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Why Does Society Fear Women Owning Their Bodies So Much?

Women’s sexuality has always been an area for grave concern, a matter of suspicion and a subject of stringent regulation.

Although Indian society is experiencing changes and development on all counts, there are still some issues that are not considered a topic of discussion despite being a crucial part of the world around us.

One such matter is female sexuality. Not only men but women too are not as aware or willing to discuss the topic.

One such issue related to female sexuality, is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the practice of cutting (partially or totally) the external female genitalia or causing any other injury to the genital organs of females. It is mainly practiced on girls between infancy and 15 years of age.

Although no health benefits of the practice have been found, the damages are plenty, including severe bleeding, infections, complications in child birth and in some cases, even death.

What is most horrific is that it is generally carried out by traditional circumcisers without proper safety, hygiene and most importantly, without any medical expertise. The fact that young girls are completely unaware of what and why is happening to them causes intense and life long emotional trauma.

FGM has been recognised as a violation of human rights of women globally. Although it is most prevalent in north-eastern, western and eastern regions of Africa, and in some regions of Asia and Middle East, it is found in India too. In India, it is mainly practiced within the Dawoodi Bohra community. and is known as khatna/khafz.

Female pleasure is not a sin

Female genital mutilation is mostly found to be a social norm or cultural tradition, where most of the mothers and grandmothers are making their daughters go through it without even questioning the reason behind it.

The practice is considered an important aspect of raising an ‘ideal’ modest girl with ‘acceptable sexual behaviour’. It is to prepare her for a ‘happy’ married life, which uncovers the patriarchal mindset behind it. Some practitioners claim that FGM is a religious matter however, no religious scripture has been found to clearly prescribe the practice.

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The clitoris is among the most sensitive erogenous zones of a female because of its high concentration of nerve endings, and is considered the primary source of their sexual pleasure.

The fact that it is clitoris (which is they refer to as ‘haram ki boti’) which is primarily cut in FGM signals that the aim of the practice is to restrict female sexuality so as to ensure her premarital virginity, loyalty to her husband and the ‘family honour’.

The vaginal opening is narrowed or covered completely in another type of FGM in the hope of that the thought of the pain and being caught if the women indulge in premarital or extramarital affairs would be daunting. Should this mean that those supporting the practice believe that a women’s fertility is a blessing but her sexuality ‘haram’ or immoral?

Laws against FGM still face implementation issues 

According to an estimate by UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) at least 84 countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, New Zealand Norway and Sweden have passed laws against/criminalising FGM.

But implementation of laws remains difficult due to lack of awareness on the subject, improper enforcement, loopholes and absence of a strong will against the practice.

If we talk about India, people and especially women from the community are now speaking up against the practice and several petitions have been filed. Khatna is banned by the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) who classify it as violence against women.

India still does not have a specific laws against female genital mutilation. This is mainly because there is a huge number of people supporting the practice, lack of significant official data (despite a number of survivor stories, research by NGOs and people admitting to it) and fear of backlash for challenging a decades old norm.

Moreover, the majority of the community is unwilling to talk about it or for that matter, accept its existence. The existing laws regarding protection of children against sexual offences are not enough to stop the cruel practice from propagating and continuing.

Female sexuality has been controlled through the ages

Frantic attempts to ‘discipline’ women and control their sexuality is not something that came into existence a few years back. It has a long history of patriarchy, patrilineal succession and the idea of women being the ‘second sex’ associated with it. Prescribed conducts, threats of rape, control on clothing and behaviour (through socially, religiously and culturally specified codes) are some other ways in which women’s sexuality is regulated, supported through careful monitoring by the family.

Uma Chakravarti in her work ‘Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India’ says that in Brahmanical times, women were seen as ‘gateways to the caste system’ and hence we can find a strong emphasis on regulating women’s sexuality in the ancient time. This is a process of subordinating and regulating women for the purpose of maintaining the ‘purity’ of their social structures i.e., caste and class order.

She further explains that many myths found in the Rig Veda indicate towards an explicit relation of women with sexuality. This aspect is frequently associated with demoniac women (considered a threat to men and to their rituals) or apsaras (which are free from male control).

The custom of niyoga, a privilege of affinal male kinsmen reflects that there was a firmly established control over female sexuality. Through the custom, the reproductive potential of women is utilised but strictly under rules laid down by men.

Women were represented as innately sinful in nature. It is said in Tryambaka’s version of Manu’s ‘Stripumdharma’ that women are innately promiscuous, fickle minded, lacking in love and unfaithful to their husbands even when closely guarded.

One text suggests, the essential nature of women will drive them into seeking satisfaction anywhere, anytime and with anyone. It states that “Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; thinking it is enough that he is a man, they give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly. Through their passion for men, through their mutable temper, through their natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded”.

This clearly depicts that there was a general notion that women will prove to be ‘sinful’ if they are not controlled. Hence, it was required that female sexuality be ‘moderated’ and channelised strictly into a ‘legitimate motherhood’ so as to ensure both a patrilineal succession and caste purity. Wives were expected to be under their husband’s control.

As Uma Chakravarti mentions in her work, this regulation was achieved mainly through two ways, consent and coercion.

The consent was established by culturally and religiously normalised ideologies inculcated in the women since birth. They included rituals, expected virtues of a women, vows, concepts such as ‘Stridharma’ and ‘Pativrata’.

Indian epics too are filled with such ideologies and ‘examples’ where women are expected to realise their selfhood as a social being (following the ‘stridharma’ and ‘pativratdharma’) and not as a sexual being (following strisvabhava/innate nature) in order to become a pativrata.

Shalini Shah in ‘On Gender, Wives and ‘Pativratas’’ has carefully examined this subject of enunciating a systematic ideology of pativratadharma through epics, texts and if needed, by force. These norms helped in invisibilising and naturalising the mechanisms of control over females.

Coercion, on the other hand included enforcing a woman to live up to the behavioural expectations and notion of ideal womanhood specified by the society, and punishing her if she doesn’t. It was practised mainly by the husband, father or in some cases, a third party (generally the king/state).

It is suggested in the Arthashastra, the state through its punitive measures aided husbands in ensuring a firm grip and effectively minimise women’s behaviour, mobility and opportunities for violations of the sexual code.

Uma Chakravarti through numerous such examples from several texts, ancient literature and epics has presented before us how the idea of controlling women’s sexuality has been so crucial and widespread since long.

Several excerpts from Jataka tales, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Satpatha Brahmanana etc, give a very clear account of the reasons, ideas, mechanisms and institutions working behind such regulations.

Colonial times too perpetuated these norms

In colonial India, the heated debates around conjugal and marriage laws were nothing but one of the manifestations of concerns relating to women’s sexuality. When increased migration during this period increased the duration for which the husband was away from the wife, it became even more imperative to regulate the lives of women. She was expected not to eat hot food, dress up good, be in contact with any other man in any way.

“Their love of fashion and jewellery was seen as evidence of women’s inherent frivolity, as conspicuous consumption and an irrational aesthetic, as a marker of their pleasures, passions and desires.

Fashion was identified with an enslavement to western goods and norms, sexual promiscuity, and the break-up of joint family, and women were believed to be susceptible to this new fashion by dressing in thin fancy and tight clothes, leaving their bodies exposed” mentions Charu Gupta in ‘Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims and the Hindu public in colonial India’.

Breast ironing/ breast flattening is another such practice aimed towards making the girls ‘less sexually attractive’. It is the practice of flattening and massaging of breasts (so that they stop to develop and eventually disappear) of a girl who has entered puberty, using hard or heated objects like a wooden pestle, grinding stones, spatulas etc. Mostly found in African countries like Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic (CAR) etc., it is generally performed by a close female relative of the victim.

The practise is claimed as an effort towards protecting the girl from sexual harassment and rape. It is also considered necessary to prevent spread of sexually transmitted infections, early/premarital pregnancy that would tarnish the family’s reputation and to ensure that the girl pursues education rather than getting forced into an early marriage.

All of this clearly reflect how women’s sexuality has always been the centre of concern, matter of suspicion and a subject of stringent regulation. These ideas have gradually ingrained indelibly into our society through instilled shame and guilt, mandatory ideologies and accepted social order.

Shhhh..Don’t talk about our bodies!

Sexuality is a topic that is considered a ‘taboo’ to talk about, something that must be discussed in hushed voices behind closed doors especially in the Indian society.

A female talking, questioning or exploring it openly is tagged as shameless, ‘out of hands’ and with numerous abusive names. As Gerda Lerner says, in patriarchal societies a man’s class status is determined by his economic relations and that of a woman by her sexual relations.

Starting from infancy women are made to be ‘shy’ about her physical/ sexual aspects through restrictions on the way they dress, behave, their mobility etc. These ropes tighten as a girl enters puberty leading them to lack a sense of autonomy and agency over their own lives and bodies.

Mothers shush their daughters when they come up with questions relating to changes in her body and mind. It is due to several reasons. The mothers and grandmothers are grown up in the patriarchal environment entrenched with ideas of modesty and chastity to be crucial in raising a girl.

Moreover, they themselves have very little awareness regarding their own bodies and sexuality. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that even mentioning the word ‘sexual’ or ‘sexuality’ is a sin. You will be questioned about your upbringing and values if found discussing these matters.

The concept of staying ‘chaste’ (usually meaning being a virgin) before marriage is an obsession in our society. It is horrifying to note that even if there is a sexual assault on a woman, she is considered ‘impure’. The usual notion of considering an intact hymen as an indicator of virginity is proven to be flawed.

Still, it is the final stamp on a woman’s ‘character certificate’ and those not meeting the ‘criterion’ knowingly or unknowingly are tagged as promiscuous and slutty. They are denied not only choice and consent but also the pleasure related to her sexuality.

The status of women is reflected in our marital rape laws

Even after marriage a woman generally lacks a say in the sexual life. Marital rape is still not criminalised in India. Marital rape can be recognised as a form of cruelty under section 498A (cruelty towards wife by husband or his relatives) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), it may be a ground for seeking divorce, but there is no provision for it to be punished as rape. Section 375 of the IPC gives the definition of the offence of rape which is a very broad definition.

A crucial part of this definition is ‘consent’, But there is also an exception, according to which sexual acts by a husband with his wife, would not be considered rape, if she is 18 years of age and above. This exception thus creates a legal fiction that a wife always consents to her husband.

In the words of Charu Gupta “Ironically, when it came to sexual life after marriage it was often argued that men had uncontrollable urges and it was the woman’s responsibility to control these.

Regarding the age of consent, precisely the opposite argument was given-that women had greater sexual urges and therefore it was important to have them married as soon as they started menstruating.”

Time for women to take charge of their bodies and relationships

All of this is contributing towards the creation of a consciousness that girls should be the ‘desired’ ones and not the one ‘desiring’. This too, is connected to a great extent to the patriarchal structure having men as powerful and providers/producers, and women as receivers/preservers.

What is not realised is that these restrictions and lack of knowledge can prove to be the primary reason behind them choosing the ‘wrong path’ or making decision that can prove harmful for them physically or mentally.

As we are now experiencing a change in the notion of gender identity and how one identifies one’s sexual orientation, myths and misconceptions regarding sexuality needs to be busted. People have started to talk about the issue more openly, sharing their views, knowledge or experiences. But they are still disgusted by a majority.

Questions must be answered and expressions encouraged. Not only for women but the topic of sexuality in general needs to be discussed as something natural. The marks of shame, guilt and fear needs to be removed so as to ensure a consciousness and confidence about our bodies and also a sense of having an equal say in our relationships.

Featured image is a scene from the Hindi movie Margarita With A Straw

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