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Section 377: How Natural Is Normal?

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By Nivedita Menon:

The recent episode of a lesbian couple in Kerala having to seek court intervention to stop police persecution initiated by their parents, starkly underlines the fearsome question that lies unrecognized at the heart of the furore around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code: Is it natural to be normal? Introduced into Indian statute by the British parliament in 1872, this section penalizes sexual activity “against the order of nature”. So? A handful of perverts should worry. At most, the wider body of ubiquitous “human rights activists” who hold the absurd belief that as long as consenting adults are involved, sexual preferences are private matters from which the law should keep out. Should anyone else care?

Section 377

Well, here’s bad news for normal society – “normal” sexuality is no private matter. The assumption is that “normal” sexual behaviour springs from nature, and that it has nothing to do with culture or history. But if we recognize that sexuality is located in culture, we have to deal with the uncomfortable idea that sexuality is a human construct, and not something that happens “naturally.” Consider the possibility that rules of sexual conduct are as arbitrary as traffic rules, created by human societies to maintain a certain sort of order, and which could differ from place to place – for example, you drive on the left in India and on the right in the USA. Further, let us say you question the sort of social order that traffic rules keep in place. Say you believe that traffic rules in Delhi are the product of a model of urban planning that privileges the rich and penalizes the poor, that this order encourages petrol-consuming private vehicles and discourages forms of transport that are energy-saving – cycles, public transport, pedestrians. You would then question that model of the city that forces large numbers of inhabitants to travel long distances every day simply to get to school and work. You could debate the merits of traffic rules and urban planning on the grounds of convenience, equity and sustainability of natural resources – at least, nobody could seriously argue that any set of traffic rules is natural.

Let us apply this argument to sexuality. First of all, if “normal” behaviour were so natural, it would not require such a vast network of controls to keep in place. Take some random examples. Item one – gendered dress codes. Imagine a bearded man in a skirt in a public place: why would this shake the very foundations of “normal” society? Unless “he” is recognizably a hijra, and that puts him on the margins of normal society in a different way. Just the wrong kind of cloth on the wrong body, and the very foundations of natural, normal sexual identity start to quake! Two – the disciplining of thought through schools, families, the media, education, religion. All telling you that desire for someone of the same sex is a sin, or insane, or criminal. Three – if all else fails, violent coercive measures to keep people heterosexual, from electric shock therapy to physical abuse to using the coercive apparatus of the state, as the parents in the Kerala incident did. Four – laws. Why would we need laws to maintain something that is natural? Are there laws forcing people to eat or sleep? But there is a law forcing people to have sex in a particular way!

The point of real interest though, is that human beings do not in fact, live particularly “natural” lives. The whole purpose of civilization seems to be to move as far away from nature as possible. We clothe our naked bodies (indeed, the same people who condemn homosexuality as unnatural would insist that natural nudity be covered up). We cook raw food derived from nature, we build elaborate shelters from the natural elements. We use contraception (again, most of those who condemn homosexuality on the grounds that sex is only for procreation would not question the need for contraception). Clearly, equating “unnatural” with “immoral/wrong” is simply a way of suffocating debate.

But the more important question is – what is the social order that the rules of “normal” sexual behaviour keep in place? Why is it so crucial to ensure that men have legitimate sex only with women? (Note the word legitimate, because of course sex between people of the same sex is as old as human civilization). Why the need to ensure that women only have sex with the men they are married to (because again, everyone knows that the rules of chastity and monogamy are enforced strictly only for women). Remember the scene from the Hindi film Mrityudand in which the visibly pregnant Shabana is asked “yeh kiska bachha hai?” It is very evident that the baby is inside her body, that it is hers, but the absurd question makes absolute sense in a patriarchal society — who is the father of this child, is what the question means. Whose caste does this child bear, to whose property can he lay claim?

LGBTQI

This brings us to the institution of the family that is at the core of the present extremely inequitable social order. A Delhi High Court judgement in 1984 ruled that the fundamental rights to equality and freedom have no place in the family. To bring constitutional law into the home, the learned judge ruled, is like “taking a bull into a china shop.” And of course, he was absolutely right. The family in India is indeed premised on extreme inequality – beginning with the wife changing her surname on marriage, to the property to which no sister has equal rights with her brother, to the sexual division of labour, which legitimizes the unpaid domestic labour of women. The rights to equality and freedom would certainly destroy the family as we know it.

If families were only about material and emotional support structures, then any such group of people would be recognized as a family. Isn’t it also more likely that humans experience sexual desire in a variety of ways, of which the heterosexual is only one? But the point precisely is that only the heterosexual, patriarchal family is permitted to exist. And this family is about the passing on of property and lineage through men. The “normality” that this requires is produced, maintained and rigorously policed by the state, laws and social institutions. It is far from being natural or private.

In short, section 377 does not refer to some queer people out there, whom normal people can gaze upon like anthropologists at a bizarre tribe. Section 377 is about the painful creation of Mr and Mrs Normal – it is one of the nails holding in place the elaborate fiction that “normality” springs from nature.

Post republished from SACW after prior permission from the website and the author.

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  1. adya00

    One of the best articles I’ve read on this issue.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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