Rehana, fifteen-years-old, went on a hunger strike. She locked herself up and did not talk to anyone. Her parents relented. They agreed to call off the marriage they were organizing for her. Rehana is a young village girl in Murshidabad who asserted her right of choice. She had the law on her side. The Child Marriage Restraint Act does not allow the marriage of minor girls.
One wonders how effectively adult women in India are able to assert their sexual choices. Any idea of women’s sexuality in India is inextricably bound within the institution of heterosexual marriage. It is interesting to explore how women’s choices are constructed even within its boundaries. The institution of marriage in India is built along community, caste and class lines, and men and women invite strong disapproval if they transgress these boundaries. Not only do errant couples face the anger of the community, friends and family, the Rizwanur-Priyanka episode shows that the State too can play a horrifying role. Many say that although inter-religious marriages are still frowned upon, caste considerations do not govern marriages anymore. But matrimonial columns in newspapers tell a different story.
Readers may have noted a recent advertisement for the morning-after pill. It has a woman saying that since her husband forgot to take precautions the night before and she does not want to get pregnant, she took recourse to the morning-after pill. What do we have here? — ‘good wives don’t say no’ dressed up to look like women’s agency. Rather than explore situations of consensual sex that could precipitate the use of the morning-after pill, the pill-manufacturers are, in fact, encouraging married men to behave inconsiderately with their wives.
Since marriage is the only respectable sphere for the expression of women’s sexuality, however limited, and this legitimate space more often than not excludes women with disabilities, we cannot but conclude that there is an implicit social understanding that women with disabilities are asexual beings. Of course, there is the other awful realization that women with disabilities are seen as not deserving of respectability. Their bodies may be used and abused at will. Some of us will remember the forcible hysterectomies of fifty mentally challenged women in Pune in 1994. These hysterectomies, carried out without the consent of the women concerned, were thought to be in their best interests. It would ensure menstrual hygiene and protect them from unwanted pregnancies. The institution seemed more concerned about preventing pregnancies than in protecting mentally challenged women from sexual abuse.
The path of heterosexual love in India is not smooth. Within marriage, women may only love suitable men from their own religion, caste, class. But what does a woman do when she finds herself attracted to women? Or if she thinks that she is open to relationships with men as well as women? The facts of same-sex love and bisexual love are denied. It is much easier to dismiss such desires as unnatural and perverse than to recognize them and explore their implications for society and its institutions.
Sex in India is serious. It is not about fun, experimentation and intimacy. It is about honour, respectability and responsibility. Sexual autonomy for women would threaten such an elaborate patriarchal edifice.
Rehana was able to exercise her choice. But Deepa, 14 and Arup, 16, were not. They loved each other and wanted to marry. Their families said that they were too young for it and the law forbade marriage between minors. But Deepa wanted to be ‘respectable’ and saw marriage as the only acceptable way of being with the boy she loved. A cultural obsession with sexual purity of women and a disproportionate premium on marriage which is strengthened by state policy, legislation and practice, leave women with very little choice in matters of love and sex.