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CategoriesFreedom and SexualityIssue In Focus

Freedom and an F Word

What do you think of when you put the words freedom and sexuality together? Orgies? Polyamory? Sex with no unwanted consequences? Acceptance of all sorts of sexual desires? The freedom to be free of sex (as in the act, as well as sex as determined by genitals, chromosomes and hormones)? Perhaps you think of all of this, and some more. Do you think of an F word? I do, and I will tell you what it is soon.

Freedom maybe defined in various ways: the state of being free to decide what one wants; to think, speak and act as one wants; and, to not be subjugated or enslaved. So, in effect, we may have the ‘freedom to’ and the ‘freedom from’ x, y, or z. Because both, freedom and sexuality, are vast, complex and evolving concepts, this means different things for different people in different contexts. To look at a simple example, in India itself there are young women who find dates on Tinder or other apps using their cellphones while there are other young women who are not allowed cellphones, leave alone dates.

Be it political, cultural or sexual, those who have freedom take it for granted while those who do not, yearn for it. Our freedoms are fragile (yes, that’s the F word). They can be taken away by a court ruling, a change of government or even by the perception of threat. The LGBT community in India had a brief encounter with freedom in 2009 but lost it again in 2013 as the Supreme Court decided that Section 377 needed to stay in full and not be read down as the Delhi High Court had ruled. That we cannot rely on the Courts to uphold our freedoms is clearly illustrated yet again in the case of 24-year-old Hadiya, where first the Kerala High Court and now the Supreme Court have shown that they may speak the language of dignity but do not understand its true application. As Deya Bhattacharya points out in a Firstpost article, “There has been a blatant violation of Hadiya’s constitutional freedoms under Article 14 (equality before law), Article 19 (1) (d) (freedom to move freely), Article 21 (right to life and dignity) and Article 25 (right to freedom of religion).  Not once, not even yesterday when she was produced in court, did the judiciary treat her as an independent, self-sufficient woman. Not once has the judiciary been able to come to terms with the fact that Hadiya converted to Islam, fell in love and married a man of her own volition. Because identifying this would mean recognising that women have the autonomy to decide for themselves.”

But it is not only in the courts that our freedoms are decided, and upheld or ruled down. It is on the streets, in our schools, in our homes and even in our own minds.

The freedom to think, imagine, fantasise, be curious without guilt – how many of us allow ourselves the luxury of freedom of thought? And this priceless freedom is at stake too. With the proliferation of technology, we should to be free to imagine, to wonder, to chase ideas and churn out new ones, but many people consume the same rubbish in new packaging. And now Google even predicts search terms for us! Are we thinking more freely? Are we expanding our freedoms?

Freedom is fragile. It can be destroyed by knowledge of an event that occurs far away simply by virtue of the fact that if it happened to someone else it can happen to you too. In 2012, the rape and killing of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi sent shock waves throughout the world. People who may not have been able to locate New Delhi on a map heard about it and were outraged. And frightened, if not for themselves, for women in Delhi. More recently, despite its shortcomings, the #Me Too campaign, apparently got 1.7 million tweets in 85 different countries.

Freedom is fragile. Democracy can be destroyed by a dictatorship. Political and civil freedoms can be lost. And so can sexual freedoms. In Argentina, for example, the Equal Marriage Law, legalising same-sex marriage was passed in 2010 and the Gender Identity Law, allowing people to change their gender on their official documents without first undergoing surgery or receiving a psychiatric diagnosis, in 2012. The latter is one of the most progressive gender identity laws in the world. Article 11 of the law is titled “Right to Free Personal Development”. So one would imagine that in Argentina LGBTQ people are treated no differently from anyone else, as well we should. It used to be so. Then the government changed in December 2015 and a right-wing government came to power. The laws have not changed, but homophobia and transphobia are on the rise. Freedom is fragile. Q.E.D.

Our freedoms are limited in various ways by gender, age, class, caste, religion, disability, sexual orientation, rural/urban location, access to monetary resources, and a host of other factors that we may not even be aware of. Abortion, contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, inter-caste or inter-religious coupling, same-sex sexual activity, sex work, all of these can be, and, in fact, in many places in the world are banned, while discrimination against people based on their gender or sexual expression, female genital mutilation, ‘honour killing’, rape, and surgeries on intersex babies, are not. That is why, all over the world, there are attempts to expand freedom – through education, campaigns, lighting up public spaces, making anti-discrimination laws, and even providing sanitary napkins.

However fragile, we must value more and hold on to the freedoms we do have and strive harder for the ones we don’t yet have. The freedom to think, to imagine things and worlds that may not yet be but that are possible, is what inspires people to reach for the tangible as well as the ineffable, be it a low-cost sanitary napkin or a more interactive sex toy, or be it sexual wellbeing and community acceptance.

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) andauthored the popular 'Good Times for Everyone: Sexuality Questions, Feminist Answers' (Women Unlimited, 2008).