In a recent panel discussion at SOAS discussing the word Paki and the changing nature of racism towards South Asians a question came up about Indian sexuality.
There is an image of South Asia and of India as being quite sexually repressed and stunted in the imagination of the Western World. Common-sense racist and neo-colonial ideas present India as a place of sexual repression, mass rapes and homophobia. Indians are rarely presented as being sexy in the West, if anything it is quite the opposite.
This stems from colonial restructuring of South Asian society. The British went to South Asia with their preconceived notions of sexual normalcy stemming from enlightenment and Christian ideals. If anything, it was the British who were the prudes and sexually repressed venturing into India, rather than the sexually liberated souls they claim to be today.
At the time of colonialism, Europeans saw native populations as the opposite to themselves. Non-Europeans were identified as being sexually promiscuous, hedonistic and at times effeminate (in the case of many South Asians). The sexual fluidity that the British witnessed repulsed them, and further confirmed their racist superiority complex. This affirmation solidified the belief in the “native savage” that was so crucial in the European imagination in helping to justify colonialism.
In pre-colonial India gender was incredibly fluid and same-sex relations were not looked down upon. There were multiple gender categories in existence, rather than the binary of man and woman, as presented in the west and as commonly held today (India has become the first country to officially recognize a third gender).
Yett for the British, gender fluidity was a sign of backwardness and those the British identified as men and who were more androgynous in appearance were seen as weak and unmanly (again in contrast to the masculine, strong Europeans). Despite this, today the Western world tries to claim to be ahead of the times on progressive sexual identity politics when clearly it is not.
Ashish Nandy explores the ideas of Indian sexual fluidity in depth in The Intimate Enemy, but one only has to look at Indian pre-colonial art or even observe the Karma Sutra to see that homosexuality was not uncommon at the time, nor was sexual expression and openness.
The British frowned upon Indian art for the very reason that it was too overtly sexual for their prudish gaze. One “gentleman” allegedly complained in the 18th Century that “the figures of Gods and Goddesses are shown in such obscene postures, that it would puzzle the Covent Garden nymphs to imitate them”.
The British were ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality but Indians were not. The end to Indian sexual expression came with the British who imposed Christian ideals that promoted homophobia and sexual shame.
Christian missionaries spreading their doctrine against the back drop of the “civilizing mission” looked to demonstrate how the Indian tradition was one of barbarism. Many colonial collaborators and reformers looked to cherry-pick parts of the oppressor in order to gain favour. The result was that many Hindu reformers reexamined their own traditions and adopted a more Christian version of their beliefs, including chastity and more conservative clothing.
Because of this contemporary homophobia in India has to be viewed as a colonial imposition, linked to the spread of Christian cultural values and the creation of fixed gender categories that were alien to the region. Indian gender categories changed drastically under colonialism as part of a cultural genocide as the oppressed replicated their oppressors in an attempt to gain liberation. So too does the idea of the sexual repressed and even nonsexual Indian.
Whilst South Asian women are often exoticised and lusted after, South Asian males, particularly in the Western world and through popular culture, reinforce the image of the sexless South Asian.
Raj from the Big Bang Theory is a good example of this as he is so hapless with women that his character cannot even talk to women without being under the influence of alcohol. In the Ryan Reynolds film Van Wilder, Kal Penn, playing Taj, is shown requiring the help of the white male lead, Reynolds, to improve his luck with the ladies.
Indian men are never presented as being in any way sexually desirable or interesting, but instead they are figures of sexual ridicule. In this light Azis Ansari’s Master of None is quite a refreshing, but not perfect, break with this tradition.
It is important to resist these stereotypes and to see them for what they are: racist, inaccurate and colonial. Yet there are too few counter reference points for this in the mainstream. Representations of South Asian sexuality in mainstream culture continues to reproduce colonial legacies that represent a break with South Asian tradition.
South Asia has a rich sexual history that is forgotten by western liberals who laugh at Raj in the Big Bang Theory or who are quick to call out LGBTQ issues in the region without placing them in their relevant colonial context. In doing so they forget or choose to ignore how it was the British who imposed these backwards ideas on the region that went contrary to the traditional ways of thinking and practising.
In this regard colonialism has gone full circle as it first caused the problem and now white saviours are claiming to have the solutions to bring the former colonies into modernity. The spread of “equality” is presented as a Western value, when it is not. Diversity and equality were more present in many South Asian communities than they were in Europe, were homosexuality was frowned upon and discouraged.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues with gay rights in these regions or issues of sexual shaming, there are. However, in order to tackle them in a way that is not neo-imperial, the problems have to be observed as a colonial legacy, rather than being treated with patronizing arrogance by the West; as if the western world no longer has its own problems with diversity and equality.
It’s unlikely that the West will ever admit its own role in contributing to these problems, or its history in promoting sexual shame across the globe, particularly in an age where we’re told the West is sexually free when it is not.
The West doesn’t have the answers because the answers come from within. Yet the representation of South Asians within popular culture outside of India only reinforce these ideals of the “native savage” incapable of sexual expression or thought.
This article was orginally published in Consented and is written by Amit Shah.