Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Love, Sex aur Shaadi...

Sudha Vasan

We live in confusing times. Take Delhi University, every February for the last few years, large numbers of students get ready with lathis and stones, some get ready with cards, roses and chocolates, and some simply stay at home to avoid all of the above. All this hullabaloo about a day that gets marked as a day of love, a relatively recent import to this university at least. Again, the process repeats itself, for a more 'traditional' celebration of Holi. According to some readings of Indian village society, here's a day that supposedly reverses the hierarchies in society, where peasant men and women can mock the landlord. As far as holi in Delhi is concerned, it is a day women suffer water missiles. No reversal of power here. Most women students of University avoid coming out on Holi. In a country where heterosexual 'love' is carefully packaged and obsessively celebrated in popular films and songs, folklore and mythology, in practice it generates as much anxiety and fear, as any pleasant emotions.
Choosing your own partner is rarely if ever a normal activity in India. It can be for a small section of the society, if as many youth actually do in practice, you choose a partner of the right gender, caste,religion, nationality, skin colour, race, region, education, and economic and social status. Although it is often marriages that transgress these norms that are highlighted as 'love' marriages in India, mojority of the love-marriages do not transgress these rules. In at least one case we came across, the couple had even matched their horoscopes before they decided to take their romance any further - an Indian merger of tradition and modernity. Self-regulation is clearly an integral component of hegemony.

We live in times today where the opportunity for young men and women to interact away from watchful eyes of family/community is at its highest.  As women in higher education and urban workforce increase in numbers, the old mechanisms of control and observation are weakening. Women's hostels try very hard to replicate these controls, closing their doors before darkness arrives and keeping track of what young women may be up to during their leisure hours. The threat that the old patriarchal order perceives in the loosening of its control explodes in ever more violent reaction to any transgression of traditional authority. The exercise of individual autonomy its violently opposed more so today because of its possibility.

The tragedy of 21st century love in India is that opportunity for young people to interact are emerging in a social space mired in anti democratic tradition, and inhuman conservatism. For a love between two people to reach any level of fulfillment it is necessary that persons involved have self esteem, and also an accommodating consciousness to provide the other person's space for self respect. Does our society equip young people with such values? It is not uncommon to see young men physically attack their women lovers in parks of places like Delhi University. The hold of patriarchy is such that many a young women cling on to their violent partners, willing to sacrifice their self respect at the altar of love. Furthermore, institutions which give space to young people to interact, are also the ones that restrict the development of their autonomy. Very few educational institutions in the country have statutory Anti Sexual Harassment Committees. Hostel wardens in Delhi University are often heard arguing that restrictions on girl students are for their own safety. University has failed miserably in training its students , both men and women, to confront and fight sexual harassment. Urban public spaces and places of work and market are other arenas where young people get oppurnity to interact. Yet very few of them are actually secure for young people.Even policemen are known to harass and  attack young couples. a young couple in trouble can expect little help from public at large and work place management. Non hetero-normative couples need to be prepared for the worst. When it comes to marriage, the law for civil marriage is so cumbersome and risky, that many young couples eterily avoid it, and take recourse to institutions like the Arya Samaj. That even after sixty years of liberal democracy, our constitution, legislature and legal system have failed to provide an easily accessible legal avenue to young couples threatened  by their parents and communities, says a lot about their democratic content.

It is in this constrained scenario with no social support that youth have to explore the possibilities that are opening up. This shows in several ways in relationships - some of which are caricatured in the several reality shows on love and heartbreak. For one, young people face intense pressure to 'be in a relationship'. In the whole talk about modern liberatory  future being in choosing one's own partner, what is often missed is the problematic extrapolation that modernity or liberation is inherently, or only, found in such relationship. Other than rejecting all human relationships (since the problems we discuss here spreads its tentacles beyond hetero-normative relations), there is a problem when self-worth gets defined by the presence or absence of a particular type of relationship. among school/college students in a place like Delhi, the burden of needing to find a boyfriend/girlfriend weighs heavy on many teenage minds. While physical attraction is quite strong and perhaps overpowering at this pubescent age, skewed gendered socialization pushes this unhealthy directions. In Delhi University, young men who have never been shown how to interact with a girl they may be physically attracted to, gawk, sing vulgar songs, make off-color remarks on body, try to stalk them or send lewd SMSes, desperately seeking 'friendship'. We find young women on the other hand who are depressed that they have not yet hooked a boyfriend, girls who agree to sex in the desperation to keep a boyfriend, or confuse this as 'love'.

Love Sex aur Dhoka (LSD), the recent offbeat Hindi film shows one variation of this sequence. A young women from a lower-middle class background, working as a store clerk to support her family is flattered by a flirting man. The man, equally awkward and unsure, engages in flirting. The woman's socialization , as her animated interaction with her female friend shows, is about finding a partner for'love'/marriage. Reference to sex is indirect, at most a physical reference to the handsomeness of the man. The man's interaction with other men is focussed on sex, on the 'catch',on when, how and whether the woman will agree to sex. The film sequence of course ends with the couple having sex, where the woman professes her love and the man records it on CCTV camera to sell as MMS sex-tape. Whether the end of relationship is real life are so dramatic/tragic or not, the film sequence highlights the remarkable difference of exposure and socialization of men and women regarding sex, and the constant confusion between love and sex,and perhaps marriage, because it is mostly taboo to talk of love and sex without talking of marriage in India. Even the Supreme Court had to intervene (when hundreds of cases were filed against actress Khusboo who mentioned that women who have pre-marital sex should do so responsibly) and declare that it is okay to talk about these separately!

Part of the confusion can be traced to the disjoint between the gendered subjectivity generated in a more closed conservative society, often the family environment, and the material conditions which provide youth the opportunity to briefly explore a different world . In India today, young women from a wider cross-section of society are facing at least brief autonomous spaces for the first time. For young women who come to University  or take up jobs that are not within the household/village/state/country there is a new autonomous space that opens up. A space where they have to and can make decisions for themselves. A space where they are responsible for their decisions and will often singly, face the consequences of their own decisions. Love, sex and marriage in this context are significant decisions with emotional, physical, and material consequences, only some of them pleasant.

In the hyper-society we live in, if love is anxiety, sex is confusion, marriage is drama! Marriage in India is a public event involving the 'honour' of multiple individuals, villages, clans, communities, and at certain moments in our history such as Partition, even entire nations. Even today when an Indian woman chooses to marry a Pakistani man, it is a matter of international relations, national pride, patriotism and media hyper-action.

Marriage in India leads to murder. In the Eighties, we focussed on the murder of women for dowry by the marital family. Those were the days of frequent stove-blasts and kerosene-drenched brides on fire. Even thought the anti-dowry activism clearly showed that the great Indian family, including husbands, mother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, father/brother-in-laws were involved in killing women for dowry. The Supreme Court had to recently reiterate this - women could also be charged under dowry harassment laws. In the same decade, we saw deaths on funeral pyres. Supposedly modern educated women burning in the funeral pyres of their husbands purportedly to join their dead husbands or as a sacrifice to maintain the great Indian culture. Technology changed in the Nineties. When sex ratios plummeted, we were told female foetuses were unwanted and the reason - against the cost and difficulty of marriage. The rest of what a human life may include is irrelevant; difficulty in getting women married seemed sufficient to reject their birth. Even if that meant having to buy slave- brides from other regions, as in many parts of Haryana today. This decade we are again facing murders for marriage. Women choosing to marry men of their choice (choosing a man would lead to violence anyways), are butchered to death by their loving families - brothers, fathers, mothers. 

Law, on the other hand, speaks a more progressive language than the society does. We have the Courts providing sanction for extra-marital or pre-marital sex; we have law recoginising live-in relationships in the Domestic Violence Act. We live in strange times indeed. Who would have thought that we would have to stand up to protect laws that promote the institution of marriage and a religious law at that? But we have indeed come to those times, when feminists and progressive people are forced to stand up against khaps that want to change the Hindu Marriage Act! But marriage indeed is a complex problem in our everyday lives. And the cpmlexity is at least partly due to entrenched relationship between love, sex and marriage - a relationship that does not seem to function the way anyone of us want it to - snooking its thumb at feminists, khaps and the Law!

At one level, we still need to fight for basic autonomy and choice as we live in a society that seems virulently organised to oppose it. The rights of individuals to make their own decisions and live with them is one that we need to continuously struggle for. At another level we need to take this struggle further. Choice is only the first step; the struggle for democratic relationships only begins with choice and autonomy. In all the chatter about love vs. arranged marriage, marriage vs. live-in, hetero-normative vs. open, conservative vs. liberal, we cannot forget that the bottom line is that every relationship that we build with other human beings can be liberatory or constraining based entirely on the democratic space and mutual dignity that the two individuals allow for themselves and their partner. If we choose to get into a 'love-marriage' or live-in relationship with the same hierarchical, undemocratic frameworks and expectations of dependence and patronage in romance, how can it be very different from other versions? It is time to examine these 'modern' relationships so that they do not become mirror images of the more prevalent in the society.

Despite its many rebellious potentials and pretensions, love is stamped by its social ground. Certain very rare examples apart, love can challenge social mores only so much. Ultimately, teh full blooming of love between humans, irrespective of their class, caste, religion, language or gender, demands a new kind of society. If, as Che Guevara said, revolution is love, so is love impossible without revolution.
Note: This article appeared in the recent issue of Stree Mukti (Women's Liberation) published by Stree Adhikar Sangathan 


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