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This young woman had a hickey on her neck, and my mother and her friends were playfully ribbing her about how much sex she seemed to be having. I was appalled. We don't talk about sex in India! Or so I thought.
This young woman had a hickey on her neck, and my mother and her friends were playfully ribbing her about how much sex she seemed to be having. I was appalled. We don’t talk about sex in India! Or so I thought.
A few years ago I was travelling from one small town to another in the search of headlines when I happened upon a group of women who adopted me for a few days, one evening while sitting under a big Banyan tree by the side of field of mustard, they began discussing their husbands and their sex lives. That conversation was more rustic than what I had heard before with my mom’s friends (more about that later!).
“Beta, this intimacy between partners is very important,” one of the older women said to me knowingly as others giggled, “Without it you do not have any connection with your husband, heat is also important in a relationship.”
(Original untranslated quote: Beta yeh rishta bahut zaroori hota hai. Pati patni ne sambadh na ho toh pyaar nahi rehta, rishte me garmi bhi toh zaroori hai na.).
It was amazing because I know for a fact that the same woman who said this incredibly positive thing to me, also disparaged women for not covering their faces with a ghoongat around men, she also saw ‘city’ women like me as morally-bankrupt. But that is the complexity of this space of women, it’s also compromised by the etches of the patriarchy which is why it is so tempting to demolish this space itself.
However, you can also see progress within this state of matters itself. It’s not as much progress as you may want to see, but there has been an evolution in this space to be more tolerant of who is admitted, and acceptance always starts at the root. This is the root of the world of women. I remember noticing it for the first time when a group of older women that had known me since I was a child willingly discussed my sex-life with me even though I wasn’t married.
“It’s good only,” one of them said to me, “In our time you had no idea about sexual compatibility before marriage, at least you guys know beforehand whether you have that with a partner, a lot of marriages die because of this.”
(Original untranslated quote: Achi hi baat hai. Humare time me toh sexual compatible ki koi baat bhi nahi karta tha. Aap logon ko pehle hi pata chal jaata hai, baad me rishte me problem nahi aayegi iski vajah se.)
If you’re a woman who did not grow up in social isolation, I can almost guarantee that one of the staples of your life as a child was accidentally eavesdropping on conversations between the neighbourhood aunties and your mom. I rolled my eyes at these conversations when I was younger, dismissing them for being vapid, regressive and completely useless. After all, who really needs to know the story of how Mrs. Sharma came to acquire a new washing machine by tricking her husband during a fight? Why weren’t they asking why Mrs. Sharma didn’t have enough financial agency at home to be able to independently decide she wanted a washing machine? Ah, to be an a radical feminist ingenue and still have the confidence to totally ignore the social context, those were the good old days.
I remember the exact day when my feelings about these conversations changed.
A young woman had just joined my mother’s circle of chai-friends. I use that term lovingly, and in compete contrast to how conversations between women are often portrayed. Women are presented as the ‘chatty’ gender, and a lot of social messaging presents this chatter as mindless and of no use to anyone. I find that’s not the case. Who decided, anyway, that talk of war and the economy were the only markers of intelligence?
Women have a social space within neighborhoods that is similar to the one older men have in parks and middle-aged men have at tea stalls, but it’s either hidden, or exposed only to ridicule. Women congregate, but it’s unstructured. They hop on over to each other’s houses without announcement in the middle of cooking meals often to borrow something or share something they’ve made. They meet at the vegetable stand. Outside places of worship. They stop over for biscuits on the walk back from their afternoon walks.
I used to hate that all of these spaces seemed so reductive of a woman’s role, as if they could only socialise as a function of their roles as the makers of food or the upholders of spirituality, but social structure manifests organically where the reality of society exists, and as much as we like to portray that India is changing into an intellectual metropolis, India is very much still a village.
This neighborhood-based social structure of women is where concepts like committees and kitty parties were born, and if hearing those terms makes you recoil in cringe, it’s because reducing these spaces to humorous punchlines that denigrate women is a long-standing tradition in India. It’s meant to hide the fact that you’re dismissing a woman-only space as nothing but mindless. Something for women to do because they have so much “free time” and no engagement. It’s not that.
I learnt that when that young woman joined my mother and her friends. She had been married only a year or two, and was at least a decade younger than the youngest woman there. I was seventeen and while I was now allowed to participate in that group of women as one of their own, I wasn’t quite a member yet. I suspect marriage is the price of admission, and that’s changing a little bit, but it is what it is for now. This young woman had a hickey on her neck, and my mother and her friends were playfully ribbing her about how much sex she seemed to be having.
I was appalled.
I grew up in a household that was as sex positive as one in the early 2000s could possibly be. My mother discussed sex with me very young, and I never had to hide the fact that I was sexually-active from my family (when I was unmarried). Still, we didn’t openly discuss it like that! I felt like I had entered another realm of the universe.
These women proceeded to talk about their sex-lives in rather explicit detail, seemingly forgetting that I too, had ears. One of them talked about how a lot of the passion was gone now that they had gotten older. Another mentioned that in the early years even five times a day was not enough. Someone else countered that while they enjoyed early-marriage sex, their husband never pressured them for a five-times-a-day style deal and they really appreciated that. They giggled and they shared their views, making jokes about each other’s husbands and sometimes pausing to say something very serious. It was a deeply honest space, one where it seemed perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that sex in a relationship mattered to women too, and a space too where they could talk of their woes in sexual matters. I had never seen that before.
And I will admit, this nexus of women that exists in almost every neighborhood is not perfect. They are often also the ones who malign other women, draw arbitrary moral boundaries, spread malicious gossip and say the things to you that your mom doesn’t want to say directly, and I offer no excuse for that, but I do ask that we look at this space of women from a different perspective for a moment. It’s not only the space where I learnt that woman could be secretly sex-positive, it’s also where I learnt exactly what was going on in society with regard to women. They discussed marital rape, domestic violence, sexual expectations in a marriage, female orgasms (and the lack thereof) with a casual nonchalance, but they did it, and it’s where I learnt of the battles women were really fighting.
After that conversation I witnessed at seventeen, I started to insert myself into women’s spaces to witness more. I was delighted to find that this phenomenon was widespread. I was amazed to learn the things women will say when they are alone with one another.
Let me take you back to the sage advice I received from the otherwise conservative, traditionally attired older woman who I am sure upholds patriarchy in all spheres of her life, in the incident I narrated at the beginning of my piece. She, and the other women were clearly talking not just of marital, but also of pre-marital sex, and knowing your compatibility before ‘getting hitched’.
I know that this acceptance of pre-marital sex does not exist within every community yet, but it’s starting to spread. The same women who within this space of sex-talk used to tell me that I cannot even think of having sex before marriage, asked me for sexual advice even though I was an unmarried woman. That’s progress. These social spaces that women inhabit have changed over the past two decades, and what was already a surprising space of honesty and sex-positivity is now also becoming more inclusive.
A friend of mine got divorced very young and while she faces a lot of ostracism from society at large about having the audacity to leave a man, she shared something with me about a woman who often comes over to her place to chit-chat, and brings along her mom. This older lady’s son is dating a divorced woman and she doesn’t love it, but she understands that divorced women have needs too.
“Ultimately, it all comes down to one thing,” she said to my friend, “Sex, beta! Sex!”
My friend does a hilarious impression of her saying the word sex. It’s exactly what you’re imagining.
“I understand that everyone feels like doing it, don’t you think I feel like doing it?” She asked my friend, “For three days I have been wanting to do it but health doesn’t always allow it. I’m not saying they shouldn’t do it, I am just saying…no need to be so open about it.”
Sex-Aunty signifies the entirety of this space of communication between women very well. She is open, and honest among women, and admits to sexual needs being important to everyone. She is willing to accept the society is changing, the nature of the members of her social environment may change to include the divorced or the unmarried, and she has the brazen quality of that omnipresent yet elusive neighborhood firebrand who is inexplicably offputting to the senses but entertaining. She represents some kind of progress. Yet despite her acknowledgement that she herself wants to have sex, she doesn’t want to admit this in the open. She doesn’t believe anyone should. She wants her acceptance kept a secret. That does not represent any kind of progress.
I used to lament over this until i recognised that this space, this sphere, is brutally honest about the reality of the progress of women in society. I like some of it, and I don’t like some of it, but I recognise something very important in this space. These women, in the absence of men, were able to be honest with me about their views, and while many of them wouldn’t admit to their best traits in front of their fathers and husbands, choosing to be tolerant and accepting in secret, but even in secret, they’re trying to get you the power they never had. I can see that. My own social circle of women is bolstered by them, and the fact that I can now openly write and talk about sex was enabled by their acceptance of me in a world where it was okay. The confidence to say it out loud that I have today, was built on the backs of their secret spaces where they broke their silence, and let me listen.
This is part of our monthly sex column UnMissionary (all posts for this column can be read here) that is nuanced, real, and a deeply personal exploration of women’s sexuality and sexual experiences that steers clear of any stereotypes, and is informative, colourful, humorous, and very serious, all at the same time. This is in contrast with most sex columns that revolve around popular ideas of women’s sexuality are largely stereotypical unidimensional, and are mostly from the male POV and for the male gaze, and are often about the “how to” of sexual lives.
Image source: a still from the short film Khane Mein Kya Hai?/ Blush Channel
Aarushi Ahluwalia is an author, journalist and columnist. She has been covering women's issues and rights for various news organisations throughout her career of almost a decade, and now runs a women's media read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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