There is no simple, straightforward mapping of ‘queer’ versus ‘straight’ sexual identities for women.
Sexuality, or rather plurality of it, is not a conceptual matter of discussion only; rather these are ‘lived’ realities of lives, evolved around our individual journeys of erotic desires, practices and identities, governed under the heteronormative and marriage-normative socio-sexual structures. Gender plays a central role in determining the possibilities, potentials and compromises that one makes in connecting desires with practices, between performances and compliances. Sexuality is also determined by spatiality, or rather politics of spaces – from household, to public and virtual. Space – as a physical, social and symbolic category – weaves through the understanding of sexuality, showing that within hetero-patriarchal social structures of family and household, and the public and virtual worlds, there still exist spaces for ambiguity, plural identities and non-heteronormative performances of gender and sexualities. The question of women (a category that is inclusive and fluid of self-determined identity process) in relation to sexuality is perhaps the most contentious topic in the context of Bangladesh, be it within mainstream sociological discussions, or even within LGBTQI+ spaces. This paper, mostly drawn from my PhD thesis and subsequent publications on the topics of heteronormativity and politics of sexual rights in the context of Bangladesh (Karim 2004, 2012, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020) within its very limited scope, aims to touch on some of the issues that make the topic of women’s sexualities, sexual rights and assertion of sexual agency not only difficult but also troublesome in our contemporary socio-political environment.
The heteronormative framework of the Bangladeshi society has its historical origin deeply embedded in the sub continent’s colonial history. Its negotiation with ‘modernity’ and modernization process sets the basis of socio-sexual morality for its members. At the heart of the system lies the family-household that has marriage normativity, homosociality, and gendered privileged visions of masculinity over femininity as its core elements. It discourages sex outside marriage in general, but particularly suppresses female sexual expressions beyond marital norms. Marriage normativity and homosociality have different possibilities and consequences for men and women at different ages. Women who resist these roles, especially marriage-normativity are seen as a social anomaly and are deprived of the entitlement to sex and fulfillment of desire.
It is a known factor by now that women’s increasing participation in higher education, more financially secure jobs, and mobility through cities and continents are having a profound impact on their articulation and practices of sex and their expressions of sexualities. If we look beyond the stories of victimhood, violence and systemic oppressions which usually frame stories of women’s sexuality, we will see that these are also narratives of aspirations, strategies and empowerment. There exist multiple, ambiguous, paradoxical ‘sexual spaces’, socio-symbolic worlds within which diverse sexual desires, identities and practices can be accommodated. The porosity of borders between the public and private is constantly challenged, negotiated and (re)created for non-normative desires, identities and practices. Women’s sexualities are lived in the fluidity that often challenges the otherwise commonly understood ‘fixity’ of sexual identities and its practices. With the changing demography of the country where younger population is on the rise, there is a slow, subtle and inevitable change in what is understood as ‘sexuality’ among young women. The increasingly more educated, mobile and economically powerful ‘new women’ pose as a considerable threat to the existing system of gender discrimination, sexual oppressions and violation of sexual rights.
Beyond heterosexuality, if we look at women’s diverse expressions of desires and sexual identities, we will not find much documentation that can be used as evidences. There is very little academic work on women and sexuality beyond the framework of reproductive health and rights, or violence against women. Some literature creates spaces for women’s expressions of desires and pleasure as part of their sexuality on its own right. This lack of presence or representations of women’s sexual diversity in particular, is a mere reflection of how marginalised these lives are in everyday lives. It is not only difficult to talk about women’s sexuality in terms of pleasure and/or desires – it is almost impossible to even mention non-normative desires and practices. Women in or interested in same-sex relations move through their sexual lives, or rather desires (as often the practice of desired sexual act either doesn’t take place ever, or for years, or needs to be suppressed for giving other gender roles a priority in life), in different ways than men do in similar situations. This is not to suggest a popular essentialist ‘natural’ difference between the genders, but rather, recognizes the social construction and expectations of roles and their performances within the heteronormative structures of sex, sexualities and genders. It often takes women years to recognize and come to terms with their sexual desires, and after years of negotiations with the self and loved ones some of them can actually find ways of dealing with the plural manifestations of sexualities. These pluralities are often hidden and/or suppressed under the compulsory heterosexual roles, and caught between social roles and women’s personal sexual desires. These performative gender roles are of extreme importance to many – to be a mother, a dutiful daughter and sister; and keeping an eye on the family honour, reputation and respectability – these are essential roles in securing one’s place in society, to have access to resources and rights. The issue of respectability that is attached to Bengali culture remains central to the decisions women make regarding their sexualities, its expressions and assertions.
Women’s sexualities are diverse as well as fluid, and negotiated through myriads of strategic ways through relations and spaces on a daily basis. There is no simple, straightforward mapping of ‘queer’ versus ‘straight’ sexual identities for women. There are many interconnected factors like age, class, gender and economy create spaces at play for negotiating life-choices and identities. Women’s personal politics of sexual identities are linked to their abilities and opportunities of participation in and position within larger (and often over-lapping) public fields of activism, social movements and interventions. Queer women, like their other gender counterparts, try to be individually and (self-)organized, struggle with naming their desires, resisting, negotiating and adhering to specific categories and labels for many different reasons. Though they recognize the invisibility and silence of non-heterosexual women in society at large, and within the sexual ‘minority’ community in particular, they do not particularly look for visible activism. Women can refuse to label their sexual identity because it is either an alien term, or something that denies the fluidity that one might or must perform at different phases of life. In addition, non-heterosexual women have to continuously move within the shifting expressions of identities. The social is more valued than individual comfort of identity because that might draw unwanted attention, displacement and disruption of the community.
In LGBTQI+ activism or sexual rights movement, ‘identity’ of the collective (by various groups) plays a crucial role. This is where groups differentiate from each other based on their respective sexual politicsIdentity, its representations and meanings, are still very much within the binary of masculine-feminine, and mostly kept in this ‘simplified’ linear status. The complexity of one’s relation to sexual identity gives way to a debate about why and when one needs an identity, if at all. Women’s sexuality and identity politics is a much more complicated subject as it is a discussion that rarely has surfaced on public discourses. ‘Lesbian’, an English term, posed to be problematic as it struggled to strike a chord with women with diverse sexual practices and identities. Unlike the popular image of Western queer/lesbian subcultures, in Bangladesh there is not a social ‘obviousness’ of queer identity (except for the transgender community where cross dressing is a norm), and the specificity of ‘dyke, femme’ etc. are not translated in either language or social meaning. As much as one recognizes the relevance of identity and labelling to the politics of sexual rights – one cannot dispute the fact that diversities represented through label-based identities is an example of Western hegemonic sexuality discourse. These identities cannot do justice to the complex sexual lives that people live in reality, particularly women, as the construction of genders, subject positions and embodied identities of sexualities are not easily translated in Bengali socio-cultural space. Identities, especially sexual identities, can be tricky for individuals who inhabit a social structure that either stigmatizes or demonizes anyone who appears to be deviant. But at the same time, to appropriate the same terms, within safe spaces of allies and fellow group members can be positive and matter of collective strength. Looking at the recent history of sexual rights movement (or more specifically LGBTQI+ one) in Bangladesh, one can see how the questions of women’s sexuality and sexual rights struggled to find equal space and visibility within it.
With the advancement of technology and widespread use of the internet, sexuality has found new possibilities of expressions and networking, especially in the beginning of the new millennium. When women did access the virtual world through their own online communities, they could not leave much of an impact or be useful so that a buzzing social site could be created. Online groups remained inactive for months or interactions were not as frequent as they could have been. Women tended to present themselves online as more feminine, aesthetic and social; where they were looking for food for thought, soul searching opportunities, friendship, companionship, and opportunities to connect with the wider world. There were very little about sex, desire, passion or sexuality that were explicitly posted or discussed online. Femininity performed as per social norms and expectations, i.e. through expressions of love relationships and companionship still dominated the core beliefs and behaviors. Building groups for camaraderie and networking seemed to be a priority. Comparing the number of messages and member profiles on gay online sites and lesbian online sites (in 2009), it was clear that women were much more secretive and closeted (online) than gay men in Bangladesh at that time. By the end of first decade of the millennium, the internet was becoming more accessible and cheaper, and women, specifically younger women, had the option of building their own individual networks of friends from the ‘community’ through social networks thus minimizing the necessity of being attached to larger lesbian/bi-sexual online forums. It is undeniable that sexuality as a right is being expressed by many now, especially by young women, through different social media networks. The internet is gradually playing a key role, enabling people to transform unequal gender relations and discriminatory norms and practices.
Creating a social network and securing a safe private environment is crucial to any marginalised or non-heteronormative group, especially that of women. The small but crucial breathing spaces give women opportunities to find friendship, bonding and camaraderie – but also provide all-important grounds for organizing themselves, debating the politics of sexual rights and identities, and extend support to fellow members of the community. Women create homes, support groups or simple inner circles of friends to come together as a community- sometimes these communities have intergenerational characteristics, sometimes they are based on professional commonality or commonality of education, marital status or simple family affiliation. Heteronormativity creates both constraints and possibilities for individuals to become sexual beings of their own choice. Dominant notions of femininity and masculinity and female and male sexualities, acceptance of homosociality, age and able-bodiness, intersect with the economic advantages, or the lack thereof, within the physical, social and symbolic spaces of a family-household. Those intersections both allow and restrict women in the creation of space of their own, and especially a space for being sexual. The private aspect of that space – often critiqued in feminist scholarship as the prime site of violence and discrimination of women – can actually function as a protective cover for non-normative sexual arrangements. Those protective mechanisms have limits – as the case of single heterosexual women can show.
Understandings derived from narratives of non-normative lives show how individual woman integrate heterosexuality and heteronormativity to push the boundaries of norms in order to create spaces for multiple expressions of erotic desires. There is no linear way of negotiation even within the same economic class; it is mostly an individual journey through life through various gender and sexuality performances ranging from performative heterosexualization to de-sexualization of the self. Connecting women’s conflicts, negotiations and personal politics of sexual identity with that of organizational politics is extremely significant to understanding how support groups organize, conduct, operate and thus position themselves in the broader field of sexual rights ‘movements’ and/or initiatives. Even within feminist or women’s movement, alliance making with LGBTQI+, and with specific interest in women’s sexual rights (inclusiveness and diversity as agenda) has not been a public collective effort, rather individual activist’s personal ideological support given at personal capacities. There is a strong ‘homophobia’ and heteronormative culture among women who otherwise support or take affirmative action for women’s rights. I have witnessed discussions among women activists (during my research field work) that expressed strong vocal bias, prejudice and fear of the ‘unknown, unpredictable sexual aggression of lesbian women’ who ‘act like men’ was surprisingly strong even when most members were actually quite tolerant and open minded about the concept that some women are non-heterosexual. Therefore, the organization has, in its members’ mental landscape, a tolerance and acceptance of non-heteronormative sexual identities as a concept and is much more comfortable with gay and transgender people (who are part of their many activities and programmes), yet in reality expresses a non-acceptance, fear and rejection of non-heterosexual women.
The influence of religion is very strong on politics, legal framework and any challenge to change what is seen as the essential ‘base’ and ‘structure’ of the hetero-patriarchal society of Bangladesh would be extremely difficult. These very tensions of culture, gender and class characterize development and sexuality in Bangladesh and the slowly emerging LGBTQI+ movement. Women’s same-sex groups, which are far and few between, are yet to find firm ground under their feet and make strong, trusted allies to take their agenda forward. Women’s same-sex sexuality and sexual rights movement in countries like Bangladesh indicate that understanding women’s communities and networks in their unique sociocultural context is important and their own sexual rights movements are not always the product of or directly relevant to the dominant global/Western queer culture. Therefore, understanding women’s sexual politics based on sexual identity-based networks in Bangladesh has to be understood not only as part of broader LGBTQI+ movement making, as part of a larger collective but also from individual women’s subjective life experiences which brings nuanced meanings to women’s sexual rights in general in the context of Bangladesh.
Dr. Shuchi Karim is a feminist academic and researcher from Bangladesh. She completed her PhD at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, The Netherlands in 2012, specialising in Women, Gender and Development with focus on sexualities. She is currently working at Western University (Women’s Studies and Feminist Research Department) as an Assistant Professor. Dr. Karim’s research areas include women’s rights, Sexuality, education and transnational feminism.
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Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Youth Friendly Health Services: Overview, Interlinkages, Gaps, and Research Questions.
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