Review of Maya Sharma's book Loving Women: Being Lesbian amid Poverty in India


Review of Maya Sharma's book Loving Women: Being Lesbian amid Poverty in India

In her book Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Underprivileged India, Maya Sharma compiles ten personal narratives of Indian women who come from some of the most underprivileged socioeconomic groups. The narratives deal with their close relationships with other women and their difficulties to balance their desires and their love with the heteronomous family structures, economic inequalities, and stifling patriarchy.

Sharma significantly advances queer studies in India by using the lenses of both class and sexuality to document the real-life experiences of same-sex love among disadvantaged women. By focusing solely on pride parades, gay queer collectives, and gay bars, she successfully challenges the stereotype of the homosexual subject in India as an urbane, westernised, college-educated, and English-speaking middle class.

More significantly, she challenges the notion that queer behaviour is uncommon and only exhibits in a "minuscule" minority. Sharma claims that despite her fears of being unable to locate and identify subjects, she found that almost everywhere she asked, people were aware of women who loved other women. Thus, despite the pervasive presence of patriarchal control over sexuality in women's lives, which only acknowledges their sexuality in relation to men, the queer affinities described in this book suggest how women can easily develop intimacy with other women as a coping mechanism and as a way to rebel against the patriarchal control, both subtly and overtly.

The numerous difficulties of same-sex love: secrecy, denial, conspiracies, falsehoods said and unspoken, heard and unheard.

However, Maya Sharma paints a very realistic image; the presence of opposition should not be interpreted as romanticising the sufferings of these women. Aged 15 and 16, respectively, Maneka and Payal fled their house together before being subsequently apprehended and returned. In addition to upsetting traditional conventions and expectations, Payal's open admission of her love for her partner and desire to be together irritated Maneka, who charged her with tarnishing her reputation. This eventually caused them to part ways. It's impossible to avoid feeling a sense of frustrating defeat at the hands of "family, secret, denial, conspiracy, lies spoken and unsaid, heard and unheard," which, in addition to blatant criticism and violence, aim to keep women in their places.

The narrative of Hasina and Fatima is another example. Hasina refers to Fatima variously as a man and a woman, providing a glimpse into the lived experiences of gender fluidity that coexist alongside and occasionally serve as a mechanism for these women to come to grips with fluid sexual experiences. However, it is also a heartbreaking tale in which a woman's determination to find happiness and friendship with another woman is put to the test by society's opposition, even that of her own children.

Fighting against "norms and pressures of marriage, traditional family structures, and daily struggles of material survival," Hasina and Fatima's story is an example of the love depicted in the book as a whole. They discover in each other a relationship of love, mutual support, and interdependence that blurs the boundaries between sex relationships and emotional ties.

A lesson in political lesbianism through friendship, closeness, and resistance?

The story of Sabo and Razia illustrates the dual nature of same-sex love by weaving together tales of adversity, conflict, and rejection with tales of bravery and optimism. Working with Maya, Sabo was a strong, independent lady. According to Sharma, her relationship with another woman was a "mysteriously enticing crack in Sabo's otherwise arid armour" that needed to be investigated, so the writer went to Razia's village.

Through a protracted time during which they experienced forced marriage, domestic abuse, many pregnancies, and severe mental anguish, Razia and Sabo's bond developed—indeed, it strengthened. These two ladies anticipated getting married and having children together, which would cement their relationship and give them the social legitimacy they currently lacked, allowing them to live together more easily.

Despite the fact that Sabo and Razia were married to other people, their relationship continued, but it lacked the feeling of being extra-marital. The novel consistently displays a lack of entitled possession, which is inescapably required in heterosexual unions.

This observation is illustrated by Mary's narrative. Mary remained in an extremely abusive love marriage for almost 20 years. She eventually managed to get away and began working for a female-run organisation. She made a close friend with a woman at this place. Mary couldn't help but sense a sad loss as they grew apart and her friend started seeing someone else. She also understood that their connection did not allow for the violent possessiveness that characterises most relationships.

She discovers that love is an unstoppable river that flows despite her "strong emotions of envy and cynicism." Mary admitted that she has come to grips with this knowledge and that she wants to take care of herself and become independent through her employment.

Several of the women in the stories have acknowledged the freedom of being themselves and on equal terms while being in a close relationship with another.

"This is a good thing between two women, I mean a relationship like that between husband and wife," writes Shobha, a friend of Manjula and Meeta. Two women can help each other out emotionally, financially, and physically. Men would be at a loss if there were more of these relationships! As opposed to relationships between men and women, partnerships between women do not involve eating after the other has eaten, getting up early to complete duties and going to bed late after accomplishing them or meekly obeying the other without inquiry.

Of course, there are situations where female relationships rely on heterosexual imagery. "miyan-bibi Jodi" was a term that was frequently used to describe Manjula and Meeta. Clearly the dominating miyan in the relationship, Meeta was seen riding a bike while carrying Manjula and keeping an eye on her like "a jealous lover." According to reports, Manjula never visited her village without first talking to Meeta. Even so, there was a mutuality in this relationship that was uncommon between men and women.

Although it might not seem like it, the author wrote, "[I]t was evident that of the two, Manjula was the one who decided what, when and how much of their private life could be discussed with an outsider."

Maya Sharma's book provides a lesson in political lesbianism through such insights, experienced and taught beyond the realm of academic arguments, at the locations of intersecting dis-privilege.

This lesson can be found not only in stories about personal sexual relationships but also in tales about the brave love and support that women have shown for one another in unforeseen circumstances. The narrative of Guddi and Aasu describes how women's groups made fun of their relationship because it went against the laws of nature, society, etc.

Although Guddi's mother did not go against her daughter's wishes even though she tried to "contain" the situation through the route of "practical kinship," several other members of the women's organisation were willing to stoop to their level best to help. Pushpa supported the idea of their independent existence outside of heterosexual marriage and was willing to contribute material resources for the same.

In the story of Juhi, the narrative of political lesbianism is presented in a direct manner. Juhi had introduced her daughters to the sexual alternative of being a lesbian and not only supported but actively promoted it after experiencing an abusive marriage. All of my children are lesbians, in her own words, and it is actually "better and far smarter to be this way than to marry males," according to her. If they choose to date guys, she will support them, although she "does not enjoy the prospect much."

She makes the comment while sharing her life experiences, "You know what? I believe that deep down, every woman is a lesbian. When women say, "This is my best friend," what does it mean? They are subtly showing their affection for women. This is just what I think. Women care for one another.

Queer interactions with inter-sectionality

The book by Maya Sharma expands on her observations regarding gender and sexuality. She continues to document several additional aspects of women's lives that become crucial parts of their lived experiences. The narrative of Vimalesh offers a startling realisation. The binary divide of male and female imposed on various bodies was continually contested by Vimalesh throughout his life. He also refused to feminise his appearance and get married.

However, empathy for other marginalised groups was not part of this fight against dominant ideologies. Being a Brahmin, Vimalesh chooses to maintain her authority in one area while fighting her helplessness in the other by acting with the "suspicion, scrutiny, and phobia" that is commonplace in her community towards the lower caste Harijans and chamars.

The confluence of sexuality and class presented yet another set of challenges. Sharma describes the profound ethical conflict she faced as a result of the stark class divide between her and her students, a situation in which her class status gave her a presumption of entitlement. The company of working-class women who helped her realise that her class position is precisely what allowed her to take on the job of politicising and clarifying the intimacies of working-class women made her feel obligated to continue the research, nevertheless.

Second, any implicit sense of entitlement she may have had was really eliminated by the class-based discrepancy in discourse. The ladies interviewed didn't have sufficient access to the terminology and vocabulary of the queer movement because they were persons from the lowest material positions. Since many of them didn't use the term for themselves, the use of the term "lesbian" was also contentious.

Juhi was the only woman to openly refer to herself as a lesbian. Many chose to refer to their relationships as "miyan-bibi Jodi," "lived like husband and wife," and frequently, friendships, refusing to even accept that they were sexually intimate. When questioned by her coworkers about why she kept her same-sex relationship a secret, Sabo shot out angrily, "This was never a matter for conversation; no one made it an issue. How was I able to mention it on my own? No one had a place to discuss women who loved other women. I had never heard the term "lesbian" before joining the single women's club and going to the Tirupati conference on women's rights.

The word "lesbian" was included in the title despite the respondents not acknowledging it; this was done with the intention of politicising the identification, which is frequently "laden with dread, embarrassment, and prejudice...shrouded in silence." However, it also contains a significant and illuminating qualification. It demonstrates how same-sex intimate relationships frequently encounter difficulties when compared to the one overarching myth of what it means to be queer.

The binaries of secrecy/disclosure; closet/coming out; and passing/queering follow the heterosexual/homosexual division, which, in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's view, breaks up the western ontology. As Neville Hoad points out, this merely perpetuates the notion of a westernised queer person whose sexual orientation serves as her primary identity. The truth is more complicated, especially in some structural areas.

According to Steve Seidman's book Beyond the Closet, queer people who are members of racial, social, and/or gender minority groups perceive their sexuality in a more complex manner and far less independently from their other forms of identity. The struggle to live one's sexuality takes on an even more challenging form since it must take place as an inter-subjective process, involving both the various subjectivities that the subject herself embodies as well as those of the various subjects we are related to, such as family.

This complexity in her respondents' "lives, goals, pathologies, and conflicts, their visions, their coping mechanisms, their compromises, and modes of resistance" is attempted to be captured in Maya Sharma's account. They must therefore be repeated because of this. However, no retelling of the narrative is the same, exactly as is customary to do. Every time they are related or received, it takes on different importance depending on the reader's and the narrator's social and personal context.

The reviewer believes that the use of the lenses of class and sexuality to document the "life stories" of same-sex love forces us to critically examine how we conduct queer studies in India, who is seen as an ideal queer subject, and, more importantly, how we comprehend the context-specific limits of queerness.

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