REETA LOI SHAW
Global superpower India must change its homophobic laws
India has one of the world’s oldest civilisations and in five years will overtake China to have its largest population. She has rich and ancient systems of sexual evolution from the Karma Sutra to Tantric sex. There are numerous homosexual deities within Hindu mythology and India’s architectural iconography includes lesbian twin goddesses at the temple, Tara Tarini. Yet homosexuality remains punishable with life imprisonment as a legacy of British colonial rule for 200 years.
Of the 52 Commonwealth states, 36 still criminalise homosexuality. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code limits freedoms for homosexual (and bisexual) Indians, keeping the subject taboo and underground. This leads to a lack of out role models and appropriate societal representation. Section 377 feeds into the psyche of generations of Indians all over the world who look to “home” for their sense of identity. Laws enforce for us what is right and wrong in society. How can the world’s largest diaspora population accept homosexuality in themselves and their loved ones if “back home” it’s still outlawed?
British occupation of India took her from global superpower status with 23% of the world’s economy in 1757 to just 4% and an average life expectancy of 27 years. She was pillaged for the benefit of British elites says Dr Shashi Tharoor, driving home the true cost of occupation in his ground-breaking Oxford Union speech of 2015, whilst the romantic positioning of Britain as India’s saviour is well and truly crushed in his new book, Inglorious Empire.
As Indians we need to break the shackles that bind us to a sexually repressive era and misguided admiration for the Raj. In Giti Thadani’s exceptional work Sakhiyani – Lesbian Desire In Ancient And Modern India, we learn of the systematic defacing and destruction of lesbian statues and iconography. Lesbian history is being erased. We are left with a repressive, heteronormative lens on sexual identity. The wide use and threat of rape as a tool of control is compounded by an influx of Western advertising and media, flooding the minds of young men with objectified and sexualised images of women.
The third gender, or hijra, are referenced in ancient Indian texts and live on the fringes of Indian society today, given an almost holy status. These are trans women. But where are the women that are lesbian and bi?
Urdu Rekhti poetry refers to love and sexual practice between two women and was written by male poets in the female voice and eventually banned. Mythologist Utkarsh Patel recently gave a talk in Mumbai about same-sex love in Indian mythology and his view is that there is a stronger position against homosexuality in Indian society today than there was during ancient times.
The impact of harmful and discriminatory laws that impede human rights cannot be tolerated. Repealing Section 377 is vital for India to move forward with the rest of the world, to outgrow the legacy of British occupation and find strength in her true identity.
I recently visited the House of Lords to discuss the British Asian LGBTQ experience. Of the many campaigning groups, charities and individuals at the event, I was the only South Asian lesbian. In fact, I meet many more gay South Asian men than lesbians or bi women.
South Asian lesbians and bi women need to be seen and heard. I know how hard this can be, having used a pseudonym for many years based on a deeply instilled and misguided sense of duty to protect my family honour, even after being disowned. We are raised to be demure, silent, to forego our own desires for the protection of others. We stay hidden, secondary. We are deemed a burden, a cost. We have to be raised without bringing shame on our families then married off at the cost of a dowry to then help support another family. Why invest in us, why listen to us?
This year, Gaysians+, a collective of British Asian LGBTQ organisations will be marching together at Pride. Please join us. The opportunity for creating change is in our hands. Let’s be seen, let’s be heard, and as we Punjabis like to say: “Chak de Phatte!”
South Asian lesbians and bi women need to be seen and heard