Tag Archives: morality

The Venus Flytrap: Not A Private Matter

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When I became involved with Chennai’s first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – or in broad terms, queer) Pride Month, I fully expected to encounter disapproval from openly intolerant people and organizations. But more disturbing were the less transparent remonstrations, from individuals who seemed far more open-minded than the average Chennaiite. The most lingering of these impressions was when I was told that the rights of sexual minorities are less important than other causes, and that they are, and should stay, “a private issue”.

Whether or not an issue is more or less important than others is a highly subjective matter – we always fight against or for what hurts or matters to us most, based on what we are exposed to by virtue of our circumstances. But the underlying contention was that queer rights only affect some people, whereas issues like education, clean sewage and pollution affect everybody.

And this is where I beg to differ.

Fact is that sexuality and sexual agency are extremely public issues. The entire so-called moral bedrock of society is based on forcing people to behave in certain sanctioned ways, regardless of whether or not these ways are in tune with their biological, psychological and emotional orientations. If this wasn’t the case, arranged marriages – which organize people’s sexual behaviour within a regimented, strictly heterosexual social framework – would not exist. Vast swathes of misogynistic behaviour would all but disappear, because much such behaviour comes as reaction to the threat perceived in fully self-possessed female sexuality. Count honour killings, eve-teasing and molestations – any act of “punishment” based on gender and sexuality – among them. Women would have complete autonomy over their uteruses. People could marry out of caste or culture freely. Divorce would be destigmatized. Asexuality, too, would be accepted as part of the continuum of possible sexualities.

And of course, if sexuality was a private issue, archaic Penal Code laws that criminalize private adult sexual behaviours (such as consensual anal sex between men) would not exist. The law would stay out of bedrooms (and yes, bathrooms and brothels), as long as consent is present. Did you know that under Section 377 of the Code, oral sex between consenting heterosexual adults is technically illegal? Does all this still seem like a minorities’ problem?

I see the Pride movement as paving the way for a society that is better for everybody in it, not just queer people. An environment which is accepting of diverse sexualities is one in which everyone, including straight people and people who “don’t make a big deal about their orientation”, is freer. Perhaps then sexuality will truly be a private matter.

Freer to do what, you may ask? To me, the answer is simple – to love who they love, and be who they are. And if that’s not an issue that matters to every person there is, so universal that no one – bar no one – is unaffected by it, I don’t know what is. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about sex nearly as much as it is about freedom, identity – and love.

So this June, as supporters take to the streets in a fabulous parade, raise awareness (and the roof!) with panel discussions, performances and film screenings, bear in mind just how many people we’re fighting for. All with open hearts will be welcomed with open arms.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

For more details about Chennai Pride 2009, check out the Facebook group.

Pink Panties, In Protest!

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Ignore my most recent column in its entirety. This is exactly what you should be celebrating on February 14 this year. Girly guerrilla activism! I love it!


Join A Consortium of Pug-Going, Loose and Forward Women on Facebook. I haven’t been this gleeful to get a group invite in forever.

Check out the blog.

The campaign is in response to the attacks two weeks ago by a group of Sri Ram Sena moralists on women patrons in a pub in Mangalore.

The Venus Flytrap: A Toast To Sobriety

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This is how we know that the financial crisis has finally hit home: pretty soon, there are going to be multitudes more homeless on the streets of Tamil Nadu. As tends to happen in times of crisis, they will come almost exclusively from one minority: in this unfortunate case, bootleggers. Whereas the impoverished masses generally seek solace in drink, these former Sultans of Smirnoff, these de-crowned Jesuses of Jose Cuervo, traditionally find salvation in dryness. The state’s, that is. But those days are over. Tamil Nadu is letting liquor loose.

As per honoured cultural customs, alcohol can only be procured via four avenues: from the government-run TASMACs, duty-free at the airport for those lucky jetsetters, overpriced in bars (that must by law be attached to twenty rooms – independence is always evil), or from our buddies the bootleggers. But now that imported liquor will become available in the TASMACs and rumours of even more relaxed laws swirl around town like the olive in a martini, those customs are soon to be a thing of the past. Goodbye innocence, hello mass inebriation.

Since all social problems are inconceivable without the presence of an intoxicating substance (such as gulab jamun, frequently found at traumatic events like weddings), we can expect a huge surge in crime and moral decline. It is well-documented that elephants never rampage, students never fail exams, trains never get derailed and women are never abandoned without alcohol being involved somehow.

The fact that one of history’s most famous teetotalers was Adolf Hitler, and some of history’s most famous leading lushes included Winston Churchill, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (the latter two were also a whiskey distiller and a wine-grower, respectively), should be regarded only as mere coincidence and a purposeful distortion of data.

Let’s not forget that extremely dangerous side effect of liquor consumption: honesty. Can you imagine how bleak a future without hypocrisy, self-censorship, underhanded insults and duplicity will be? It may lead to a breakdown of all communication. We’ll all have to hike out somewhere far from civilization, grow out dreadlocks, get high and ponder our navels and the origin of the universe. Unlike anything ascribed in our holy and historical traditions, of course. If things get really apocalyptic, we may even begin to take up that celebrity-endorsed foreign import, yoga.

And a word on the health consequences. Alcohol may have been proven to protect against cardiovascular disease and extend the lives of moderate drinkers, but more importantly by far, it is also known to cause sterility, impotence and lack of libido. We are definitely better off without any impediments to our ongoing social experiments, such as trouncing China in the quest to fit the most number of malnourished babies into a single square kilometre as possible, and getting our most unpleasant relatives married off and out of the range of our rifle scopes.

Finally, on a most sobering note, we can only imagine what will happen to the house rules that prevent men from entering dens of sin in slippers. As everybody knows, there is nothing more uncontrollably titillating, or more of an invitation to collapse into anarchy, than the sight of the male toes. Today it’s tequila instead of homegrown toddy. Tomorrow, it will be a pageant of protruding pinkies and podiatric cleavage. Oh impressionable, corruptible, guilelessly gullible people of the post-prohibition era – how will we ever survive such an onslaught?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Pride and Prejudice

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I’m thrilled by the gay pride parades held earlier this week in Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. I know it doesn’t matter that Chennai didn’t have one (far as I know, anyway) – legislatively speaking, any successful activism will affect us nationwide. I know there’ll probably be one here next year, if not sooner, and that we’re the stick-in-the-mud city, but we’ll catch up. I know all this, really I do. Still, I’m kind of, just a little, selfishly sad.

You see, I am a faghag. Ever since school, my closest friends have always been gay men. I find these relationships infinitely less complicated than those with women, which are ruined by the deeply-conditioned rivalry that is the cross we bear, and straight men, who get the wrong idea when you call them “honey”. There’s no social situation I adore more than one in which I’m surrounded by boys, all whom are prettier than me, and none of whom will take me home for anything more Broadway karaoke.

So you can imagine how I felt when I moved here. To sum up a rather horrifying realisation: I couldn’t find the gay men. I was a faghag in straight-acting city.

I knew they had to be around. Homosexuality is universal, no matter what conservatives claim. Our ridiculous sex laws and current brand of moralism are, after all, British imports: indigenously, our mores and mythologies are deliciously decadent. Chennai could not possibly be the boring strictly-hetero capital of the world – Tamil Nadu’s recognition of transgender rights was proof enough. But relying exclusively on Gtalk marathons with friends elsewhere to get my fix, sometimes it really did feel like it was.

A couple of months into the relocation, I met a flamboyant producer who had the stereotypes down pat: loud shirt, bitchy repartee, the works. I nearly fainted when he mentioned his wife and three kids.

At one point, I got so desperately perplexed that I went to a gay dating site, just to remind myself that it’s not that they don’t exist, my future friends, they were just in hiding. It was lots of fun for about two minutes, and then the chest area-only profile shots got a little repetitive. All I learned was that you can take the heterosexuality out of the Indian man, but not the Oedipus complex.

Over time, the nature of my conversations and enquiries took more serious tones. It didn’t take a genius to see that my problem was not a lack of gay men – even men who identified as straight divulged to me that they had enjoyed encounters with other men. The sexual aspect in itself was common.

What was not common, however, was the lifestyle I had come to associate with gay men. This was a sobering understanding. How ever these circles and communities came together, there was no room for the faghag. Not only was I out of depth among them, I was also completely superficial.

I am always intrigued by situations that challenge my liberalism, and this lonely experience was enlightening. What I knew of gay culture was homogenous, centred around the arts and pop culture – a fabulous culture, to use the iconic word. But that is not gay reality in Chennai, which is characterized by concealment and subterfuge, not concealer and showtunes.

So rest assured that when the pride parade finally hits the city, I’ll be there in full regalia. Only this time, I’ll keep in mind that the fight for acceptance of diversity can, reasonably enough, include my exclusion. I can’t wait to see what a more open Chennai will look like. Even if it looks like nothing I’ve ever known.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: No Love In This Democracy

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At their most basic, our survival needs have at least three components: food, shelter and love. The first and second are physical necessities. The third appears almost as a technical error – in no medical book will you find a prescription for causing or curing love. Yet, we know it is possible to die of heartbreak, even literally. It is the alchemy that makes the distinction between a life lived and one that is merely survived.

If Love is God, as some like to say, then it is equally contentious. Whose business is love? If recent reports are anything to go by, it is strictly under the jurisdiction of state and society. Consider two incidents in Tamil Nadu that made headlines in late May. An eloping couple in their 20s were forcibly separated with no less than the intervention of political parties. Two women, both around 40, committed suicide out of shame over their “unnatural” relationship; in an ironic twist, their families chose to cremate them together, giving them in death what was so mercilessly denied them in life.

This preoccupation with telling people how to conduct their most intimate relationships is deeply unhealthy. To enforce discipline on teenagers is one thing. To persecute adults for following their hearts is another, a malaise that reveals deep prejudices against fundamental freedoms. We live in a version of democracy which allows adults to vote for their leaders, but not for their lovers.

Race, age, gender, religion, caste, location, affluence and incompatible horoscopes have served to keep people apart not for their own good, but for the good of a system that refuses to evolve. What disturbs me is how many people continue to adhere to these codes willingly. I see shades of this mental servility even among the most intelligent people I know.

That onlookers fear love is disheartening and challenging; that those in love fear their own love is downright disillusioning.

Those who raise, erroneously, the flags of tradition and culture should consider this 2000 year old poem by Cempulappeyanirar, brought from the Sangam age to our Anglicized ears by the genius of A.K. Ramanujan. Way back in the glory days of Tamil culture, this is what was seen, sung about, surrendered to:

What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
Did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain.

There, in a nutshell, is all I think I will ever need to know about life, and love. You love who you love. The end.

The most enduring romance I know of is between a beautiful artist in her 30s and someone twice her age, whose son she had gone to school with. When he dies, she does not know whether she will be permitted to go to his funeral. Theirs is a portmanteau love, patched together between countries and children from other marriages and the steadying force that has kept them together through years. It is a relationship that inspires me, one that shows courage. It is a relationship that sees the daggers, feels the fear, and takes the leap anyway.

Not all of us are so lucky as to find the ones who are made for us, cut from the same cloth of the soul. But those who do, do. It’s as simple as that. You love who you love. And the rest be damned, then? But here’s the thing: there is no rest, not really. No social construct, legal diktat or political enemy that cannot be dismantled. As cheesy as it sounds, love is all there is, and the rest is just window dressing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Infidelity Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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Infidelity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The lines we draw and how we negotiate them are all that varies between who we think we are and what we could be capable of. We are all that person.

What wounds me most may be nothing to you; what devastates you may be a mere trifle to me. The trick lies somewhere between hopscotching around the bare nerves in the battlefield of relationships and pretending they don’t exist, or subverting them altogether.

The old rules didn’t work. Women wept, men slept (around). No one asked, no one told. But no one needs that anymore. We are each more independent as individuals today than we have been throughout civilization. Nothing high-maintenance makes it, only that which is straightforward and obvious in its function survives. The single exception to this rule is love.

But what constitutes cheating? It varies from couple to couple, from context to context. The man in the sexless marriage who stays with his wife for the sake of his child but keeps a bachelor pad is no worse than the woman who claims eternal devotion to her boyfriend but has intense emotional affairs with other people. The loving gay couple with the everything-but-the-kiss rule may be truer and more loyal to one another than the anything-but-the-physical rule so many relationships abide by.

Our moral spectrums are like rubber bands. We believe they hold things together, but it shocks us how much they can accommodate. Circumstance and opportunity bend us, reshape us, twist up all we know of ourselves and deliver us – changed but wholly the same.

And yes, we have all seen it – the way the heart shatters, the jealousy, the rumours, the tragedy. We’ve had it done to us, we’ve watched it unfold its heartbreak within our families and the lives of our friends. We believe it is the worst thing anyone could do, a crime against love, the deadliest sin. And then we do.

And then know, in a way we never knew before, a way in which we never dared to know ourselves before: loyalty is not about what one does with one’s body. It’s about what one does with one’s mind.

Once, I knew a man who thought he could believe in an open relationship only in theory, never in practice. Once, I knew a woman who thought she would never be with anyone but him. Today they live in separate countries, and she is Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife. And who he is, whether he too climbs the table in that dark, dangerous café, or remains on the threshing floor with an arm raised for the bride’s bouquet, she does not dare to ask now.

And so what? If that to them is the only way they know how to love (themselves, one another, others), then leave them to it. I’m with the writer Lisa Carver on this one: “We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.” I can’t speak for the man I once knew, but I know his gypsy wife does.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: My Weekly Column, Out Now!

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So I woke up nearly two hours early today because I had to see the paper.  After six years in journalism, my byline by itself is no longer a source of hysterical excitement. But (deep breath) I have a column!

That column is The Venus Flytrap (special thanks to Chat for suggesting the name), in the Zeitgeist section of The New Indian Express. Zeitgeist is the Saturday paper, full of “alternative-style” columns. What can you expect from me? My dirty yet political mind, of course. :) Editor wanted “Early Salon.com meets better Sex and the City meets traditional op-ed”. I thought, “I’m game! Just don’t call me Carrie.”

I’ll be posting up my unedited columns here for archiving and sharing. Here’s installment one.

~~~

THE VENUS FLYTRAP

The City of Secret Sin

On New Year’s Day, my sisters and I were at a Barista on Chennai’s trendy Khader Nawaz Khan Road, where we were treated to something of a spectacle in this city: PDA.

Now if there’s any three-letter acronym that raises the hackles of the self-appointed moral guardians of the nation, the Tamil nation, and their general indignation – it’s this one. More specifically, if the parties in question are of opposite genders (men entangled in one another’s arms as they swagger, octopussily, down the street are as common as the cow).

So there’s all the accounting you need for where my manners went when I spotted the hetero couple on the couch, spooning, he nuzzling and kissing her neck while she affected rapturous expressions for a solid fifteen minutes. I stared like my eyelids had vanished. Curiously, the other patrons and the staff were completely blasé.

Was I offended, I asked myself? I, who pride myself on standing for liberated mores, who believes in the legalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of prostitution, the repealing of Penal Code 377? I had a problem with some mild making out within my sight?

No, I consoled myself. You haven’t gone that native yet (I’d been back in the city just a sullen three months at this point). What shocked me, I realized, was that somewhere between my last long spell in India and my present one, it looked like the social order had hiked its skirt above its head and started sprinting into the 21st century. And I had some catching up to do.

One thing I’ve learned about Chennai is that just when you’ve reconciled yourself to her conservatism, her stick-in-the-mud, tattle-to-Appa (or, more appropriately in times past, Amma) sense of staying firmly entrenched in an archaic world – just when you think you know her, she sticks a foot out to trip you up. And then you turn around and see she’s in leopard print thigh-highs.

Still, something about this particular incident uncharacteristically unnerved me. It went further than superficiality: it was actual risk-taking. And that’s when I realized that I was shocked, but not scandalized – actually, I was kind of thrilled. And not just because our voyeur-baiting couple was, well, pretty hot.

It’s been said that identity is a constant process of exchanging masks: and it may hold truer in no other place on earth. This is where women routinely carry around three different outfits to fit into various contexts, relationships are conducted exclusively via SMS, and every straight man wants Mallika Sherawat (but not as his wife). All said and done, under our hypocrisies and – most tellingly – our extraordinary abilities of subterfuge and personality adaptation, we’re as sordid as they come. We populate like we’re competing with rabbits, our HIV rate is among the world’s most rapidly increasing, yet we live in denial of these serious facts, and settle instead for pretensions of progress.

I’ve noticed that these days, everybody’s buying into the myth of New Chennai, and I would imagine, New India. Mid-length skirts and malls make us ‘modern’. As the blogger Krish Ashok put it, the city has gone from being married to tradition to being in a live-in relationship with it. Or so it seems. Because when push comes to shove, we haven’t changed. Misogyny, casteism, religious and communal prejudice – all the old brigades still rule the roost. Our taboos haven’t dissolved; we’ve just found ways to negotiate with them in temporary, individual ways that work in tandem with the system and have no bearing on society at large.

But ultimately – and this is no reflection on the exhibitionists who led to this cud-chewing – these ways are like somebody’s Mami doing the Macarena – mildly amusing, briefly scandalous, but mostly just sad both in a lack of originality and in a reaction so delayed it’s turned cliché. And that’s the thing – when you throw your skirt over your head and run, you have no idea where you’re going. Call me prudish if you will, but I’ll take a full-skirted revolutionary over a panty-flashing bimbo any day.

So as wicked as I found it, I’m not about to equate a little PDA to the dawn of a liberated age. It’s probably more like 3.30am, but considering the 9pm curfews we came from, it’s still pretty cool. Kudos to the cozy duo for taking the time-honoured traditions of Marina Beach to a couch in a coffee joint. I’d gladly waive my right to enjoy my latte in peace for the sake of a little more honesty in this city of secret sin.

Sharanya Manivannan’s first book of poems, Witchcraft, will be launched in June. She blogs at https://sharanyamanivannan.wordpress.com

The Shaming of Scarlett Keeling

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(Cross-posted at Ultraviolet)

That violence against women rarely grabs any attention except for in the presence of gruesomeness, sensationalism, drama and tragedy is already known. But more disturbing by far than the fact that the murder of a teenage tourist in Goa last month has been making headlines precisely due its cocktail of all the above elements is the level of moral sanctimony that accompanies the media coverage, the ensuing debates, and even what are ostensibly the responses of those who knew Scarlett Keeling and her family.

On February 18, the body of 15-year old Scarlett Keeling, a British national, was found on a Goan beach. Police initially chalked up her death to drowning after consuming too much alcohol, despite evidence of severe bruising and rape. But investigations and post-mortem investigations revealed contradictory facts, as did eyewitness accounts by people who had seen the girl during her final hours. Scarlett had been in India with her mother Fiona MacKeown, MacKeown’s boyfriend, and her siblings. They were frequent visitors, and on this instance were on a six-month-long trip.

Allegations were quickly leveled against MacKeown for her negligence of Scarlett. The moral higher ground was quickly swamped by those chastising her for her irresponsible behaviour. One whiff of scandal led to another, and details about MacKeown’s private life were dug up. Scarlett’s diary entries were exposed in the media. The bottomline message was that somehow, by choosing to lead lifestyles that included partying, sex and substances, they had asked for the tragedy that befell them. Terms like “alleged murder” were popular, as though it could have been anything else, until today’s gruesome revelation: Scarlett was murdered by having her head held underwater for between five and ten minutes. She asphyxiated to death.

It is alarming to watch the cruelty of the media – from possibly every newspaper in the country to even NDTV’s usually fairly progressive We The People to the blogosphere – and what can be gauged of common opinion by it. Despite the horrifying brutality inflicted on a person who by Indian standards was still a child, and the overwhelming confusion and despair her loved ones are no doubt experiencing, the attacks made against the victim and the family censure them with only superficial demonstrations of sympathy. Political officials in Goa are calling for the revoking of MacKeown’s visa and a ban on her entering the country again, blaming her for maligning the image of the state. She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life from both the drug mafia and state officials whom she has linked to them.

Scarlett’s boyfriend, an Indian citizen named Julio Lobo, has been taken for medical tests to see if he is “sexually active”. A DNA test of substances found on or in the victim’s body would not be unreasonable, but pray tell, what does his being or not being sexually active reveal about the horrific tragedy? Is it necessary, given that in her diary, Scarlett had written not only that she had sex with him, but that she felt he used her for it? Is there a test that proves sexual activity in males? Or is this like one of those repressed, backward ideas about broken hymens and being able to pee in a straight line? That this person’s private life is being pried into in a manner that is unlikely to shed any light on the senselessness of the incident is nothing more than one of the many ways in which the blame is being pinned on “the wanton Western way”. The boyfriend, we are to assume, has sinned by his affinity to this lifestyle of debauchery, which – we are also to assume – is imported to India by the likes of the Keeling family. But even that doesn’t quite crack it: Lobo is being tested not because of his character – but because of what the conclusiveness of science is meant to tell us about hers.

Lobo, in turn, has retaliated by attacking MacKeown because she had been aware of Scarlett’s lifestyle (but she says Scarlett was neither a binge drinker not drug abuser, to her knowledge). This, too, is reprehensible. At 25 years old, a decade older than Scarlett, his relationship with her could amount to statutory rape. Clearly, prior to the murder, MacKeown’s liberal parenting style benefited him. His attempt to deflect attention from his actual law-breaking by ganging up against the bereaved mother with the rest of the patriarchy squad is sickening.

In other words, the condemning of the murdered girl, her family, her friends, their lifestyles and their choices is a typical misogynist response – the wicked woman gets her dues. And this time, there are not one but two “wicked women”: Fiona MacKeown, mother of not just the victim, but of several more children of “varying paternity”, and Scarlett herself. That the women in question happen to be from the West (that corrupter of our chaste and virtuous ways of life!) is icing on the cake.

Rape, murder, the works – apparently, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, they can all be justified.

Make no mistake. What we see in the media today is not an enquiry into a crime. It is slut-shaming, plain and simple. The nation is not in shock because a 15 year old has been so brutally treated. Those are not the sounds of protest and outrage; they are the sounds of many hands rubbing in glee, so thrilled to be vindicated of their position that women who break the rules deserve what’s coming to them, and what’s coming to them is exactly what happened to Scarlett Keeling.

But what happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with if she had sex, if she did drugs, if she drank. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with why her mother so frequently chose to travel to India or lived a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has only one reason: some places in the world are not safe for women, not because of culture or tradition, but because of an absence of respect for them as individuals. India is one of them. India killed Scarlett Keeling – and every day, kills many less sensationalized individuals. That Fiona MacKeown has seen this is not delusion on her part.

Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Abortion in India

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I’m now a regular contributor at Ultraviolet, the only (and possibly first) Indian feminist collablog. This post was cross-posted there, so comments are off here.

Not all of us may agree on whether or not abortion is ethical. Some may feel that it is sinful, but a subjective choice nonetheless. Others may approve in theory but with a dose of “abortion guilt”, to use Naomi Wolf’s term. Still others, I realise, may condemn it altogether. But wherever we stand personally on this spectrum of opinion, the fact that abortion (legal or not) is inevitable in any society should be regarded as the foundation of one’s argument. And as feminists, a certain understanding that real women’s lives hang in the balance between ideologies is a must. Simply put, in the absence of safe and legal abortions, hundreds of thousands of women a year would die or suffer bodily harm as a result of unsafe, illegal ones.

Recently, many American feminists celebrated the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark case that led to the overturning of all laws in the United States that restricted or banned abortion. The new decision came into effect on January 22nd 1973, continues to be a heatedly-argued statute, and has come under threat since. (Do look up Cecilia Fire Thunder for a great example of feminist courage under fire in this issue).

Here in India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971, came into force the following year, and was revised in 1975. Because the law also provides for abortion in the event of contraceptive failure, all pregnancies –- not just those that endanger the health of mother or foetus, or resulting from rape –- can be terminated legally. Technically, any woman above the age of 18 can have an abortion with nobody’s consent but her own and her doctor’s.

When I came across this fact, I was thrilled by how sex-positive and decidedly unpatriarchal it is, and how lucky we are that it is so — but only for a moment. Like several of our laws designed to directly impact the lives of women in ostensibly positive ways, what is real on paper is not nearly as effective in practice. As with laws forbidding dowry or prenatal sex testing, or encouraging panchayat inclusion or girls’ education, such democratic protection when it comes to reproductive rights is not something that translates to the reality of the majority of Indian women’s lives.

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