierarchical pyramidical structure of society.

The pyramid has its own rules. So while the heterosexual monogamous relationship between able-bodied adults lived in a marriage that abides by the requisite caste, class, and religious norms is most privileged, punishments for breaking of norms of caste and religion are not symmetric. The marriage between a dominant caste man and a woman from a marginalised caste is tolerated, but that between a dominant caste woman and a man from the marginalised caste can even incite the murder of both. Thus the interlinkage of different hierarchies co-constitutes them both.

The strange thing is that the ways of control are fairly similar across most communities. In the many workshops on sexuality that some of us conduct, one of the things that we ask is what the societal understanding of a good woman and a bad woman is. And across generations, regions, language, and caste, we find a broad understanding of the “good woman” as someone who is known to have “good” sexual behaviour, that which helps keep the social pyramid intact. And of course simultaneously constructed, is the “bad woman”.

Patriarchy also demands that the “good” man’s goodness is defined more or less by his moral and ethical standards. If at all gender or sexuality is invoked, it is in the context of him satisfying his gender roles within the family and towards his wife and children and parents, and the larger community, and the nation, in that order. Depending on their social status, men may also manage to escape the wrath of society even if they break the norms – obviously the one with social capital wins through punishing the marginalised. So if a man comes from a particular community he is characterised as effeminate and the “weak other” or hypersexual and the “aggressive other”.

For women, the higher their community is in the hierarchy, the greater is its control on them – a control maintained through a system of rewards and punishments. If they follow the norms they have status. They may or not have safety, but they will definitely have some access to an inherited social capital. If on the other hand they defy the norms then there shall be attempts to confine, restrict and malign. And if they break them, then they could face the fury of the community through its extra legal communal organisations like the khap, or through the ‘love filled’ protective custody of the family. Communities from the margins do the same to “their women” particularly because men from the dominant communities mark them as sexually available.

Most importantly, we all learn through the silences what is not to be said. We learn that the facade has to conform to the norm. There may be many ways of living life but so long as no one talks, no one knows. More than the actual breaking of the norm, publicly talking about or acknowledging the break is frowned upon. And that is why, in a country in which there is quantified national data on the number of men having sex with men, a Supreme Court judge can ask in full seriousness, if there really are homosexuals in this country, and another can ignore them as a “miniscule minority”. And that is why the public hounding of inter-religious and intercaste couples happens when they are seen in public spaces. Those who have access to private spaces or those many upper caste men who prey on women from marginalised castes, are never to be questioned.

It is this understanding of community, sexuality, and gender that has made me distant from most notions of communities that got assigned to me at birth. My politics demanded an alignment with my life, and as my personal life choices were almost always against the norms of society, this was the default option. As one moved away and tried to make communities of choice, however, there were newer lessons to be learnt.

Some such communities were those that were made by people who came together as queer, people with non-normative gender and sexuality choices, those that had dared to speak, to name themselves, to live in the open and others whose lives were made public by circumstances not in their control. Many had lost their birth assigned communities, their social capital (if they had it in the first place), the sense of security and of belonging, and had to take the punishments, the banishing, the guilt of being termed selfish and uncaring (even though they were the ones left with nothing), all because they were being true to themselves. Their journeys began alone but then some did find others and new communities got formed – communities of the outliers.

But when these newly formed collectives, who called themselves “community”, started using the language of “hamare yahaan…” through articulations of who the ‘real’ trans was, how the butch should behave, what the norms of coupledom were or ought to be, or even the more painful examples of asking for the ‘right’ kind of caste and class match for a date or for matrimony, or when social spaces began to demand dress codes, or pride marches required ‘acceptable’ dress, behaviour, posters, slogans, politics… then one began wondering, yet again, who was this community? It definitely was not any different from that which had maintained the structures of inequality and hierarchy in the larger society around. This community of those outcast by other communities was not so different after all.

And this surely gives us a new understanding of both community and sexuality. Norms are made, apparently, to bring order and are maintained by the fear of anarchy. But the making of norms excludes people and demands loyalty. Community and sexuality, both, cannot be about norms, they are about values and politics. A new vision of both can arise only when we think about them non-normatively.

[1] Loosely translates as ‘amongst us people’

Cover Image: CC BY-SA 2.0

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Article written by:

Chayanika Shah (chayanikashah@gmail.com) is an optimist activist at heart, a physicist by training and a teacher by choice. She has campaigned, researched, taught and written on politics of population control, communalism, feminist studies of science, and sexuality. She has been an active member of two autonomous voluntary collectives in Mumbai – Forum Against Oppression of Women and LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective. Her co-authored books include, 'No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy', 'Bharat Ki Chaap' (a companion book for the documentary of the same name), and 'We and Our Fertility: The Politics of Technological Intervention'.

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