In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, protagonist Henry Tilney equates the socio-sexual dynamics of a couple engaged in a dance to marriage. “In both man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal,” he says. The novel is set in the early 19th century. While a ball is no longer the primary social engagement for youngsters to interact and indulge in the ritual of selecting a partner – either for an evening or a lifetime – many in India will agree with Tilney that in matters of love and lust, men still have the upper hand.
“Even the discourse on women’s liberation has not been as vocal about the need for women’s sexual freedom. The focus has been more on equality in education, jobs, in the public space,” says 38-year-old Himani Chaturvedi, a media professional based in Delhi. “It is ironic, because women are the ones who give birth. But we have been made to believe that the only reason for a woman to have sex is for reproduction.”
The Way Of All Flesh
In the past few years, there has been some conversation about a woman’s right to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances, both within a marriage – though union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi said last year that India can’t have a law against marital rape because marriage is treated as a sacrament in the country – and out of matrimony, with films such as Pink trying to take a stand on a woman’s right to say no and mean it. The reverse – a woman’s right to sexual pleasure, however, is still a subject on which most people, including women, often maintain a decorous silence.
“The idea of a woman owning and claiming her sexual agency baffles the patriarchal set-up whose existence over centuries has been premised on the opposite intention, to take away or deny women that very same agency,” says writer Rosalyn D’Mello
Part of it is social conditioning. “From our childhood we are taught to sit in a certain way, walk and talk in a certain way,” says academician and gender rights activist Ranjana Kumari. “The whole point of the exercise is to hide our sexuality. And good women are those who have control over their sexuality – control that is defined by a patriarchal society.” Remember the Good Girl, Bad Girl memes that routinely crowd our social media walls? Bad Girls wear short skirts, party, drink alcohol and – have sex. Good girls? We all know the answer.
“A man with multiple sexual partners is a stud, a woman with multiple sexual partners is a whore,” says 30-year-old travel blogger Sarah Chowdhury. Sounds like a stereotype? The thing about stereotypes is that they are born of commonly-held beliefs.Take for example the Central Board for Film Certification’s (CBFC) refusal to certify Alankrita Shrivastava’s film Lipstick Under My Burkha for being “lady oriented” and showing “their fantasy above life”.
“Lipstick Under My Burkha is about four women looking for a little independence. It is not just about women’s sexual liberation, but it does address that too,” says Alankrita. Reason enough for the Board to fall back on the oft-displayed concern for “parampara” – days after the backlash against the Board for refusing certificate to Lipstick Under My Burkha, CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani said, “Make films keeping the Indian traditions ahead”. Many feel that the Board’s reaction is symbolic of a patriarchal society’s discomfort with a woman’s sexuality. “I think the recent censorship of the film, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” is an excellent case in point. From what I’ve gathered from the trailer, I’m able to understand why a very patriarchal censor board would find the film “lady-oriented” and use that as an excuse to ban it: because it seems to actually delve into the sexual lives of woman across ages and religions, which is so deeply unsettling for men. The idea of a woman owning and claiming her sexual agency baffles the patriarchal set-up whose existence over centuries has been premised on the opposite intention, to take away or deny women that very same agency,” says writer Rosalyn D’Mello.
And women, whether unconsciously or under pressure, have for years bowed down to that denial of their sexuality, except when it has been a means to satisfy male desires. “It’s not just women indulging in sex that is frowned upon. Even women writers, artists and film-makers are harassed for portraying women’s sexuality. I too have been targeted for writing about the need for women’s liberation, including their sexual freedom,” says author Taslima Nasreen.
Between The Sheets
The unease with accepting and expressing one’s natural sexual desires manifests itself variously – from an inability to step into a store to buy a packet of condoms, “because of how the man in the shop will look at me,” says Chaturvedi, to giving precedence to one’s partner’s needs. It starts with a preoccupation to appear sexually appealing to the man – Dr Sunil Choudhary, senior director and chief of plastic surgery, Max Institute of Reconstructive, Aesthetic, Cleft &Craniofacial Surgery, Max Healthcare, says “more women than men go in for corrective surgeries to improve one’s sex life” – and ends with trying to satisfy one’s partner in bed.
“My ex-husband had insisted on sex whenever he felt like it, without considering my satisfaction,” says Salma, a teacher in Bhopal
In some, the pressure to conform manifests itself in the form of performance anxiety. “All my life I have felt that I need to sexually satisfy my partner. Few men have asked me whether I have felt satisfied,” says Chaturvedi. Khushwant Singh once wrote that “most Indian men are not even aware that women also have orgasms; most Indian women share this ignorance because although they go from one pregnancy to the next, they have no idea that sex can be pleasurable.”
In Bhopal, where Lipstick Under My Burkha has been shot, 46-year-old teacher Salma left her husband – after 26 years of marriage and two children – when she found a satisfying relationship with a colleague two years back. “My ex-husband had insisted on sex whenever he felt like it, without considering my satisfaction. When I told him I wanted to end our marriage because I was not satisfied with him, he said I had lost my senses,” she says.
Not many would have had Salma’s courage. Divorce lawyer Malavika Rajkotia says that while denial of sex is a ground for divorce, an unsatisfactory sexual relationship isn’t. She agrees that in her experience, more men than women cite denial of sex as a ground for seeking divorce.
Radhika Shah, a 39-year-old housewife in Surat, believes she has a healthy sexual relationship with her husband. But she admits he has never asked her about her satisfaction. “I can’t imagine sharing my sexual fantasies with him. Our society is not mature enough to accept that women can have sexual fantasies,” she says.
The Pleasure Seekers
But social disapproval and the resultant discomfort with expressing one’s sexual needs are not the only reasons for the discourse on women’s rights not yet catching up with her right to sexual pleasure. “We are still fighting for women’s rights over their body, dignity, safety and security. Without that we can’t talk about their right to pleasure,” explains Kumari.
All India Progressive Women’s Association secretary Kavita Krishnan insists that the issue of women’s sexual freedom shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. “Too often the control over a woman’s sexuality, her body and reproductive rights, are an attempt by the patriarchal society to maintain the caste system or a control over property. If a woman doesn’t have the right to go out or to own a phone, how will she ever be able to have the right to decide who she chooses to be in a relationship with, or whom she wants to marry?” questions Krishnan. “According to the India Human Development Survey 2012 report, only 5 per cent of women in India have sole control over choosing their husbands.”
“We are still fighting for women’s rights over their body, dignity, safety and security. Without that we can’t talk about their right to pleasure,” says academician and gender rights activist Ranjana Kumari
There have been changes. “Among women, especially those in cities, the discussion on sex has reached the drawing room,” says Chaturvedi. Some have shed inhibitions to explore their sexuality. But as long as we feel pressured to talk about a woman’s sexual desires in hushed tones, there is no real freedom. And that will change, only when honour is not linked to a woman’s sexual expression. As Alankrita Srivastava points out, “The burden of a man’s or a family’s izzat should not be dependent on the woman’s sexual status.”