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Issue in Focus: Memory and Sexuality – A Methodological Approach

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A methodological approach to the study of memory and sexuality helps delineate interesting connections between the two: memory as a methodological tool for the study of sexualities, memory as an object of study, and the role of personal memory in the formation of individual sexualities. Sex and sexuality is also used to frame or manage memory. Dagmar Herzog has examined how in the 1950s in post-Nazi Germany, a turn to “sexual conservatism served as a crucial strategy of managing the memory of mass murder.”[1] Likewise, feminist scholarship on the partition of India has demonstrated how female sexuality was at the centre of post-partition nation building, and that the “recovery” of women served an important function in this project. Drawing on oral histories and memoirs of survivors read against official history produced by the Indian and Pakistani states, this scholarship depicted how the national imaginary was created in both nations through a purposeful recasting of female sexuality and its function within the newly formed nations.[2] A methodological approach to memory and sexuality, thus, opens new sites for the examination of social, political and cultural contestations. This essay explores the importance of memory as a tool in the study of sexualities.

Before I proceed, however, I rehash some important elements of the concept of memory. As Susannah Radstone cautions, “memory” has meant and signified different things at different historical times, and thus is not “timeless.” Furthermore, instead of looking at memory as the “other” of history (which is seen as objective and rational), it should be understood as working “in the service…of ‘an expanded and truly critical rationality.’”[3] As feminist and postcolonial scholarship has highlighted, memory has been an important tool in recovering the histories of marginalised communities and events occluded from official histories. The concept of cultural memory has facilitated an examination of how marginalised and oppressed communities preserve their histories and traditions. But memory cannot be simplified as the other side of history, for the manner of remembrance is as important as what is being remembered. How an event or incident is recollected and presented tell us much about the relationship of the narrator to the community, and the socio-cultural politics of the community. In addition, as Nathan Wachtel observes, “recollection is no longer treated as a more or less accurate reflection of the past, but as a representation that is a part of present reality.”[4] This underscores the importance of memory’s relationship to the present. Maurice Halbwachs, one of the most prominent scholars of collective memory, believed that “individual recollections only exist and are localized in the past by linking up with the memory of others: one only ever remembers as a member of a social group.”[5] In other words, individual memory is created within a social context and as a part of collective memory. Contextualised thus, individual memory flows from a sense of identity and subjecthood. This essay briefly describes the value of using memory to examine the construction of sexualities within specific social contexts, informed by cultural conventions that frame them.

In analysing life history interviews of privileged-caste women in Western India, my research delineates the construction and experience of gender and sexuality in everyday life. It illustrates the manner in which gender and sexuality inform and, in turn, are defined through a myriad of other social categories like class, caste and religion.[6] The two examples discussed here represent distinct positions on female sexuality. My research participant K has a Ph.D. and retired from a university as a Professor and Dean of Continuing Adult Education.[7] She strongly criticized the double standards for male and female sexual desire, and condemned the hypocrisy surrounding sexual mores in India. She asserted the inevitability of pre-marital sexual desire in women as well as men, and argued for parents to give more freedom of choice and autonomy to young men and women vis-à-vis marriage. Your sexual past does not matter, she argued, so long as there is mutual respect and trust within marriage.

But the incident described below demonstrates how privileged-caste female sexual agency is contingent upon its contrast from the sexualities of oppressed-caste/class women.

…an 82-year old man [from a Patel community] was dragged into a sexual controversy that he raped a tribal girl [sic] several times and she became pregnant. First of all [sic] I was little hesitant when somebody said raped several times. Can rape be [done] several times? Raping is something which happens according to me once, when you are forced into sexual act against your will…I didn’t agree that she conceived through [forced sexual encounters]. So I said it is politically instigated…[8]

K said that eventually it was proven that he had sexually abused the young woman, and his wife and daughter spoke out against him. However, the scandal around the issue, K contended, was a politically instigated retaliation against him for having founded the Lok Adalat (People’s Court) in tribal areas, and having started initiatives for education of the tribal communities, which worried the political leaders of the region. In K’s opinion, the fact that the tribal woman was pregnant implied that she was in cahoots with the corrupt political leaders. Thus, even as she accepted that the man was a sexual predator, K cast doubt on the sexuality of the tribal woman on account of her pregnancy. This is a complicated positioning of oppressed-class/caste female sexuality: on the one hand, the differences of power between a privileged-caste male, especially one in a position of authority, and a young tribal woman are not only ignored but indeed negated. On the other hand, she is assigned a sexual agency that sees her as capable of entrapping this man in a political scandal by becoming pregnant. It is interesting to note that even as K agrees that the man had abused the woman, his guilt is mitigated by her impression that the young woman was a part of an elaborate plan to discredit him. Such reading, which disregards the power differential of caste, class and gender, bestows upon the young woman an active sexual agency, which is very different from the active sexual agency K defines for herself.

Expressing a different viewpoint, my participant S[9], emphasised the importance of a chaste, virtuous and tolerant female sexuality, even as she characterised herself as strong and fearless. Curiously, both S and K similarly constructed a sexual “other” to their privileged-caste, middle-class feminine subject positions. S narrated an incident involving her boss in the Department of Telephones in Mumbai. She described him, a married man, as the most decently behaved towards her and her friend, such that even when he handed them a set of keys, for instance, he made sure that he did not accidentally touch their hand. Then she heard about his romantic involvement with another woman. People reported seeing them together at the movies, having dinner or walking along the beach. Initially S and her friend defended him by saying that the rumours had to be false because he was a decent man. Soon however S learned that the woman he was involved with was from a particular community, whom she derided as being “characterless.” And yet again the burden of sexual propriety and behaviour is placed upon women. These women having already been defined as the “other” of the privileged-caste Hindu woman become a ready tool in (re)defining appropriate sexuality for the latter. Whether it is sexual freedom or sexual decorum, privileged-caste Hindu women create a sexual “other” to be able to define the borders and boundaries of acceptable sexuality. It further highlights the division of women’s sexual labour (as Dalit-Bahujan feminist scholars and activists have long argued) along the lines of caste, class and religion.

These examples indicate how memory is deployed in the process of constructing a sexual self-identity. When K and S narrate what according to them is non-normative female sexuality, they are using the tropes already available to them through social, political and cultural discourses. But the function of memory is how they project these images in creating a narrative of their own lives. Such a reciprocal relationship between individual and social memory enables us to examine connections between the self and larger social process. Moreover, as Emily Keightley observes, since “remembering is an active reconciliation of past and present,”[10] these examples also show how events of the past are recollected to explain their lives both in the past and the present. In my research, a focus on memory reveals how specific constructions of gender, sexuality and sexual identity are used to elaborate one’s location vis-à-vis class, caste, religion and gender, as framed within a broader nationalist discourse.

Note and References

[1] Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 241.

[2] Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998); Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1998); Pankhuree R. Dube, “Partition Historiography,” The Historian, 77, no.1 (2015).

[3] Susannah Radstone, “Working with Memory: An Introduction,” in Memory and Methodology, ed. Radstone (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2000), 3.

[4] Nathan Wachtel, “Introduction,” in Between Memory and History, eds. Marie-Nöelle Bourguet, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1990), 4-5.

[5] Ibid., 5

[6] Scholars studying caste and gender in India have observed that privileged caste femininity was defined in contrast to “the oppressed-caste woman.”

[7] K, interviewed by Varsha Chitnis, Vadodara, India, October 2011. She was 71 years of age at the time of the interview in 2011. She resides in Vadodara, Gujarat.

[8] Ibid.

[9] S, interviewed by Varsha Chitnis, Vadodara, India, November 2011. She was 78 years of age in 2011 at the time of this interview. She passed away in March 2013.

[10] Emily Keightley, “Remembering Research: Memory and Methodology in the Social Sciences” International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 13, no. 1 (February 2010), 57. Keightley examines the limitations and methodological challenges of memory research.

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