“This brought to the fore an ethical dilemma faced by researchers like me. Did we have any right to impose on our subjects if information was not volunteered? Did we have any right to even assume anything about them? Were such assumptions a mode of self-projection rather than a means of empathetically connecting with the other?”
Stumbling through such reflexive questions, Maya Sharma’s book Loving Women explores female sexuality through 10 case stories of womxn loving womxn (WLW) from underprivileged backgrounds. Not only does the book artfully weave captivating stories from the experiences of a researcher getting to know real WLW in underprivileged India, but it also precariously steps into the worlds of these subjects, trying to extrapolate their sexuality from the other complexities of their lives. And in this attempt, it almost completely displaces the womxn from labels that in common parlance ought to define them – for before the construction of a sexual/romantic identity comes the need for survival.
While its title suggests otherwise, the book has little to do with loving as much as it has to do with rebelling. Primarily located in the patriarchal household, under the purview of scrutiny from figures of authority, these stories exhibit the courage required to break away from typical notions of womxnhood. In their own way, whether explicit or implicit, the book shows the characters defying some or the other idea of ‘normalcy’ as womxn – whether it is when Payal reveals that “No it [her and Menaka’s escape from home] was not because of my [her] stepmother or the exam results or whatever else people may say. We [they] loved one another and we [they] wanted to live together”, or when Sharma notes that “the way Vimlesh and Munka talked and laughed, the way they teased one another…it was rare to see such an open demonstration of love considered illicit and perverse by social norms”. The womxn show tremendous courage in settings where they are also faced with violence or physical/emotional backlash for being themselves.
It is also interesting to note that while the book divulges into the stories of 10 working-class women, it follows a narrative that equally well explores the voice and personal journey of the author. This is seen in the musings of the narrator interspersed with the narration of the stories – wondering whether her class differences created a space between her and the womxn that she could not fill. The author’s constant questioning is reflected in the introduction as well – where she expands on the use of terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘women’ in the methodology of the research – exploring how they could be problematic in their own way. The ruminating nature of the book also makes the subjects agents of the imagination.
Set in 2006, in an India that was still battling decriminalisation of sexuality, the stories in the book stray away from any kind of legal or formal conceptualisation of a queer relationship. Still – often forced to be disguised as upholders of patriarchy – the narrator goes into the houses of these womxn, aiming to ask them just one question – about the nature of their relationship. She is often met with unclear or dismissive responses – ranging from “it is not what you think” to “we are just friends” and more often than not overshadowed by other marginalities that take precedence. This presents an Indian context of WLW relationships – in which the identity of these womxn or their self-identification is not as important as them socially ‘passing’ as friends who live together/love each other in friendship – for societal acceptance is required for survival.
This idea of survival is also central in the stories when intersectional identities overlap with each other. One can note that even before the narrator can address “the question” with the womxn, we are faced with multiple factors like disability, casteism, classism, lack of livelihood, lack of privacy or violence that consume the womxn before the question of labelling their relationship with another womxn. This combined with the narrator’s difficulty in reaching these womxn – therefore highlighting the lack of accessibility as well – comes together to reflect just how the common perception of the needs and demands of the lesbian community are devoid of the voices of underprivileged womxn. Therefore this book, in its attempt to take us through the life stories of 10 working-class lesbian womxn, allows us to empathise with a section of society whose voice is often unheard in mainstream narratives of activism.
In conclusion, this is not just a landmark book in terms of narrating lesbian stories but also in representing the voice of the underprivileged – the underbelly of India. Going into such detail about the lives of working-class lesbians in itself is a political task, perhaps not just to read but also to write. Further, in revealing the abusive households and the extent of actual danger faced by lesbians for being themselves, the author lifts the myth that all lesbians are upper-class, upper-caste, abled and privileged. Eventually what this book does, metaphorically and literally, is travel into the lives of lesbian womxn while reiterating that a lack of label does not change the nature of relationships where womxn love womxn.
The above article was written by Charuvi Lokare for One Future Collective. The views expressed are the author’s own. Charuvi is an advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights and mental health positivity and strongly believes that words have the power to make change happen.
The Queer Quill is a collaborative column by One Future Collective X SheThePeople on the theme of queer rights with a focus on law, modern culture and the intersections of art and history.