Saturday, December 14, 2013

Some thoughts on 377 and Laws Affecting Queer Women

After Wednesday's ruling, I think it's important to note how Section 377 affects us, as queer women: the law has been interpreted by the judiciary as applying to anal intercourse between two men, and that too requiring proof for any conviction to occur.  In a case from around 2003 (I've forgotten the exact details of which case this was, as there were several similar ones around the same time), two women seeking the right to live together were also charged with S. 377, along with several other charges related to abduction and unlawful confinement.  The judge ultimately ruled in their favour, seeing no reason to prevent two adult women from cohabiting, and dismissed the use of S. 377 on the grounds that two women are incapable of 'sodomy'.  As far as I know, no convictions of queer women have occurred under S. 377, for that reason.

This is not to say that S. 377 does not affect us: police and relatives do not see the law in the same way that courts do, and therefore there is reason to be concerned about police harassment (and possibly arrest).[1]  
Certainly, fewer queer people will be willing to come out about their sexuality, and being a queer person will have that social stigma of being unlawful.  This is why we need to stand in solidarity with the rest of the queer community, and advocate for the removal of regressive laws affecting us, regardless of whether we as individuals would actually be convicted in a court for our desires or our sexual activities.

It's also important to realise that there are other laws that have been used much more commonly to oppress queer women, and to separate couples by force (especially by disapproving families): Section 340 (wrongful confinement), S. 361 (kidnapping), S. 362 (abduction), S. 366 (compelling a woman to marry - this one could actually be used in our favour if there's ever a case that comes up in discussion and people are willing to take it up), S. 368 (concealment/confinement of a kidnapped person), and Habeas Corpus writs, among others.  

We need to voice our concerns about the misuse of all of these laws (because unlike S. 377, they all do have their place for protecting our rights in some sense), and bring up the issues facing queer women in the LGBTHKQI discourse in India.  Otherwise, I don't know that our concerns about these laws will be taken up by the queer community at large.  Had S. 377 been decriminalised Wednesday, I would have been afraid that many people (particularly gay men) would have gone home thinking that everything was fine, that the legal struggle is over now.  Now, we have a chance to take advantage of the solidarity that the queer community has demonstrated after such a regressive ruling.

It's also important to voice our concerns about women in this society generally, because regressive social views are what cause parents to file cases against their adult daughter (or her lover) for going against the family's will.  An adult woman should not have to deal with a Habeas Corpus writ against her, demanding that she be brought before the court and back to her family, regardless of her sexuality.[2]  This is a question of women's rights, not just about our innate desires and our right to express them (definitely that is our concern, but not the only one here).  

Additionally, the only way we're going to change anything is to create more awareness and acceptance in society at large, and to provide a safe and supportive space for all queer women.  

I'd like to see more initiative on the part of WHaQ to reach out to Kannada (and Tamil) speaking women in Bangalore (and the rest of Karnataka for that matter), especially middle and lower class women, because they have no space for support here.[3]  I don't think we've effectively done that (though the space that we have created is definitely important), but we can do more, especially now that WHaQ has a committee (and is working towards becoming a formal organisation, from what I know of the last few meetings).  How many of us, honestly, think that some young woman who is aware of her sexuality and lives in some conservative middle class family in Basavanagudi would come to WHaQ meetings and voice her concerns about family pressure to get married?[4]  It's doubtful, and we need be more supportive.  We should be asking ourselves what we can do.  .  . and ultimately doing something about all of this.

Cases like the recent incident in Madurai and the absolute lack of discussion within the queer community are something we should also speak up about.  When Vamshi Raju committed suicide, there was an immediate crisis meeting at Sangama, a press release, and much discussion in some groups such as Good as You.  When I brought up Radha's suicide, no one in Good as You really discussed anything further, except for suicide generally and what we can do if someone is at risk.  And from what I know of it, none of the groups in Tamil Nadu took up Radha's case either, no press release, nothing.  And this was an instance of a queer woman who had faced abduction charges and a Habeas Corpus writ, who been arrested for running away with her partner, ultimately to be dragged back to her family and the couple separated.  When are we going to take up issues like this?

It is important to stand in solidarity with the rest of the queer community, and I think this quote from Sappho fits quite well:
 I want to say something, but shame prevents me.
Yet if you had a desire for good or beautiful things
and your tongue were not concocting some evil to say
shame would not hold down your eyes
but rather you would speak about what is just.

[1] Section 377 has typically been used against gay men, kothis, and hijras from lower economic classes, and of course male sex workers.  Given the nature of the police in this country, it is unfortunately the case that police and the judiciary have differing interpretations of the law, and obviously people are booked under laws that would not result in a conviction.  For instance, if the Hassan case goes to court, it is unlikely that any of them will actually be convicted under Section 377, because the law is clear in that there must be ample proof of penetration.  Relatives could use the illegality of ‘unnatural’ sexual activities to validate their disapproval of queer family members.
[2] Habeas Corpus has long been used as a writ against adult women running away from their families, and the real concern is their use to control women, not only queer women. 
[3] Sangama had a project for queer women and trans men, but this has ended and Sangama seems to be focusing mostly on gay men, kothis, and hijras.  LesBiT has also been present at various times, but currently does not meet regularly, and anyway has no office space or structure.  The example of Sahayatrika in Kerala is the one case of a group for queer women that has had successful outreach in the past to all sections of society.
[4] I’ve used Basavanagudi as an example because I live there and I’ve had enough conversations with my neighbours to know the emphasis on marriage, but any conservative middle class Kannada-speaking area is similar in this regard.  Expectations surrounding marriage do vary somewhat based on class, and there tends to be more freedom for upper class women in this regard.  Again, this brings up matters of a woman’s personal freedoms, not only queer women, but generally speaking.  It’s a question of woman’s control over her body and her life, and her inherent right to marry and love no one if she so wishes. 

1 comment:

  1. Meena, thanks for posting this. I'm just copy/pasting Mari's response (it was on FB) here.

    "All of these points are reasons we felt that it was imperative for WHaQ to become more organized. For the kinds of help we need to be able to provide, formal funding opportunities must be available. Why don't we have a shelter for women, queer women, for example? There is nothing like a shelter pan India of this sort.

    All of these points are included in our long term vision. Unfortunately, we are still too small at this point to be as effective as some of the other groups you mentioned.

    So, we must plan it out, and this is what we are so desperately doing, by formation of our core committee.

    We plan on having a clear-cut annual plan for WHaQ by January. Stay tuned.
    All of these points are included in our long term vision. Unfortunately, we are still too small at this point to be as effective as some of the other groups you mentioned.
    So, we must plan it out, and this is what we are so desperately doing, by formation of our core committee.

    We plan on having a clear-cut annual plan for WHaQ by January. Stay tuned."