What A Kolkata School’s Response To ‘Lesbianism’ Tells Us About Patriarchy & Female Desire

“You might wonder why the headmaster allowed the children to swim naked in the pool. Because he thought it wasn’t right for boys and girls to be morbidly curious about the differences in their bodies, and he thought it was unnatural for people to take such pains to hide their bodies from each other. He wanted to teach all the children that all bodies are beautiful.”

The moment you read these lines, you become wary of the thought, as to whether such a school could and would exist. The lines are from Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s  book “Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window”, which tells a story about an ideal school in Tokyo during World War II, narrating a tale that is quite in contradiction to our experiences of being ‘groomed’ in the Indian schooling systems. Contrary to the ingenious decision taken by Totto-chan’s headmaster, our teachers and parents had made us morbidly curious towards other bodies to horrible limits through continuous denial of a sexual identity in the name of tradition and culture.

Being born and brought up in India, our journey of sexual exploration had been done through a method of hit and trial, that too mostly without any guidance. We blindly adopted the ideas of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman – from the nearest bhaiyas and didis we could find.

Our childhoods were therefore narratives of contradictions. Our parents denied the presence of something like sex, until we accidentally found condoms in our homes. Our religions proclaimed masturbation as a sin, and the next moment we saw our religious gurus  on our TV  screens, caught up in sex scandals. Our  politicians evaded questions around sex in the name of culture, until they were found watching porn in assemblies.

So, when a politician ends up saying lesbianism is not Bengali culture”, and students from Kamala Girls School in south Kolkata are made to “confess that they are lesbians, and write that they put their hands in their friend’s blouses and tickled them under their skirts, all in order to bring students on the right course  – I must honestly admit that I am not alarmed.

The first question that came to mind as I heard of the incident was why had India, despite being a liberal country in ancient times, become so prudish in our times? Sexual representations were evident in our art (Ajanta), literature (Kama Sutra) and even temples (Khajuraho). We were considered pioneers in sexual education. The answer points towards pragmatic facts of our interaction with Muslim as well as British cultures. It strengthened the institution of patriarchy as a political-social system guiding our culture, for the Victorian sensibility dismissed our cultures of sexual openness as barbaric and primitive, and strengthened the ideas surrounding gender. At the centre of their thought process was Christian morality, which believed that sexual desire was a sin, and  made sex permissible only for procreation.

The 13-year-old girls, hypothetically, committed three crimes – if they ever indulged in ‘such indecent behavior’ as the headmistress of the school proclaimed. First – they were girls; second – they had a sexuality; and third – they were indulged in homosexual acts. Patriarchy, in rendering power to men as subjects, conditions women to be meek, submissive and asexual objects with no agency.

A general (and false) consciousness is formed that girls are (and should be), the desired and not the desiring, only up for male consumption and lacking any traces of sexual desires for themselves. In “This Sex Which Is Not One”, Luce Irigaray describes that women in a capitalist economy are reduced to the status of commodities to be exchanged between male members in a patriarchal setup (passed from brothers or fathers to husbands as mistress or harlots). In such a scenario, if women practice their own sexuality and people indulge in homosexuality – the whole patriarchal setup collapses. For women lose the status of being objects, but become subjects that have desire. And when men indulge in homosexuality – they themselves become objects of desire, thereby disturbing the power equation that only renders women as desirable – and men as traders of goods (women).

We live in a society where heteronormativity has been reinforced to such an extent that people don’t consider homosexuality even as a possibility. For the system of patriarchy – as the invisible force governing our lives – has surrounded homosexuality with all kinds of myths and stereotypes that term the act as sinful, disgusting and impermissible. Therefore, in a patriarchal society, it is but normal that homosexuality and the identity of women as sexual creatures will never be accepted. For popular culture – media as well as religion – conditions women to be desirable, only for male consumption. As soon as they express desire for their own selves, the society might do everything in its might to curb it in the name of morality. For a patriarchal society to thrive, it is important to keep the subject-object status of a man and woman in place.

The issue has triggered a lot of debate around the cliché that surrounds homosexuality, and the way students need to be treated in school. But in order to have a prominent change, we need to have an alternative subversive culture in our popular media, literature and other ideological apparatuses – one that makes a dent in the dominant patriarchal narrative. A culture that represents women as living, breathing and desiring creatures. A culture that represents homosexuality as normal. Or else, our efforts would only result in trivialising these matters, which have asked us to probe into deeper questions in these times.