On Saturday, 18th July 2015, Ondede and Radio Active hosted a discussion (in English and Kannada) on gender, sexuality and forced marriages, that attracted over 70 participants that included activists working for the rights of women, children, sexual minorities, researchers, writers, film makers, lawyers, theologists and youngsters studying law, social work and other subjects Welcoming everyone, Akkai, founder Ondede (meaning convergence) introduced it as a growing organization that has been focussing on the rights of women, children and sexual minorities, challenging patriarchy. She said that Ondede has held conversations between people of various identities on the notion of family, age of consent, gender and sexuality, etc. over the last few months.

Setting the context for conversations, Akkai highlighted how the issue of forced marriage in Indian society reentered the public discourse owing to two specific incidents. One of them was the suicide committed by a doctor who worked in AIIMS, Delhi because of harassment from her husband who was supposedly gay and the case of a gay man employed with Infosys in Karnataka arrested under IPC section 377 after his wife found out that he was gay. She added, “Indian society often blames women for marital discord or problems in any other relationship. Women are suppressed sexually here. Married women have children but after 3 years or so their spouse may divorce them. However, some sexual minority persons also are compelled to marry even when their sexual orientation is known. Hence, a few of us decided to hold this conversation between various people”.

After everyone present introduced themselves briefly, Shakun, a long time activist at Vimochana, started with the question, “What is marriage?”

The following were some of the responses from the participants:

“Marriage is a bond between a woman and a man”.

“It is an institution where 2 people agree to share their life with each other”.

“Marriage is an unnecessary attempt by a major part of society, government (law) to impose its notions on others”.

“History has defined marriage as a union. Some are trying to redefine it”.

“It is a bond between 2 people”.

Shakun: Some women and men find marriage to be a business transaction. We live in an economic world. I come from a world where hundreds of women are being burnt mainly by their husbands and other members of their marital family.

People try to make marriage work for them. But, what have they derived from it? Legal sanction means nothing even if we get it from the courts. Ending marriage of any kind is permissible legally but takes very long in reality. Civility ends and many complications arise. Some persons use children to continue or end their marriage. Some want to be seen as a couple. But how many people challenge the binary relationship that marriage apparently is and emerge from the box?

Sometime back, we stayed as guests of an African family for 15 days. An elderly mama introduced her 9 children of different ages and occupations who were from different relationships but living together. I believe that one cannot find emotional fulfillment and other satisfaction from one person.

We keep finding women and a few men who are confused about their relationships, emotions et al. A lady who works in the information technology industry in Bangalore came to us about for advice about her personal issue. Her husband had left to work abroad for a year when she was expecting. She sought emotional and physical support from a male colleague during the absence of her husband. However, when she, he began to stalk her.

What does gender plurality mean? Everything does not imply only sex. We have fought identity politics as feminists for 38 years. When we become too assertive about our individuality we should start looking inwards.

A few years ago sexual minorities were fighting for marriages among them to accepted under the Special Marriage Act. I doubt that is necessary.

Gowthaman: You do not have to be married to speak about marriage. I think those who are opposing it also can speak about it. I have learnt this from my interventions in the family court. At the Alternative Law Forum, a human rights law firm where I work, it is good that we have activists from different areas like net neutrality, street vendor rights, labour movements, civil liberties, child rights, gender rights. Often it is assumed that sexuality is discussed only by sexual minorities. I believe that gender and sexuality should be outside boundaries and is different based on ability, religion, caste, gender, race, ethnicity, language, region, etc.

I want to highlight a case from Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu where Divya, a young lady from the Vanniyar caste (considered caste Hindus) and Ilavarasan, a young Dalit man got married despite extreme opposition from their families. However, a few months later, this marriage caused a lot of violence towards Dalits who were economically stable and destruction of their property.

Another point is about the of love jihad where rumours of Muslim men ‘luring’ Hindu women into relationships, were spread particularly in southern Karnataka based on perhaps one true incident. Even now, women and men of different religions or faiths, especially Hindus and Muslims, who are seen together are forcibly separated by vigilantes and sometimes assaulted, irrespective of them being colleagues, classmates, friends, acquaintances, neighbours et al. The challenges of caste and religion should also be the concerns of the sexuality movement.

Victimhood of the powerful is being played without understanding the historical context. We assume that people with disability do not have sex or are incapable. Marriage seems to be devoid of love and care and is more about perpetuating race or money. I wonder which kind of marriage is not forced. Discussions regarding the suicide by the AIIMS physician almost became a fight between women’s rights activists and gender minority rights activists.

Saranya: I am a Hindu woman who married a Catholic man 15 years ago after convincing my family. I wonder which marriage is not forced. A deep sense of insecurity prevails in some people especially when marriages are entered into, in a hurry. I am deeply insecure as an adult, teacher, daughter-in-law and woman. I am unable to go abroad to study leaving my husband as he is dependent on me. And, as a children’s educator, I often question myself if I must direct a child or impose my thoughts. The least you can do with children is to be non-judgmental especially when they seek your assistance regarding relationships. A 9-year old child told me that her parents are not letting her spend time with a boy her age, because she is not of marriageable age. Although I was saddened at her situation, I was relieved to hear that her parents consider that she is too young to be married off.  How do we define marriage – remaining with only one person, sexual intimacy with the same person or something else? Also, we should ask what the meaning of ‘being straight’ is?

“We try to define queer fluidity and plurality although we can explain our understanding of it. As an academic I have seen this as a way of fighting patriarchy but we are trying to establishing a new kind of normativity. Attributing all problems to patriarchy is perhaps not right as it is not the only problem. We talk about gender and sexuality but not necessarily sex. Do we mean when we talk about same sex marriage”, mentioned a researcher.

Maria: I consider myself as a participant in this discussion as I am not very prepared to talk. But I ask the floor what it thinks of child marriage.

Sunil: An 18-year old student in Rajasthan expressed that she wanted to exit her marriage that happened as a child. Such rare displays of courage must be encouraged and emulated.

Champa: We cannot demand courage from people or question them why they are timid. I was not bold when I was 18 years old but now I am.

Gowthaman: We definitely oppose child marriage. I know people in same sex marriages who are seeking legal sanction for marriages and the benefits that go with them.

Shakun: The Hakki Pikki, an adivasi community has no trafficking, minimal sex work openness in relationships where women can walk away from a relationship whenever she wishes to. Our minds are patriarchal and hence we are debating the issue of marriage.

Another participant opined, “Marriage sometimes means that a lady becomes the property of someone or part of it. Also, how do we deal with intersectional problems? Further there is the issue of morality, for some”.

Shakun: I am against universalizing any practice. Let us not infantalize one or more sections of society based on our perceptions of others.

Gowthaman: In some instances, the provisions of the POCSO Act criminalize minor boys even though they are ignorant or innocent.

Chanakya: Let us remember that laws associated with marriage can be used, misused and abused.

Shakun: I have been working with sex workers closely for some years. I had to fight with myself to understand them. Initially they were the other. But I began to realize that they have other identities apart from being sex workers. We must push our boundaries of understanding continuously and give in to our insecurities.

Saranya: I know at least 3 people right now who are married but not in their marriages actually. Maybe social approval or sanction is important to some but let us not thrust it on everyone.

Akkai: Let us not judge others but support their diverse gender identities. I am in a live in a relationship with Midhun who is a transman. The Hijra community said I should pay a penalty of 1,03,000 rupees. I said that I would pay even more but let the police or court decide if I have done anything wrong.

John: Religion places its control over marriage. We are on a journey to deconstruct not just patriarchy but also class, caste and gender within religion.

Gowthaman: Equality can be problematic. Hence, the Indian constitution talks about substantive equality for all.

Sana: When I was aged 17 and doing my pre-university course, my mother suggested that getting me married will make me a complete man. Some people believe that having sex with a girl or woman will help men establish masculinity.

“Many times, inter-caste marriages are prevented as people fear that their individual identity will be denied or disrupted”, noted a participant. Another remarked that there is nothing in black and white in these matters.

John: When marriage and religion comes together it is not only about gender. Some genders are supposedly married to God. Where do we draw the line?

Akkai: The Supreme Court of India gives us all rights but society excommunicates us. It took 12 years for our family to be accepted after my sister married a Dalit man and 2 years after my brother married a person from a different community.

Vasu: “We are are in a confused state about letting go or continuing in a relationship. The conversion of women from the so called ‘lower’ to ‘upper’ caste, after negotiated inter-caste weddings, has been occurring in southern Karnataka. However, the ‘lower’ caste women are not allowed to participate in some religious rituals or enter places of worship. I believe that marriage is often about getting free labour, a sex slave and economics”.

One of the participants shared, “Let us not idealize marriage. From my mother’s perspective, I should marry a Brahmin girl which I think is not only wrong but impossible for me as I am gay”.

“The public celebration of one’s love is marriage, according to me”, said a participant. To that, Vasu and others responded, “It is only the wedding and lasts only a day or a little longer”.

Another participant observed, “Brahminical notions of marriage still exist in Hindu society. The supposed view of marriages as relationships between families is to control resources. Marriage is romantic for some but not so for others”.

Sowmya: My supportive and liberal parents have let me remain as an unmarried 32-year old woman. However, it has become an issue, lately. An elderly police officer known to my father once asked me if he could find me a man of my choice when we went to get permission for the Pride march. It was ironical and my remaining unmarried was declared as a reason for my father’s silence. We should have these conversations outside too, regularly.

“In childhood I came across conversion into Hinduism. However, I wonder if she was accepted into the family. I did not understand or oppose it then but I question compulsory inter-faith and inter-caste conversions, now”, a participant shared.

“I reject the so called institution of marriage. There are many people who are forcing me to get married. I have made peace with my insecurity. I am ok with my wall of dependency.”

Krishnaveni: “People keep asking women and men remaining unmarried without knowing individual preferences, sexual and gender orientation compatibility between people. Blind beliefs must be discouraged. We need love and trust for any relationship to succeed”.

Shakila: “I was put through a forced marriage although my alternate gender was known to my family. Various other challenges followed, sadly.”

Sunil: We discuss marriage without sex and sexuality particularly with children. Forced sex is a horrible problem for many women and they do not have an escape.

Rakshita: I hate the idea of marriage because it is about rituals, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or parenthood. Those who do not follow these norms are sometimes branded as transpersons. To me marriage is about people coming together and co-existing for love.

Vasu: Marriage as a concept has not really changed from ancient times. Akbar and Porus married for political purposes. Marriage is often a political and economic arrangement. We should shun movies that glorify weddings in any language.

Chanakya: We should distinguish between people who want to marry genuinely and those who want to get married for other reasons.

Pushpa: I recall acclaimed film director Sudhir Mishra saying in a magazine interview that marriage cannot be certified by a piece of paper. Often, the enforcing of norms just begins with marriage. The couple is expected to have children of a particular gender, follow certain traditions, fulfill expectations of others due to which their identities and interests are often lost and the relationship suffers. Anyone can choose to marry or not and still have one or more companions or partners for their emotional, sexual or other needs. Let us not romanticize the idea of marriage and its associated conventions especially with children and youth.

Akkai: We should continue to come together particularly when people from other identities, groups, movements need our support.

Saranya concluded with the words, “We should perhaps do away with the convention of vote of thanks since we are talking about breaking norms. It was a wonderful afternoon where people shared their lives and thoughts. Let us keep showing solidarity with each other and meet whenever it is possible for us”.

Compiled by Pushpa