Yes, Nepal can!

So California couldn’t manage it; Proposition 8 – a ban on gay marriage – was passed, and the California Supreme Court will now examine whether the ban is constitutional or not.

And India is still mulling over it; the Indian Supreme Court is yet to give its final verdict on Section 377, which criminalises gay sex.

But Nepal leads the way: in a historic judgement, delivered on 17 November, Nepal’s Supreme Court not only reiterated that LGBTIs are ‘natural persons’, entitled to equal rights, identity and expression, regardless of their sex at birth, but has also set up a commission that will recommend a same-sex marriage act for the Nepal government.

What made this extraordinary moment possible? One reason is clearly the tireless activism of LGBTI groups in Nepal, led amongst others, by the first openly gay member of Nepal’s constituent assembly, the Communist Party of Nepal (United) representative Sunil Babu Pant. Another factor seems to be the participation of LGBTI in campaigns for a democratic, secular Nepal, a process that led to the relinquishing of the monarchy by King Gyanendra in April, and a new constituent assembly in which the Maoists have the majority.

As Sunil Pant himself said, on a recent visit to India:

In Nepal, the LGBTI communities were part of the campaign for garnering votes for the Communist Party of Nepal. They approached me to campaign and I managed to secure 15,500 votes. It makes a statement that LGBTI people are interested in matters of politics and governance and not just sex. The campaign not only gave LGBTI issues visibility but a platform to negotiate for rights.

And a final interesting possibility raised by a Global Voices commentator from Nepal, is that the country’s predominantly Hindu culture is more accepting of gay rights. She quotes an excerpt from Ruth Vanita’s essay on Homosexuality and Hinduism, in support:

In 2004, Hinduism Today reporter Rajiv Malik asked several Hindu swamis (teachers) their opinion of same-sex marriage. The swamis expressed a range of opinions, positive and negative. They felt free to differ with each other; this is evidence of the liveliness of the debate, made possible by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As Mahant Ram Puri remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism. We have a hundred million authorities.

However, while this argument should surely have traction in India – and is used by sexuality rights advocates – the Indian government’s stand has been, rather ironically, more Victorian than Vedic. Whether the courage of Nepal’s jurists inspires their colleagues in India, remains to be seen. This is one case of cross-border trafficking that I would welcome.

Section 377 and Proposition 8

Here in California, both advocates for and against are calling it the second biggest battle after the Presidential elections on November 4: the fate of Proposition 8 on the ballot, or the move to ban gay marriages. In June this year, same-sex marriages were made legal in California (the second state after Massachusetts, and then Connecticut followed); over 11,000 couples have got married in the few months since. In fact, pioneering lesbian rights activist, Del Martin, died in August at the age of 87, after having married Phyllis Lyon, her companion of over 55 years, on June 16, the first day of legalisation. Sexuality rights activists are worried that well deserved celebrations in June are starting to feel somewhat premature: proposition 8 is the first time an attempt is being made to eliminate a civil right already achieved.

Back home in India, an even more fundamental – and equally critical – battle is being fought over Section 377, the section of the 1861 Indian Penal Code that criminalises ‘unnatural sex’. Ironically, the British – under whose reign the Indian Penal Code was created in pre-independent India – rejected such criminalisation in 1967. And various scholars, including Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai in Same-Sex Love in India, have demonstrated fairly unequivocally that same-sex love and relationships have existed and been represented in Indian art and literature for over two thousand years.

In 2002, the Naz Foundation (India) filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Delhi High Court to challenge Section 377, with growing support from across the country. In recent hearings on the PIL, the Additional Solicitor General PP Malhotra has sounded more than mildly Victorian himself while trying to defend the section against incisive judicial questioning: “Gay sex is against the order of the nature. We will disturb the nature by allowing them to do so. In the compelling circumstances the State has to take the help of the law to maintain the public morality.” The government’s stand itself is somewhat confused: the Ministry of Health believes that legalising homosexuality would help in its efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, while the Ministry of Law is against it on ‘moral’ grounds.

Last week, over 30 Rhodes Scholars from India wrote to the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh – who has often served on the Selection Committee for the Rhodes Trust – and asked him to repeal Section 377. In the letter, we said:

Ever since the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships were first given to Indian students in 1947, its recipients have contributed in many different ways to the progress of India, in education, the civil service, science, and business. We, the undersigned, belong to this diverse community of Indian Rhodes Scholars but write in our individual capacity as Indian citizens with a commitment to public service and the fundamental principles of the Indian constitution — liberty, equality, justice, and the dignity of the individual. We believe that it is clear what these principles demand of us today: to join the growing body of concerned citizens that calls for the decriminalisation of consensual sex between adults of the same sex by the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

As the historic case over the constitutionality of Section 377 now awaits the attention of the Delhi High Court, we write to register our profound disagreement with the language of the Additional Solicitor General P. P. Malhotra, who, in articulating the government’s stance, has argued that reading down the section could ‘open the floodgates for delinquent behaviour and be misconstrued as providing unbridled licence for homosexual acts’. He has argued, in addition, that strong social disapproval and the ‘right to health of society’ is sufficient reason to justify the treatment of homosexuals as criminals.


The health of our society, our democracy, and our polity, requires that we recognise the historic nature of this moment. Section 377 is a colonial relic, an imposition of un-Indian Victorian attitudes towards human sexuality that even the United Kingdom rejected in 1967. The government today has the unique chance to extend the fundamental right to equality and freedom to Indians who have long been discriminated against. This discrimination is real and manifests itself in police arrests, the threat of blackmail, and brutal violence, among other things, relegating India’s sexual minorities to second-class citizenship. We recall the courage of earlier governments in putting principle above immediate popularity in fighting for an end to institutionalised caste- and gender-based discrimination. We urge this government, a government committed to the cause of social and political justice, to seize the moment and make the historic decision to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The full text of the letter is here. The Telegraph reported that a couple of days after the delivery of the letter, the Prime Minister asked the Ministers of Health and Law to “sit together”, and “sort out” the matter:

Singh’s directive to his colleagues came two days after 30-odd Rhodes scholars from India wrote to him requesting “an end to a law” that they said went “not only against fundamental human rights” but also worked “sharply against the enhancement of human freedoms”.

Earlier this year in an article in Frontline, Rakesh Shukla of Voices Against 377 said: “The petition is important but not enough. We need to continue to lobby with political parties, the legal fraternity, the police and mental health professionals and to raise awareness among the public.” This is absolutely true; repealing Section 377 is not going to ensure dignity and security for hijras, kothis, lesbians or gays in India, but it is an urgently needed first step, and our government needs to take it.

Image courtesy Sangama.

Being an ‘Action Hero’


The Blank Noise Project asked for a blog-a-thon on March 8th; a way of celebrating the strengths of those who resist, in some way, street level harassment. A great idea. Yet the words ‘Action Hero’ somehow constrain me: what is Action, and who is a Hero? This March 8th, I was in the middle of a workshop with a group of police officers from States across South India and reiterating – many times over, in different ways – that women are *not* women’s worst enemies (yes, a treatise on that soon). Was that being an Action Hero? I work with men, with law enforcers, with some of the most patriarchal structures in the world, and I do not abuse, I do not indignify, I do not violate. Perhaps more honestly, I do my best not to (there are times when I bite my tongue, hard. It hurts). But certainly I describe, I analyse, I provoke, I persuade. I challenge. Is that being an Action Hero?

Whatever the ways in which Jasmeen, Mangs, Chinmayee and Annie conceived of it, philosophical flimsies are not going to cut it. So let me remind myself – and tell others – of a couple of lessons I learnt early. One was when I was in college in Delhi. Being in the hostel, any kind of travel involved painful hours in a sweaty bus or painfully expensive moments in an auto. The choice was simple, and I learnt more about harassment on DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses than any hi-falutin’ economics. Perhaps (says the philosopher), I did get somewhere after all.

I learnt that anger is not always strategic. It’s a peculiar Delhi phenomenon – and I find it slowly spreading to other cities, including Bangalore – that if you raise your voice in anger against someone who’s harassing you, very few people are likely to support you. However obvious the harassment, however gruesome the details. Someone who’s not just touching you, but who’s conveniently using the lack of interstitial space to slam against every bit of you and rub himself up in perverse joy. What works? Shame. And humour. Humour, you ask in horror? Was it funny, what he was doing? No, it wasn’t. Far from. But what worked was this: I would say loudly, so that as many people around could hear me, in as bored a clarion call as possible, ‘Kya bhaiya, yeh sab aap ghar me nahi kar sakthe, kya? [Why, brother, can’t you do all this at home?]’. There would be titters, some loud guffaws and the slammer-against-body (whose face I couldn’t even see, considering the position I was in) would suddenly ease himself up, and leave the bus at the next convenient moment. Or at least move himself from the parking spot that was my body.

Another moment of self-preservation epiphany. I was travelling from Karwar to Raichur via Hubli (all in north Karnataka). I ended up being in a bus that landed up in Raichur at 2 in the morning [Note to self: try not to travel alone to unknown destinations at odd hours of the night. As far as possible]. On the bus, I had made ample and effective use of a loaded water bottle to preserve my bums from groping fingers and toes belonging to the person sitting in the seat behind me. When I got down at the bus stop, I found the place strewn with sleeping bodies and bags. Luckily for single women, very few public places in India are ‘deserted’. The trouble is, those who are temporarily inhabiting that space may not (as mentioned before) support you in a moment of crisis. Anyhow, no one was awake at the Raichur bus stop; it was deathly quiet and with only one tube light that cast a pool of light over a limited area. Some instinctual common sense made me clamber over the bodies and bags, shift a few of those around gently, and settle into a position right in the middle of the light. Not a moment too soon. A burly man, probably in his mid thirties, came up out of the shadows, and watched me for a while. He circled around the bus stop, over and over again, waiting, I feel with hindsight, for me to move out of the light. I didn’t. I was terrified, but I wasn’t going to run. So lesson number 2: running isn’t always the solution. Stay in the light, and be prepared to scream.

After about what felt like a few hours (but was probably closer to 45 minutes), he realised I wasn’t going to budge. And he left. I stayed awake, clutching my bag, clutching myself, thanking my surprisingly sharp instincts that I hadn’t done something unbearably foolish. Lesson number 3: trust that gut of yours. It is seldom wrong. ‘Rationality’ is judged by outcome.

More from Pandit Gangu Hangal

Gangubai once told film-maker Vijaya Mulay, in the initial years of television: “If a male musician is a Muslim, he becomes an Ustad. If he is a Hindu, he becomes a Pandit. But women like Kesarbai and Mogubai just remain Bais.”

Ustad: master/teacher, Pandit: scholar/teacher, Bai: sister.

Should women marry career men?

And if this sounds absurd to you, why doesn’t the opposite sound equally absurd to Michael Noer (he of the infamous Forbes article ‘Don’t marry career women’)… or to many others on this planet?

Bageshree had an interesting piece (which has bits from yours truly, ahem) in the Hindu yesterday, in which she quotes an admirer of ‘Nooyi’s Nintendo strategy’ (!) through which Indra Nooyi allegedly combines “the high-octane energy of her job with the calm, collected demeanour required to manage the equally central responsibility of a mother and a wife.” Bageshree then asks, rather pertinently:

But what happens to slightly lesser mortals who might be doing okay in their careers but may not quite have arrived at what’s called “Nooyi’s Ninetendo strategy”? Those who leave a pile of washing undone or don’t read a bedtime story to the child because there’s a deadline dangling over the head? Or rush off to an emergency surgery without feeding the child hot soup when she returns from school?

Most likely, someone will be whispering into the husband/partner’s ears: “I told you to keep away from these career women, didn’t I?”

The article also profiles Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett’s article, ‘Gasp, I married a career woman!‘ which is well worth a read. They say:

We have just completed a major new analysis of data from our study of dual-earner couples that was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. The data, not yet published, utterly contradict the Forbes thesis that men will be unhappy if they marry career women. Our study–which looks at men’s marital happiness–finds that among dual-earner couples, as she works more, his marital quality goes up. Why so? Probably for a number of reasons.

Men’s wages have been stagnant or declining for nearly 20 years, so her income may be easing financial tensions and making it possible for the couple to pay their bills. Her enhanced earnings may be heightening her self esteem, and so she brings these good feelings about herself into the marriage. He may want to spend more time with the family, and her work eases the breadwinning burden. Research tells us that men today do want more family time and are actually spending more time with their families than they used to.

Lucky I married a feminist. 🙂

You’ve come a long way, baby?

…into a world in which your parents tell you you’re ‘unwanted’ every time they call your name.

From Uma’s post, in which she quotes a news report on what some girl children are called in Punjab and Haryana:

Kaafi ~ Enough

Bharpai ~ Paying the Penalty

Dhappan ~ A Full Stomach

Mariya ~ Deathly.

Badho ~ Excessive.

Bas Kar ~ Stop It.

Unchahi ~ Unwanted.

Minimum security, maximum impact…

Or: women political cartoonists and why we need more of ’em.

I thought it was about time I introduced Stephanie McMillan to those of you who read this blog, but don’t know about her (and possibly don’t check my blogroll; hey, that’s okay, forgive you). I came upon her when this brilliant cartoon did the rounds:

This was up on Stephanie’s site, Minimum Security, in April 2006, in response to Republican Senator Bill Napoli‘s support to a legislation in South Dakota limiting abortion services access to (in his words):

a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married.

The rest of us, married or otherwise, virgin or otherwise, religious or otherwise, clearly don’t count. So Stephanie felt, if anti-abortion politicians can be so certain about telling women what to do with their bodies, why not let them deal with other decisions women make? All other decisions…!

Continue reading “Minimum security, maximum impact…”

Transgendering science: mind the gap

Former President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers may – once again – need to eat his (in)famous words – that innate differences between men and women lead to fewer women than men in the top rung of scientists. This time, he may have to chew them fairly soundly. Because Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is uniquely placed to refute his argument: he used to be Barbara. In Shankar Vedantam’s piece on Barres in the Washington Post, he quotes Barres:

After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Continue reading “Transgendering science: mind the gap”

Vive le difference, le debate, le dissent…

Around the time Ashwin and I decided to set up this space (Ashwin with energy and enthusiasm, and I somewhat diffident and uncertain… I mean how self-indulgent can one get, I thought??!), I was sent the link to a raging debate around the (possible) racist implications of the cover to a book edited by Shamillah, Kristy and me: Defending our Dreams. Without going into too much detail about the book – of course you have to read it – it was a wonderful privilege putting together what is possibly the first anthology of its kind. A collection of young feminist writing from across the world, representing a range of issues, with contributors from eleven countries and all the populated continents, including a piece by male feminists (yes, they exist; if you don’t think so… you got it. Read the book.).

Coming back to the debate on, Defending our Cover turned out to be a strangely joyful task: infuriating and inspiring at the same time. Infuriating, because initially it seemed perverse that Southern (read: black, brown and white from South Africa and India) feminists should be defending the cover of their – international – book against a bunch of Northern (read: possibly white) feminists. Inspiring, for exactly the same reason. When I got past the upside-down-ness of it all, I was amazed by the range and depth of the debate around race, racism and its implications. A debate conducted on a bulletin board by a dozen women (of different ages, I suspect): serious, funny, passionate. And I could pop right in with my comments around our interpretations and intentions, including the fact that the cover was inspired by a great self-portrait by Jasmeen, a young woman from Bangalore whose art and activism are beyond doubt. A book that had been created almost entirely virtually (that’s another story) continues a life beyond its covers in exactly the same way: through virtual communities who share its convictions, debate its contents and hopefully, live its ideals in real, tough, worlds.

Continue reading “Vive le difference, le debate, le dissent…”