The law in India never uses the word “desire”. There is no law of desire or vocabulary present in the state that talks about desire. However, this “term can refer to a gamut of things including gender, politics, culture, history, sociology and all the subjects that go into making law what it is”.
Desire acts as the bridge between the mind and body. The idea of desire builds a bridge between what we like to distinguish as the mind on the one hand and the body on the other. Desire is a term that allows us to expand a conversation that might otherwise be more restricted if we were to only use the terms “gender” or “sexuality”.
An important issue to discuss would be whether the questions of desire are private or public. To throw light upon the intersection of law with gender and sexuality, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organised a special lecture on The Law in my Kitchen: Questions about Gender, Agency, and the State by Dr Madhavi Menon, a professor of English and Director of Centre for Gender Studies at Ashoka University who works in the domains of queer theory, sexuality, desire, gender politics and identity.
Introducing the theme, Dr Rukmini Nair, Chair of the session, pointed to the intersectionality built in the theme of how the link between state and law was bridged towards gender and the kitchen via an agency. This points to the need for interdisciplinary conversation around gender and patriarchy in the modern state.
It becomes the goal of the academician to locate concepts and links for a greater audience empirically. Descartian vocabulary has given academicians today to make the claim the porosity of body and mind, best represented as “the mind has no sex”.
Privacy has captured the popular imagination. From WhatsApp’s privacy settings to the privacy judgment in the Retired Justice Puttaswamy case in the Supreme Court, there has been a lot of discussion around privacy. The critical question that we need to grapple with is — is desire private?
We are encouraged to believe that gender, sexuality and desire are all private matters. They are personal issues because they belong to us individually and because they define us fundamentally.
Dr Madhavi Menon expresses, “What’s interesting to me is that when we bring in a law to adjudicate a matter that is allegedly so private, what happens then to that notion of privacy? What happens then to that notion of something being so personal and individualistic and so fundamentally belonging to the domain of self? What happens to that domain once it is publicly pronounced upon?”
This contrast of private and public is spurious because we are constantly told what our gender and sexuality are or what they must be. Even if we think we choose our sexual orientation, that choice has to fit specific parameters publicly decided before we are allowed to be of a particular sexual orientation.
Thus, this idea of gender, sexuality or desire being private is untrue. It is an idea that has been impressed upon us to induce shame and not talk about these things publicly. It hinders us from talking about these ideas of sexuality or gender to take up public space and own the public sphere.
When surfaced in the public sphere, these conversations would lend recognition to sexual identities that would be empowering and liberating at the same time.
The very notion of privacy is something to be sceptical about and most so about gender, body, desire and sexuality because not only have these realms never been private, but they have always been publicly sanctioned and dictated. Asking us to keep them confidential also asks us to keep them apolitical when they are arguably the most politicised versions of ourselves.
The law seems absolute, while gender and sexuality seem to be much more fluid. However, Dr Menon believes that law is more porous than complete and gender is more absolute than porous. Her explanation for the same is that the most common word associated with the law is “interpretation”.
The same absolute law can be interpreted differently by different benches of judges, which isn’t always a positive thing. Unlike in the U.S.A., where the Supreme Court sits as an entire bench for all cases that come to it, the Indian Judiciary assigns different benches to each case. The assignment of judges can be backed by political activity. This proves the porousness of the law.
The relationship between law and desire is another question that demands discourse. If they have been relegated to different spheres of life, i.e. the public for the law and private for desire, it’s important to look at the interaction between them. Dr Menon poses the question, “Is the relationship between the two only and always antagonistic, which is to say that law is always trying to control desire? Or is the law also enabling when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality and desire?”
The movie The Great Indian Kitchen portrays mundane characters, every day and present. Their portrayal is kind, polite and wholehearted. It attempts to portray a universal story of a heterosexual couple by not attaching any name to the characters.
The universal portrayal shows the everydayness of patriarchy. The movie shows the hideousness and violence due to patriarchy present in every individual’s life. It makes the audience uncomfortable because it drives home the embeddedness of patriarchy through seemingly nice and polite characters.
The movie was rejected by major streaming websites like Netflix and Amazon. Produced in Malayalam, it is available on Neestream. It portrays two kinds of laws and their intersection law: social law and law, which is the embodiment of the state’s judicial power.
Family is considered to be a fundamental unit of society and a certain idea of marriage anchors it. This idea of marriage is heterosexual and tends to have its roots in a patriarchal structure. Though the state’s laws govern it, it is also given in society that marriage is a necessary ritual.
This patriarchy is noticed not just in rituals around marriage or traditions like a woman taking her husband’s name but also in the roles that a husband and a wife are expected to play after marriage. Marriage is a deeply patriarchal institution and it is essential that we, as a society, rethink the law of marriage.
The institution of marriage stands at the intersection of the public and private, portrayed by the movie successfully. It is meant to be a private affair between two people, at most between two families, but it is the most highly adjudicated institution in the country, which can be proved by the number of laws devoted to marriage.
“I’m interested in the question that how can we ask the law to take ideas of desire, gender and sexuality much more seriously than they currently do?”
Dr Menon throws an interesting question of what would happen if we were to get rid of marriage completely. She questioned if people would still be invested in the idea of marriage in a situation where the legal rights tied to it are done away with.
In 2018, with a 4:1 majority, the Supreme Court of India ruled in the Indian YoungLawyers’ Association V. State of Kerela that women in the age group of 10 to 50 years would no longer be prohibited from entering Ayyappan Temple at Sabrimala. This is the law of the second nature that contains the power to discipline and demand obedience.
This judgment is portrayed in the movie as a breath of fresh air where women can break from cycles of violence and horror that accompanies her menstruating body.
Through her awareness of the Sabarimala judgment, the lead female protagonist turns to question the mundane and everydayness of patriarchy in her own life. The second bookend of the kind of law becomes a safety valve for the wife to make decisions that could be seen as rebellious to the milieu of familial patriarchy and marriage.
The Sabarimala verdict ruled that women of menstruating age can no longer be prohibited from entering Lord Ayyappan’s temple. However, the most baffling thing was that women worshippers of Lord Ayyappan sided with the argument that the Lord would not like it if menstruating women were given entry to the temple. Though the key intervention remains that women can no longer wait.
Misogyny and patriarchy have been internalised so much that women, in a way, forget their self-respect. They are unable to think for themselves and cannot perceive their value outside of gender roles. Dr Usha Mudiganti, Assistant Professor, School of Letters, Ambedkar University, points out that one automatically connects cookbooks to women.
Society inevitably thinks that all women can and do cook. Women also tend to feel the need to prove that they can cook.
The coupling of one’s gender with one’s ability to do work and the fact that one must perform the kind of work “suitable” to their gender is a deeply problematic idea. If a woman doesn’t know how to cook, she feels the need to justify the same. But if a man doesn’t know how to cook, he wouldn’t be questioned even once.
The two laws can also be located in the conflict between the social laws and laws of the state. Dr Usha Mudiganti, while recounting her work on Beerngana, gives the example of Rani Lakshmibai. Herein lies a woman who performs the gendered male role to fight the law of the state, the law of accession to fight for her adopted son’s property rights.
She is a woman who has failed in her social role of providing a male heir to the throne and she fights for the right to be the mother of the next king. The unique performance of this act remains that she fights in the battleground wearing feminine garb, which becomes the location of blurring gender boundaries.
Dr Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, IMPRI