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Let’s Talk About Alternate Safe Spaces For Queer Women In India

A welcome mat with the rainbow flag on it, it is torn in the middle

The functionalist view of family stresses its importance in providing love, care and support to its members. It is seen as a space free and distant from the problems of the outside world. However, feminist politics have been able to problematise the ‘personal’ sphere of family and highlight the power ridden relationships within it and how it upholds patriarchal notions, centred on heterosexual reproductive partnerships.

It is in the light of the latter view can we understand how the family can be a place necessitating escape for queer people. Tied closely to the idea of the family is the idea of tradition and religion. For many centuries, religious traditions set standards and rules about life and have long been considered an important influence on expressions and control of sexuality.

report titled ‘Breaking the Binary by the organization Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action(LABIA) emphasizes how family needs urgent intervention as it acts as a violent space for queer youth who face multiple subjugations. It records stories of people trying to commit suicide while living with their natal families, gender normative roles being imposed on them and many finding solace with a pet instead of their family members.

Moreover, the state and family work together in certain ways to restrain the sexuality and sexual freedom of queer women. For instance, laws against kidnapping are used by the natal families of lesbian women to falsely accuse their partners of forced confinement. These include Section 339 and Section 340 of the Indian Penal Code which makes confinement by someone who does not have the authority to restrict your movement illegal.


Very often, parents take on immense trouble to prove that one of the partners enticed the other to another place with the intent of committing a crime, in order to strengthen the case of kidnapping. Even laws like Section 366, which is against kidnapping done with the intention of marrying the person, extensively used by parents against eloped heterosexual couples, are used to exploit lesbian couples. Given this heteropatriarchal nature of the family, the importance of alternate spaces becomes visible.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, discussions around queer safe spaces especially gay clubs and the threats to it surfaced not only in the United States but also in India. The work of Ma Faiza, known as one of India’s most trendy queer DJs was seen with a new meaning. Their importance was seen in how they allowed queer people to not only cultivate their identity by sharing their marginalized experiences but to simply exist without the threat of overt violence or microaggressions. This also opened up new lines of enquiry based on class and gender analysis.

Clubs which organize gay nights once a week, house parties hosted by LGBTQ support groups and sometimes, an informal gathering after a film festival or an exhibition are the traditional queer spaces in cities like Delhi. Given how there is invisibilization of certain identities within the LGBTQ movement and that it is dominated by the cis-gendered Savarna gay man, it is no surprise that the traditional queer spaces are exclusionary in nature.

This exclusion is understood on various levels. Moulee, a Chennai-based queer activist questions the safeness of queer safe spaces and notes how any question regarding caste discrimination within these spaces attracts criticism of ‘seeding’ caste in an ‘egalitarian’ setup.

The imminent threat of sexual violence for women in public spaces acts as a restriction and their identity as ‘queer’ further complicates this. Moreover, given the inequality in the movement, there are few events which are organized for queer women and they are restricted to upper-middle-class, upper caste queer women.

Pluralities within the queer community require careful and varied approaches. Subsuming differences within a singular category may fail to account for often multiple and intersecting marginalities. Queerness is experienced and lived differently by different people, owing to some combination of class, gender, religion, caste and more such socio-cultural markers of identity and body.

Given this, certain initiatives that emerge from people who represent such complex pluralities can claim to be much more inclusive. Bebaak Collective, for instance, is an initiative that breaks away from the polarized understanding of the religion of Islam as inherently patriarchal on one hand and as the sole source of all justice on the other.


It works on the reinterpretation of the Quran particularly with respect to body and sexuality, situating religious knowledge with women; thereby also creating narratives that don’t necessarily pit Islam and queerness (or even women, for that matter) in complete opposition to each other. Through their initiative, the movie Tiryaak was made to bring to the fore the personal and political journeys of Muslim women and the inter-linkages between the two.

Some other spaces are much more rooted in tradition. The gharana system, for instance, provides shelter and means of expression for hijras. Additionally, it also provides a space for creating personal and emotional bonds, alongside direct guidance from elder hijras of the community.

The overt permanence of their expression of gender necessitates, in a lot of ways, the existence of such safe spaces. Unlike cisgendered queer people, who may be able to blend into hetero-normative appearances in certain quarters of work and life, there is an absence of such avenues of blending in. Therefore, the gharanas indeed serve multiple purposes and preserve and ensure identities and lives.

Therefore, the question of safe spaces and alternative families is pertinent to queer identities, that are so much more than imagined by a single dominant narrative. To this extent, evolving and strengthening spaces that attempt to do this should be welcomed and encouraged, whilst looking critically at those which only privilege a certain class and category of people.

Featured Image Credit: Xtra

This article was originally published in Feminism in India, written by Umara Zainab

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