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Picture of feminist activist Pramada Menon, she ihas short hair and is wearing a maroon kurta, black waistcoat and a red dupatta
CategoriesFamily and SexualityInterview

Interview: Pramada Menon: Why do families occupy so much of our headspace?

Pramada Menon is a queer feminist activist who ponders about all matters she thinks are complex. When not pondering and procrastinating, she works as a consultant on issues of gender and sexuality and women’s rights, and occasionally performs Fat, Feminist and Free, a freewheeling look at body image, sexuality and life.

Radhika Chandiramani: ‘The family’. What do you think about it, Pramada?

Pramada Menon: Why do families occupy so much of our headspace? Why do we obsessively want our families to understand us, support us and be aware of our every thought? Is it because we are taught that these biological families are us and we are them? What if we weren’t ever taught who our parents are, who our aunts and uncles are, who our siblings are – would we still feel a deep attachment to them and look to them for approval? I ask this because almost always, we are asked to place family first in everything and the notion of family is clearly defined as the biological one – a birth mother, a father whose paternity is not in question, and siblings who were conceived by these parents. In recent times, that notion of biological family has slowly begun to change because of adoption, reproductive technology and surrogacy. But at the heart of it still lies the notion of a family unit that is guided by maternal or paternal ‘instincts’. This family is protective, caring, loving, supportive but also punishing if and when it is challenged or when some one transgresses.

RC: Do you see the family as an ally or as an institution in opposition to personal sexual freedom?

PM: The rules and regulations within most of our families are derived from the world which we inhabit, the customs of the clan or community we come from, the learning that may have caused many of us to challenge the codes that have been handed down to us. And transgressions within the family are bound to happen because each one of us is very different from the other and has a different set of understandings of the world around us, and we interact with the world on terms that we may have defined.

It is this family that provides to its members a set of rules they have to adhere to in terms of their body and the expressing of their sexuality. These rules are codified, at least in the heads of the patriarchs of the family and breaking the rules completely is not an easy task. The rules when looked at are very simple and adhere to the rule book that society/culture hands out to everyone: marriage within socially sanctioned caste/religious/social status groupings, preferably arranged; child bearing after marriage; no sexual experimentation in childhood or youth; no having boyfriends or girlfriends and most definitely no romantic or sexual relationship with someone of the same gender. This is just the one set of rules. All the others either precede this or follow soon after – the clothes one can wear, where one can go, what one can do in public, the hours one can be outside of the house etc. These rules are restrictive and challenging them or breaking them almost always results in definite loss of personhood, and in extreme cases, a loss of life. If a person is disabled in anyway, the rules are far more stringent and controlling. And of course this discourse almost always ignores the consent of the individual within the family.

Sexuality is complicated… more so because our decisions about it are individual decisions. These decisions are guided by our understandings of what is acceptable to us and what is not and influenced by the spaces we occupy in the community, our education and the values we grew up with when younger. Much of that also changes with time because of our interactions with people around us, the films we watch, the books we read, the visuals we are exposed to and the histories we are part of.

What I find interesting is how so much of our ideas around sexuality are guided by the information that we received in our childhood years and most often the main influence at that time is the family. This family interprets what is allowed or not in ways that best suit the stability of the institution of the family. They are not wilfully looking at curtailing the freedom of the members of the family, but are just trying to keep the social institution alive and ‘pure’. By ‘pure’ I mean that families do not really want to expose themselves to a world which would critique them or find them wanting. And hence all the monitoring of activities, behaviour, thoughts and actions.

RC: There are also rules about keeping quiet about some things…

PM: Families find sexuality threatening, especially when expressed by young people outside the trimmings of socially acceptable ways. And yet the issue of abuse is hardly ever raised within families since the perpetrator almost always is someone the family knows. Instances of abuse of both girls and boys remain taboo to speak about, and the person responsible for the non-consensual act will, very often, continue to get access to the family member who was violated. I do not think the silence around abuse has to do with disbelief in the story of the victim, but more to do with shame and a reluctance to make the story public in case blame is placed on the victim.

Many families also keep a closet in their homes into which goes all stories of what they see as ‘deviant’ behaviour. Those quietly public and yet closeted stories of the gay son, the lesbian daughter, the bisexual uncle, the male cousin who was ‘feminine’ in his behaviour, the cousin who married out of community, the grandmother who walked out on her first husband, the ‘spinster’ aunt, the relative who ‘plays’ with children – the list is endless. These stories maybe privately acknowledged but every effort is made to hide them deep within family history.

RC: Do you find that your own understanding about the family has changed over time?

PM: As one grows older, one better understands one’s own family’s censorship around issues of sexuality. Part of that has to do with the fact that our own interactions with society, people and institutions around us push us to relook at the ways in which we define ourselves as sexual beings. The other part of it is that many of us have reworked our own understanding of families to alter the character of it and include within it, members who may not be typically seen as family.

RC: Nowadays, neither is marriage nor procreation essential and they also do not necessarily have to go together. Can we have families that are not predicated on sex? A friendship family?

PM: We now live in a world, where diverse family structures are being created everyday. Gone are the days of biologically born children, marriages that are solely conducted through parental approval, families that are constructed on the premise of marriage. What has changed is the way people want to interact with people around them, their intimates, those who share a common world view and those willing to push and challenge supposed social and cultural norms. This has led to new partnerships and new formations. People of diverse sexual preferences and gender identities live together in intimate and sexual relationships without any legal sanction being sought (and in some cases, of it being sought and won). Friends create their own support group based on love, caring and some sharing of responsibilities. These families destabilize the conventional notion of ‘the family’. Moving away from the traditional notion, these formations force us to reconsider what we understand as family and who we exclude and who we include within it. They also challenge all understood norms of ‘purity’ and make it irrelevant because these families are created on the basis of love and understanding rather than the social norms of class, caste, religion etc.

RC: What is your own notion of ‘family’?

PM: My idea of a family always extended far beyond the biologically given family. I also did not really look for approval from the family because to me, the values instilled in me while growing up were what helped me in challenging all existing notions of right and wrong as per social and culturally laid down norms. My parents grew up with me because they were challenged by me constantly on all issues of sexuality, and they in turn, because they loved me, allowed themselves to learn. I fought but also learnt when to back off. Family for me has always meant my parents, my siblings and my friends who are there to love, support and care for me just as I do for them.

In today’s world, all of us need to relook at what we understand as family. It’s a new age, a technological age. One can have children without ever having intercourse. One needs a laboratory and a petri dish rather than sex! There was a time when love was forever and death do us part, now parting happens for a variety of reasons and very few have to do with death. Our ideas of intimacy have changed with the use of the Internet, our ideas of love have altered, in today’s world siblings are adopted or are our friends, parents can consist of a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, two men and a woman, and so on – why then do we find it difficult to reconstruct our notions of family? Maybe if we allowed ourselves to imagine, we could dream of different permutations and combinations to create our own family and then maybe we will learn to be happy with our biological one, and also look for support and caring and understanding from the non-biological one. That to me would be the new age!

To read this interview in Hindi, click here.

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Article written by:

Trained as a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Radhika founded TARSHI in 1996. She has co-edited 'Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and Southeast Asia' (Sage, 2005) and authored the popular 'Good Times for Everyone: Sexuality Questions, Feminist Answers'.

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