For the Eyes of Women and Girls: Indian Sexuality

For the eyes of girls and women only.


I was 12 years old when my mother woke me up and asked me if I was still a virgin. It must have been 2 a.m. because my mother never went to bed before 3 a.m. She always stayed up late, working on her dictations for patient charts and paying bills.

My father was the opposite: he slept at around 9 or 10 p.m. and would wake up (and wake us up) at 5 a.m. So when my mother woke me up that morning, I knew something was wrong. “Uma, I found a pair of your underwear that had blood spots. Why are they there? Did you have sexual intercourse with someone?” I started crying. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t even know what virgin meant. All I knew was that I had started bleeding from the place where I peed and that my lower abdomen hurt as if someone had punched me in my gut.  There had been no prior conversation about this change, this appearance of womanhood beforehand. My mother had opted my sister and I out of the sex-ed classes that were offered in school as she felt we were too young to participate.  So we were clueless.

“Mom, I don’t know,” I responded, shakily.

“So you don’t know how the blood got there? You didn’t have sex?”

“No, Mom.”

“Of course this happened, you know Uma, you are not a girl any more. You are having your menses. I just wanted to make sure that this didn’t happen because of a boy.”

And with that I had changed. My mother gave me a pack of maxi pads and showed me how to use them. I was to wrap the used pads back in their wrappers and place them in a plastic bag and then outside in the garbage bin.  Never were my brothers or my father supposed to see any of these blood-soaked pads. My mother was adamant that periods were meant be kept hidden and quiet, only for the eyes of girls and women.  There would be no other discussion about sex, body parts, menstrual pains, flow issues, etc. My mother said just before I went back to bed, “Uma you are no longer a girl, now you are a young woman.” This scene was my introduction into sexuality.

Indian sexuality is a taboo topic, which is ironic since we are so well known for the Kama Sutra, an ancient Sanskrit text that is considered to be the gold standard book on human sexuality. Growing up in India, you see gods and goddesses dressed sensually as idols in temples.  Statues of Gopis (cowherd girls who are unconditionally devoted to Krishna) carved out of marble and bronze show curvaceous women with full breasts. Their saris are draped in a manner that highlights their waist and hips. Outsiders looking at the art would believe that there is nothing but respect and admiration for sexuality and the female form in Indian culture.

But modern day events in India showcase extreme violence against women: brutal rapes across the country, and horrific acid and burning attacks on women. Basic terms for human sexual anatomy are well known in the English language. But in Hindi, the national language of India, anatomical terms are not as widely used or known. When I was in medical school in India, we learned all the terms for human sexual anatomy in English. There were no terms given for the Hindi translation. When only foreign words are used to describe a person’s sexual anatomy in India, the possibility of discussing sex itself becomes foreign.
How did we move, as a population, from a once open discourse about sexuality to a people bound by painful repression and silence? Why have we become a culture that respects our goddesses and their idols in temples more than the human female living form? When my mother asked me if I was a virgin at the age of 12, I couldn’t respond to her question, because I didn’t know what a virgin was. I didn’t know the names for my own anatomy. My mother was a plastic surgeon. She was well versed in all the nuances of the human body. But still, no lesson on the parts and functions of the female reproductive system were ever discussed. The silence behind sexuality is pervasive not only in my family but throughout our culture, and I want to explore why this silence exists, what perpetuates this void, and my journey of finding my own sexuality.

In his book “Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality”, Sudhir Kakar dissects folklore, tales, and myths to uproot the inner structure upon which the Indian psyche regarding sexuality is built. India is an ancient country, and as such it is built upon myths, legends, and stories. We all know the great tale of the king who loved his wife so dearly that he built her the most beautiful monument in the world, the Taj Mahal. It is unknown whether he actually had all the hands of the builders who had worked on the monument cut off. Regardless, this tale of brutality remains because it adds to the mystique of this declaration of love. The Taj Mahal has become a national treasure and a symbol of undying devotion. Yet in modern India, a violent rape happens nearly every hour. Women are beaten, have acid thrown on them and are stripped down by either physical groping or the stares of sex-deprived men on every train and bus. What shift has taken place that has moved our attitude as a people from open and exploring, to repressed and silent?

“Mitro Marjani” is a novel by Krishna Sobti, and Kakar uses it to identify the structures and dynamics of husband-wife relationships in India. Sobti’s novel is a tale of a young Punjabi woman called Mitro who has a high sexual appetite. Sobti details the physical violence and oppression that Mitro has to endure at the hands of her husband, who suspects her of promiscuous tendencies. Mitro, however, is proud of her ample breasts and full body. She unabashedly flirts with her brother-in-law and reveals her sexual needs to her sister-in-law who is shocked by Mitro’s confessions (her sister-in-law considers herself to be a chaste woman).

The climactic scene in the novel takes place when Mitro is sent away to her mother’s house. Typically in Indian families, a new bride would be sent away from the new family’s house if any dishonorable act was committed. When Mitro arrives at her mother’s house, she explores ways to fulfill her sexual hunger. Her husband arrives to visit her and gets drunk after his meal. Mitro dresses up as an expensive prostitute in a high-class brothel to tempt her unsuspecting husband and entertains him, until he eventually falls into a drunken stupor. The next morning, however, Mitro presents herself truly and expresses affection for her husband, as he had not slept with the expensive prostitute in the end. Kakar uses the tale of Mitro to show, “…that their portrayal of the man-woman relationships has aspects with considerable potential for generalization”. He further explains, “…fictional family histories to many illuminate significant themes in Indian marriages in situations quite different from their novelistic origins”. Kakar’s explanation of Mitro and her story is as follows:
To me, Mitro Marjani is one of the more explicit renderings of a muted yet extremely powerful theme in Hindu marriages: The cultural unease, indeed, the fear of the wife as a woman, i.e., as a sexual being. More exactly, it is the age-old yet still persisting cultural splitting of the wife into mother and a whore which underlies the husband-wife relationship and which explains the often contradictory Hindu views of the woman….The splitting of the mother-image into the goddess and whore allows the man to have a modicum of sexual life without being overwhelmed by anxiety.

It is clear in India that we revere our gods and goddesses. They are in every corner of a Hindu home and stories are told of their feats to little children from a very young age. We worship our goddesses: Durga, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi. These goddesses represent the definition of a virtuous woman. Growing up, my mother always used to tell my sister and I how Sita-like she was. We had heard the Ramayana many times and read from the texts. We had learned how Sita had maintained her dignity even when the evil villain Ravana had captured her. We had marvelled at her strength and determination when challenged by Rama, her own husband, as she marched into a burning blaze to show she was sexually pure after her kidnapping. My mother was Sita-like. Her nostrils would flare as she would proudly recall how our father was the first man she ever slept with and how she was able to maintain her virtue even though she had many suitors. She would emphasise how her virtue was the pride of her father and family and she protected her honour at all costs as she was the eldest girl in the family.  My mother, however, neglected to mention that wanting to be virtuous and untouched in India would require more than personal desire and the divine will of Sita.
When I was 17 years old and a student in Wardha, India, I was groped for the first time in my life as I was travelling on a bus to Nagpur. It was a one-hour bus ride and I had gone alone. I was wearing a shalwar kameeze, a knee-length tunic top with leggings and a long scarf, and going to

see my mother’s family. The bus filled up with each stop and I had got on along the way, so there were not many empty seats. I sat down next to an older woman towards the front of the bus. After a few stops, the woman got off the bus and a young man sat down in her place. At first, there were a few casual touches of his elbow against mine. I didn’t think anything of it, as we were in a cramped bus. Then, I felt something stroke the left side of my body, just behind where my arm was resting. It was a slow stroke, so there was no mistaking its intention. I moved away and pressed myself as close to the window as possible. I dared not look at the man next to me. I didn’t want a confirmation of his attempts; after all what would I have done?

The next stroke was bold: he traced his finger from my hip up to the side of my breast. I moved forward in my seat. Every move I made he moved nonchalantly closer. There was nowhere for me to go. All the seats in the bus were taken, and I didn’t want to stand up in the aisle next to another man. So I stayed seated. His hand came next, on my thigh, and moved upwards. I slapped his hand away, which I was scared to do. Were people watching? I didn’t know. I didn’t even know what this man looked like. I only knew the city I was leaving and the city I was going to. If I had got off the bus at a random stop, I wouldn’t have known where to go. So I stayed, glued to my seat, perched as forward as possible and pressed against the window. I crossed my arms tightly against my chest and prayed this would end. Thankfully my slap against his hand was enough to stop him from progressing. When I arrived at my stop, I jumped off the bus and ran to the first available tuk-tuk and went straight to my family’s house. I called my mother, crying, to tell her what had happened but her first question to me was, “What were you wearing?” When I told her that it was a shalwar kameeze, she replied, “Well, it must have been inappropriate somehow, and you must have provoked him.” I was stunned.

This scene happens every day in India on trains, buses and the subway, and some situations are far less docile than my account. Some men are brazen enough to palm a woman’s breast or buttocks or press themselves into the woman enough so their hardened penis is announced. Even if a woman doesn’t have to sit or stand in the same train carriage as a man, she still has to walk the aisles or stand on the platform to get to the women’s only carriage. Standing or walking through a sea of men in metropolitan India is dehumanising if you are a woman. You feel the gaze of every man upon you as you rush your way to safety in the women’s carriage.

Last year, while travelling on the Delhi Metro, my husband travelled in the men’s/mixed carriage, while I would hustle my way to the women’s carriage at the end of the train. My husband (who is European) would feel enraged every time he watched me walk through the gauntlet of stares. He told me on one occasion, “No woman is spared a visual strip-down. I feel like even old women are glared at in the most evil way. It’s dehumanising.”

Nearly everyone in India has heard of violent rapes happening in the major cities and even in their own cities. Rape in Indian culture is a phenomenon that needs to be explored because of the frequency of its occurrence and the lack of response via the Indian authorities. If you take Indian cinema for example, many Bollywood films show at least one scene where a woman is being made angry or a woman is being ‘playfully’ attacked. One of the chapters in Kakar’s book explores the dark underbelly of Indian cinematic love:

The question why rape is a staple feature of Indian cinema where otherwise even the kiss is taboo, why the sexual humiliation of the woman plays such a significant role in the fantasy of love, is important. That this rape is invariably a fantasy rape, without the violence and trauma of its real-life counterpart, is evident in the manner of its visual representation. Villains, mustachioed or stubble-chinned, roll their eyes and stalk their female prey around locked rooms. With deep-throated growls of gloating, lasciviously muttering a variant of ‘Ha! You cannot escape me now,’ they make sharp lunges to tear off the apparel. The heroine, on the other hand, retreats in pretty terror…As in the folk theater presentations of the scene from the Mahabharata where Dushasana is trying to undrape Draupadi, what is being enjoyed by the audience is the sado-masochistic fantasy incorporated in the defencelessness and pain of a fear-stricken woman.

The scene from the Mahabharata that Kakar references was a favourite of my mother’s. In the popular film version of this epic, Draupadi is used as a pawn in a gambling match in which her husbands (seven of them) are gambling for power against the rival clan. When the husbands lose the bet, Dushasana wins Draupadi and starts to undrape her sari in front of her husbands. None of her husbands moves to stop this humiliation from happening; they all hang their heads in shame, for they have each lost a major gamble and their beloved wife.
Draupadi, alone and without support, turns her head to the heavens and starts praying to Lord Krishna. After fervent prayer, Krishna appears and miraculously adds more fabric to her sari. Dushasana grows dumbfounded as he continues pulling and yet isn’t able to disrobe Draupadi. With Krishna’s help, Draupadi is saved as Dushasana exhausts himself trying to unclothe his prize. When we would watch this scene at home, my mother would marvel at how chaste and devout Draupadi was as a wife and a woman. “See, even when her husbands gave her up, she didn’t blame them. She turned to GOD. She stayed true to herself and her husbands!”

My mother idolised Draupadi but never spoke of the wrongdoings of the men in the above scene. Growing up with this as a primary narrative, you begin to believe that your existence as a woman is not only dependent upon a man (after all, they can sell you and gamble you away) but also your only saviour of virtue is GOD himself and your strict devotion to him. What the men had done had never been classified as wrong, at least not by my mother. So even in the situation when I was on the bus, the man who was lewdly touching me was not blamed first – rather, I was. I had not done what I should have to protect my virtue. Perhaps if I had turned to Lord Krishna, I, and every other woman who is groped on public transport, would be saved from our agony.

This is an excerpt from our Sexuality issue OUT NOW. Order it here!