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Issue in Focus

An abstract image of waves.

Movement and sexuality, a fascinating combination of concepts evoking different thoughts and feelings in different people. That which is so evoked is visible and known. Far more gripping is the invisible and unknown, therefore neither thought of consciously nor felt with awareness, about the relationship between the two.

What does Movement mean?

There are many reasons why a person, a potential reader of a piece of writing such as this, may or may not be able to read it. The physical eye movements involved in reading is just one example of such a reason. There is the movement involved in transmitting visual information to the brain, involving visual pathways, relay of visual information, streams of information and such. Disruptions to the movement or the pathways of transmission cause visual impairment, or vision disability. The experience of disability of different kinds, for example, if movement is impaired, may hinder a person from independent access to a device or technology that provides this written content.

Therefore, instead of reading this article themselves, a person may have it read out to them.
By an assistive app.
Or by another person.
Or a combination of both if a second person is required to enable access to an assistive app.
If this second person moves beyond self into awareness of the other person.
And if this second person feels and thinks that they want to provide such support, or knows enough to do this.

Already, the simple act of reading this begins to feel like an option of treks amongst many listed in a travel website.

Expanding contexts give the word ‘movement’ different meanings and value. Physical, conceptual, technological, relationship, emotional, mental, power, knowledge, ability, access, may be amongst the contexts immediately identified. Continuing on the theme of reading, less than a decade ago, Fatimah Keller wrote an article available online called The literacy injustice: 493 million women still can’t read, where she expands on the gender gaps in literacy. It wasn’t too long ago that women and girls were simply not allowed to read or learn to read in different parts of the world. Safeena Husain, founder of Educate Girls says, “… it’s not just about education, though lack of education is a reflection of patriarchy, but of a much deeper mindset issue. In the areas where we work, people see a goat as an asset and a girl as a liability.”

Shifting the mindset requires movement of many different kinds. Just a few months ago in February 2022, there was a news report of a dowry related death in Ludhiana, which apparently followed close on the heels of another in a village called Bulara. Not too many people know where Bulara is, but it doesn’t matter because the fact of dowry being an issue causing extreme rights violations, trauma, grief and death in the year 2022, despite laws and social change, begs the question, have we moved? And if so, how far and into what space? Statistics may be used to reflect this movement like milestones on a highway, and so, for example, we know that in 2019 we were at the 7141 deaths milestone, 26 less than the previous year. Please imagine a sliding scale and you will see movement.

Then read an April 2022 news article saying: The Indian Nursing Council has distanced itself from a textbook for Second-Year BSc students that lists the “merits and advantages” of the dowry system. The report includes this gem from the textbook, “Ugly girls can be married off with attractive dowry with well or ugly looking boys”. How do we measure movement here? Count the number of textbooks that do or don’t contain regressive content? Or count the number of people who taught/studied / did not teach/study from these books? Or count the number of journalists reporting and number of readers reading on the subject?

Movement manifests differently in different contexts. Questions of ability and disability are a universe in themselves where movement is not always ‘as easy as’ lifting a finger or blinking an eye. Both of which are most often taken-for-granted movements by many people as they tap or slide off the cell phone alarm in the morning and shut their eyes to go back to sleep for a bit. Perhaps many are sleeping with a partner who puts an arm or a leg around them, or does not do so if the relationship has moved out of that comfort space. Mostly, the way a lot of people live their lives, the day brings its breakfasts and tiffin, school bags and house keys, a fiddly band-aid to unwrap and then to wrap around the finger that got a paper cut from the local Times. We lose count of the movements involved in an ordinary life with an ordinary independence. Yet massive investments are going into simple aids, as well as artificial intelligence and cybernetics applications to enable movement, to support a vision of independent living that impacts millions of people who experience impaired mobility, a vision enshrined in Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (UNCRPD), ‘Living independently and being included in the community’.

Inclusion, we find, requires collective movement of different kinds, no matter what the space of marginalisation. We learn that Mangala Aher, a member of Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents, a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ persons, supports her transgender daughter, Abhina Aher. Abhina is, amongst other identities, a transgender rights activist, who is known to have “spent the last 26 years working extensively with different organisations to mobilise the trans community, advocated for policy-level changes, and helped her community get basic civil rights like education, health, employment and education.” The personal journeys of mother and daughter have involved movement within, emotionally and mentally, as well as without, in society, along with shifts in their own relationship over years. But there is also a movement at deeply spiritual levels.

The writer of this article available online is a trans woman who speaks from personal experience as she says, “… transition is and should be a process that unifies and sustains our body, mind, and spirit. If we think of the transgender experience as a spiritual journey, because in fact it is, we can better manage our anxieties and discomfort with our bodies and cope with the current moment, knowing that in time we will reach our goals and become the best version of our truest self that we could possibly be.” Somewhere in this articulation is a mapping of the human spiritual experience. A movement from this to that, here to there, but it is one that connects us to our personal truths, and to our higher selves.

The intricate complexity of movement and sexuality

The potency of sexual rights is that they give us the possibility to dream – to make another world possible. A world in which we can be our true selves without fear, without shame, without apology and without needing to be brave.” This was written by Radhika Chandiramani in 2013, as part of the Issue In Focus article for the Sexual Rights issue of In Plainspeak. Five years after this was written, India’s Supreme Court read down Section 377 decriminalising homosexuality; struck down Section 497, referred to as the adultery law, as being unconstitutional as it effectively treated women as property; and also passed the Sabarimala temple verdict, allowing the entry of women of all ages into the temple, with Justice Chandrachud stating: “Prejudice against women based on notions of impurity and pollution associated with menstruation is a symbol of exclusion. The social exclusion of women based on menstrual status is a form of untouchability which is an [sic] anathema to constitutional values.”

There has been much movement in the sphere of sexuality and sexual rights in India, legally, socially, politically and personally, across spheres that include marriage, religion and the work space. Some of this movement is clearly forward thinking, and some not so. Review petitions were filed against the Sabarimala verdict, and though the judgement has not been stayed, the petitions are currently in the legal system awaiting answers to overarching constitutional questions from a larger bench of judges. Meanwhile, more recently, in Karnataka, the stigmatising and banning of the hijab in educational institutions is a setback for many girls, who perhaps would not be allowed out of the home space into the education space unless so attired. Last month, I interviewed journalist and researcher Sameera Khan, who co-authored the book, Why Loiter?:Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets which examines women’s access to public space. She refers to the “Classroom/University as centre of crisis” and says: “The hijab has been visibilised but the long journey that these Muslim girls, most often first-generation learners, in small town Karnataka have made to mainstream university has been invalidated and made invisible.”

It takes a powerful socio-political movement to discuss real life experiences of gender and sexual rights with the same legitimacy and confidence with which we discuss education. When identity becomes a barrier to accessing rights, it is easier to politicise and speak of subjects in the context of education and socially acceptable themes. We return to the example of disability. In this article on accessible sex toys and aids in the website of the online magazine Disability Horizons, the writer does find the need to state that “disabled people buy sex toys, can be kinky, can be gay and all the other various shades of sexuality there are, just like non-disabled people. Living with a disability or health condition can, however, impact on your experiences of sex, pleasure and intimacy. It can be challenging emotionally, as well as physically, if you struggle to communicate your needs and have them met.” For many people this may even be hard to read and engage with because the sexuality of a person with a disability is so deeply stigmatised a subject.

Who can go where and do what, is at the heart of these issues – movement, understood simply, here to there, from home to college, to work, to a place of worship, or to a lover’s house. Movement more complex, is the one inside the head, heart and spirit of a person. What and where is the movement that is required to shift away from the personal and public politics of stigma, to a location that is safe, inclusive and self-affirming? It is likely that this move requires the willingness to create these spaces, for they may not as yet exist as ready destinations!

But all of this movement is entangled with sexuality as we pick at the threads, trying to untangle social norms, from law and politics, girl from woman from non-binary transgender person, married, single or living with a same-sex partner, across communities labelled and categorised by caste, class, religion, ability and disability, age, legal and social status, and multiple other markers of experience and identity.

The mapping of movement using these multiple lenses requires a readiness to appreciate movement and sexuality in all of their intricate complexity. Is it more in the nature of one person to move and less in the nature of another? Is it resource, support, opportunity, ability? Does it begin within or is it a gift of the universe without?

Each of us is in a unique location, in and out of our bodies and physical spaces, as the result of a long, collective not just personal, history – of experiencing individual, social, educational, work, emotional, mental, physical, relationship and spiritual movement. Not all movement moves in the same way, not all of it is measurable, or even visible, and every dimension of life, as we understand life, holds the potential for experiencing movement. Movement is still movement even if we don’t see it or find an easy way of measuring it. Much like the roots of trees, and the changes inside a seed before it germinates.

Cover Image: Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash