Though sexuality is considered an innate human drive, its expression
varies in different cultures. Patterns of sexual behaviour in
a society are outgrowths of a whole cultural ethos. The same sexual
behaviour can acquire substantially different meanings and consequences
in different societies.
Most societies have tried to regulate sexuality by placing it
firmly within their marriage and kinship structure. However, in
societies which evolved male dominated forms of family, marriage
became an instrument of control over women's sexuality. In the
West, Engels preceded the feminists in critiquing the sexual morality
inherent in such male dominated family structures. He saw the
destruction of the patriarchal family as a necessary step towards
freeing women from men's control.
For the nineteenth century and early twentieth century feminists,
the right to education and the right to vote were the primary
issues. It was only after the advent of cheap, effective and readily
available contraceptives for the mass of women in the West that
the feminist movement began to seriously engage with the idea
of sexual liberation. The possibility of separation of women's
sexuality from reproduction made it easier for women to assert
their own sexuality. This phase witnessed not only perceptive
analyses and radical insights into the power play behind the sexual
aspects of man-woman relationships, but also ideological challenges
to the cultural ideals of women's sexual purity, virginity, and
lifelong sexual loyalty to a husband.
Efforts to promote sexual liberation in the contemporary West
were accompanied by a very high rate of breakdown of marriages
and families, especially since simultaneously many of the legal
and religious bars against divorce were removed. At the same time,
subjective expectations of marriage became more and more exaggerated.
In the West marriage is not just expected to provide economic
and social security for raising children, but also sexual compatibility,
orgasmic delight and romantic excitement. Walking out of marriage
in search of more exciting liaisons is no longer only a male prerogative.
Women frequently exercise this option. However, even though the
idea of lifelong sexual loyalty in marriage is no longer assumed
in the West, the majority of believers in sexual liberation expect
a new form of sexual commitment _ serial monogamy. For whatever
duration that a couple are together, the new morality assumes
that they will refrain from sexual involvement with others. Marriages
and even non-marital relationships often flounder if either partner
discovers the other having clandestine sexual affairs.
While western women have begun to be more sexually assertive,
many find they are not necessarily sexually fulfilled. A German
feminist friend of mine who was an enthusiastic participant in
the heady days of their sexual revolution once described in vivid
detail to me how she came out of that experience bruised, hurt,
and confused. This is how she summed up her experience: "I
now think we were buggered not just physically but also mentally
and ended up feeling used by men." Today she feels that free
sex without any emotional commitment suits men much more than
women because it allows men easy access to any number of women
without taking on any responsibility.
In my own social I find that circle men who propound sexual liberation
to women tend to be far more exploitative than the supposedly
traditional men. They flaunt ultra-feminist rhetoric and the ideology
of sexual liberation mostly as a device to intellectually seduce
women into being sexually available at their pleasure. When a
woman resists such advances, she often gets responses like: "I
had no idea that you are such a prude. I took you to be a liberated
woman," implying thereby that a sexually "liberated"
woman loses the right that even some prostitutes have _ the right
to say 'No'.
While many feminists might disagree about the negative fall-out
of sexual revolution in the West, there is little doubt that the
resultant instability in life within the nuclear family causes
havoc for the children. The breakdown of the patriarchal family
has not yet led to more egalitarian and secure family structures.
Rather, it has contributed to the atomisation of society into
a loose collection of self obsessed individuals. Consequently,
kinship and other human relations have become very fragile.
Sex and Liberation
This seems to be an important reason why Indian women do not
seem very enamoured of the idea of sexual liberation as it came
to be understood and practiced in the West. Feminism in the West
came as an offshoot of individualism _ the doctrine which holds
that the interests of the individual should take precedence over
the interests of the social group, family, or the state. However,
in India, despite the cultural diversity among its various social,
caste, and religious groups, there is a pervasive belief shared
equally by men and women that individual rights must be strengthened
not by pitching yourself against or isolating yourself from family
and community, but rather by having your rights recognised within
it. For individual rights to be meaningful, they have to be respected
by those with whom you are close, rather than being asserted in
a way that estranges you from them. The vast majority of Indian
men and women grow up to believe that the interests of the family
are primary and take precedence over individual interests.
Therefore, even our idea of the place of sex in life is very
different from those of western women due to widely differing
cultural values and philosophies. Children, the extended family
and biradari continue to be the main anchoring point in our lives.
Individual freedom is given far lower priority. Many Indian women
are unwilling to remarry after a divorce or widowhood if they
already have children even if there is no family opposition to
remarriage. They demonstrate enormous resilience and resolve in
bringing up children on their own while snubbing sexual advances
from men or their family's offers to get them remarried.
This self denial is based on a fairly astute understanding of
the risks involved in this culture in pursuing intimate male companionship
at the cost of other valuable relations, and a careful calculation
of their children's long term well being. Women in our society
seem to consider sexual deprivation as far less painful than being
estranged from their children and family.
Since, in our culture, people (both men and women) who sacrifice
their self-interest for others are given far more respect and
reverence than those who pursue their own pleasure without taking
the concerns of others into account, the idea of voluntary renunciation
in pursuit of a higher goal or for the interest of others continues
to have a profound hold on our imagination. For instance, an elder
brother who remained unmarried for many years because he chose
to put all his energy into ensuring that his younger siblings
got well-settled in life would be an object of veneration in his
community and family. Similarly, a man who refuses to remarry
after his wife's death so that his children do not have to deal
with the insecurity and risks that come with having a step-mother
is treated with special respect in his entire social circle.
The Power of Celibacy
This self denial no doubt takes a heavy toll and cannot be unduly
romanticised as, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi often did. He saw
"voluntary enlightened widowhood" as a great "social
asset" and believed that "a real Hindu widow is a treasure.
She is one of the gifts of Hinduism to humanity"1. Gandhi
believed that a Hindu widow had "learnt to find happiness
in suffering, had accepted suffering as sacred....Their suffering
is not suffering but is happiness."2 However, he did not
have a different yardstick for men. He wanted men to emulate the
same ideal: "Hinduism will remain imperfect as long as men
do not accept suffering" as many widows did and, like them
"withdraw their interest from the pleasures of life."3
Celibacy, as a voluntary option, seldom gets treated respectably
in the West because the West has, by and large, succumbed to the
theory that sexual abstinence is an unhealthy aberration which
leads to unhealthy neuroses and a disoriented personality. Abstinence
is undoubtedly harmful when it is due to external repression.
However, when it is voluntary and purposeful it can often be liberating.
In India people have special respect for those who can live satisfactory
lives without the need for sex. We are still heavily steeped in
the old Indian tradition which holds that voluntary sexual abstince
bestows extraordinary powers on human beings. Indian mythology
is full of stories of sages who went so far in tapasya that Indra's
throne in the heavens would start shaking. The gods would then
send some exceedingly attractive apsara to lure him and disrupt
his tapasya. Those few who successfully resisted the sexual lure
achieved moksha and a status higher than gods.
In the 20th century we have the example of Mahatma Gandhi who
tried to transcend his sexuality in order to make it contribute
to forging the powerful, modern political weapon of satyagraha.
His sexual abstinence was part of a larger tapasya through which
he attempted to discipline his life for devotion to the cause
of freeing India from political slavery. His rigorous austerity,
various fasts and dietary experiments, vows of silence, and giving
up material possessions altogether, were all essential components
of his tapasya. He believed that the spiritual force of even one
fully formed satyagrahi could set right the world's wrongs.4
It is not just rishi-munis and mahatma who practice rigorous
tapasya with brahmacharya as an essential component in order to
acquire powers greater than gods, but even ordinary men and women
living a life of voluntary sexual abstinence come to be highly
respected. Such women tend to be treated as a special category,
are subjected to much less scrutiny and restrictions, and tend
to get much greater respect from men provided they don't show
signs of sexual frustration. Many of the most revered women in
Indian religious history opted out of sexual relations altogether,
as the lives of Mirabai, Mahadevi Akka, Lal Ded and many others
attest.5 They aretreated as virtual goddesses.
In India, men are trained to fear the wrath of non-consort Goddess
figures like Durga, Chandi and Vaishno Devi. While Sita and Parvati
invoke reverence, Durga invokes fear and awe. She is the great
saviour from worldly adversity. "Herself unassailable and
hard to approach" but someone to whom men also turn for protection.
Similarly a woman who rises above being sexually accessible, consort
of none, nor in search of a consort, tends to command tremendous
awe and reverence.
Gurbachan Kaur's life story is a good example. She is now 85
years old and has lived all her life in a small village town of
Punjab called Samrala. Her father Mann Singh was a farmer who
had two sons and two daughters, one of whom died early. Gurbachan
was married at the age of 16 to an army doctor who died within
4 months of their wedding without consummating their marriage.
Gurbachan's family tried to get her remarried but she firmly refused,
saying had married life been fated for her, then her husband would
not have met with such an early death. She lived an extremely
disciplined life. Seeing her take on such a tough resolve, her
father transferred some land in her name and began to put the
family finances and other decisions under her charge because he
did not want her to live like a dependent on her brothers. He
would proudly tell everyone that his daughter was stronger and
more capable than any man. She became the virtual head of the
family even in her father's lifetime.
The power balance in her family came to be tilted in her favour
not just because of the special measures her father took but also
because of her own very extraordinary qualities. I got her life
story from her niece who told me that even their kids and grandchildren
revere her in the same fashion that her father and brothers did.
She is the power centre and decision maker for her entire extended
family. It is she who has the final say in selecting grooms and
brides even for her grand nieces and nephews. No financial decisions
are taken in the joint family without her sanction and approval.
Her relatives say that she is held in such reverence because
'she never tells lies, she is open and forthright, doesn't keep
grudges in her heart, does not badmouth anyone and is a genuine
well-wisher of everyone she knows. Whenever someone is in trouble
she is the first one to go and help them and expects virtually
nothing in return. Even her sisters in-law and their daughters
in-law are devoted to her.' To quote her niece: "She has
lived such a rigorous life of japa-tapa that her entire community
treats her as a woman with a touch of divinity _ a virtual goddess.
Whenever she goes to the bazaar even local shopkeepers say 'we
got devi's darshan today'.
However, her niece Devinder Kaur, who gave this account to me,
emphasised that the starting point for this turn around of the
power equation in the family began because she invoked great awe
and respect from her father and brothers by demonstrating extra-ordinary
self discipline, especially in sexual matters. Lapses in this
regard would have undoubtedly washed away all the credit she got
for her other qualities.
It is noteworthy that a woman like Gurbachan Kaur could acquire
such special powers and clout in rural Punjab which has a very
repressive culture for women and in a community which does not
today subscribe to the goddess tradition on account of their conversion
to Sikhism. In the West, a woman like Gurbachan Kaur would be
an object of ridicule and contempt as in Auden's famous poem,
Miss Gee. Our culture has the remarkable ability to provide special
space and respect for women who voluntarily opt out of the sexual
Even in the life of married ordinary women, making sex a contingent
relationship works as a very effective strategy in carving out
a space of respect and honour for them within their communities.
I illustrate this strategy by sharing with you glimpses from the
lives of some women I have known closely. They have told me their
stories in many versions over a period of time. I may well be
accused of being overly anecdotal and drawing conclusions from
too few instances. But my perceptions are influenced not just
by the lives and experiences of the women I describe below, but
also by closely observing the lives of a good number of other
women I have gotten to know closely over the years. The life stories
I have chosen as illustrations are fairly typical and representative
of a wide spectrum of Indian women's concerns, calculations, and
Let me begin with the example of my friend Razia, a Muslim woman
in her mid 40s, employed as a college teacher. She is respected
by most of those who know her because of her quiet dignity and
generous temperament. She was widowed after eight years of what
was a very happy marriage to a medical doctor. He not only earned
well but treated her with love and affection and took great delight
in providing her with all possible comforts, even luxuries. His
sudden death from a heart attack more than 14 years ago came as
a big blow. She had to put herself together after this in order
to bring up two small kids, depending on her own much smaller
income. Their standard of living fell dramatically. Her in-laws
turned her out of her marital home and she had to fight hard to
secure even a portion of her husband's own property since her
in-laws wanted to grab it all.
Even though she comes from a Muslim community which does not
frown upon remarriage of women, she resolutely turned down all
attempts to get her remarried. Considering that she was in her
early 30s at the time of her husband's death, her natal family
was worried as to how she would manage alone. But she was clear:
while remarriage would get her a husband, for her children a step
father could never be a substitute for the father they had lost.
If anything, they would feel even more insecure.
After being pushed out of her in-laws' home, she moved in with
her own natal family so that her brothers, father and other family
could give her and the children a sense of security. This is how
she explains her choice: "My husband was such an ideal husband
_ one could not ask for better. That is why I kept his name connected
to mine after his death. Had I remarried, I would be known as
somebody else's wife. Whatever tasks he left incomplete, I have
tried to fulfil those. However, even if I had not been lucky enough
to marry such a good man, I still would have done the same. After
children come, your target in life is their well-being and future
_ not just your own fulfillment. Unless you are willing to sacrifice
your own self-interest, you will never be held up as an example
She says sexual abstinence did not pose such a major problem
because she has kept her connection with her husband very strong:
"He is never apart from me even for a moment. So I cannot
even imagine the thought of another man in my life. The idea of
sex was buried forever when I decided I was not going to remarry."
She explains that even while her emotional tie with him remains
unshakeable, her strength comes from the fact that she has a very
deep involvement with her numerous relatives, especially parents,
brothers and their wives, sisters, nephews, and nieces with whom
she lives in a very large joint family. "With each of these
people I have a very strong bond", she says.
She is proud of the fact that her family holds her up as an example.
They respect her for having performed her responsibility so well
despite such odds. Even her colleagues hold her in high esteem
for her resolute commitment. She has a specially close relationship
with her teenage children and is convinced that this kind of closeness
would not have been possible with a step-father in the house.
She exudes enormous confidence in both her son and daughter: "They
would never do anything to hurt me or refuse me anything I asked
Rejecting Male Norms
This kind of resilience is frequently maintained even in cases
where the husband is alive but blatantly disloyal to his marriage
_ as Maya's life shows. Maya works as a domestic in several homes
in one of the South Delhi colonies. I have known her for years.
She is an exceptionally attractive woman but not at all self conscious
about it. This is not to say she is sexually repressed _ just
that she never uses her charm for flirtations. She comes from
what is considered a lower caste South Indian community which,
unlike many upper caste North Indian communities, does not treat
women's body and sexuality as a matter of shame. They celebrate
it through various rituals. One of the most beautiful is the ritual
to celebrate a girl's first menses.
A couple of years ago, Maya joyfully came to invite me to a "party".
When I asked her what was the occasion, she happily answered:
Ladki ki khushi hui hai (my daughter's happiness has come). The
celebration was a big affair. Sugandha, her daughter, after being
given an oil and turmeric bath, was decked out like a bride, with
a new brocade saree, flowers in her hair, new gold jewellery and
all the traditional decorations on her body. Various relatives
brought gifts _ utensils, sarees, earrings, toiletry and what
not. It was almost as big a celebration as a marriage; Sugandha
was taken in a procession through their entire neighbourhood to
the joyous beating of drums and dancing. This was followed by
a whole series of rituals involving rice, coconuts and fruit to
symbolise fertility. It all ended with a big feast for the whole
Even though Maya does not come from a sexually repressed tradition,
yet her notion of female sexuality includes a very high degree
of self-restraint. To her that is an essential component of self
respect. When I first got to know Maya about a decade ago, she
would occasionally tell me about how her husband beat her. At
that time, he was heavily addicted to liquor and spent a big part
of family earnings on his drinking. For years he worked as a casual
labourer but has now got a regular job with the railways involving
unskilled, manual work. He has a roving eye and has had numerous
His extra-marital affairs started from the early years of their
marriage when they were living in a Tamil Nadu village. She first
became aware of his affairs when she was eight months pregnant
with their first child. The same pattern continued even after
his children started growing up; in fact, even after he became
a grand-father. Over the years a good part of his income was spent
on his various lovers and mistresses. For instance, in recent
years he was stationed in a town in Haryana where he kept a regular
mistress on whom he spent a good part of his earnings. Maya was
both angry and hurt and had many fights with him over it. He would
justify his actions by saying that since he was away from home,
he needed a woman to cook for him and could not do without regular
When he used to come home drunk and beat her up, she would refuse
to cook for him for days on end. Some years ago she unilaterally
decided to abstain from having sex with her husband. She says
she neither enjoys sex anymore nor does she feel obliged to provide
it to him as a marital duty since he procures it from outside.
I asked if he forced her every now and then. On those rare occasions
she says she gets sick and has terrible abdominal pains. On occasion,
she has had to be taken to a doctor and has missed work for several
days. Seeing her reaction to forced sex he has learnt to keep
away from her.
Her physical reaction seems a clear statement of emotional rejection.
The message is: 'I don't really need you either financially or
physically. I am with you mainly because of my children. It is
you who need me more than I need you.' She often tells me proudly
how whenever he is unwell he rushes to her. It is she who has
nursed him back to health through many illnesses and helped him
get over his addiction to liquor. He realizes her worth because
none of his mistresses ever provided him with care during difficult
No matter how angry and hurt she has been with him over his infidelity,
Maya has refrained from letting her children know about their
father's proclivities (except recently when she told her married
daughter about it). She feels the kids would have stopped respecting
their father if they knew of all his doings. That would only harm
the children and do her no good. Similarly, she feels she would
never consider breaking off her marriage because that would not
only make her children unhappy, but also have a negative effect
on their marriage chances, especially those of her daughters.
Over the years she has resigned herself to his extra-marital
relationships, but gets particularly upset if he does it in ways
that are likely to expose him before his children. On a few occasions
when she found him sneaking into a neighbouring woman's hut at
night after everyone was asleep, she really gave hell to both
him and the woman concerned. Apart from the personal humiliation
his infidelity causes her, she feels outraged that he is not careful
to hide it from his own young children, though in many other respects
he is a good and caring father. Her expectations: "All I
want is that he should live at home, return after work at a respectable
hour, have his food and go to sleep. He should not pick up quarrels
or give me trouble. All I want is peace in the house. I don't
want any pyar vyar (love-shove). I know he cannot do without screwing
around and he knows I don't want to have sex with him. As long
as both of us stick to keeping a peaceful home for our children,
he can sleep around with whoever he likes; but when he returns
home, I don't let him enter the house without a bath, be it summer
or winter, so that all the filth he gathers when outside is not
brought inside the house."
When I asked her whether she would ever consider having a relationship
with another man, she looked at me in total disbelief, saying:
"Why would I behave as stupidly as men behave?" She
is truly proud of her unconditional resolve not to mess around
with men regardless of what her husband does. It is not as if
she is afraid of retaliating in other matters. But, for her, having
sexual relations outside marriage amounts to losing her own dignity.
Sometimes her views initially seem contradictory and confusing.
For instance, she will start off by explaining her unilateral
commitment to her marriage by saying, "For a woman, her husband
is like a god. No matter how he behaves she is not supposed to
stray. She must stay chaste and steadfast. I, too, touch his feet
and pray that my thali (mangalsutra) stays around my neck till
the day I die. Whether he is good or bad, he is after all my god."
When I remind her how I have heard her abuse him, heard her tell
me about her fights with him and how she refused to cook for him
or talk to him, her answer is disarming. Pointing to the statues
of Ganesh and Krishna in my house, she says: "But I fight
with and abuse those gods as well. When both my brothers were
taken away (one was murdered over a land dispute and another committed
suicide in recent years) I cursed God endlessly. I said to him
_ may you also experience being orphaned like me." (She was
deeply attached to both her brothers and grieves a lot over their
deaths). "I fight with God a lot for giving me so many troubles
even though I am a firm believer."
When I ask her why it is that real god-like behaviour is not
expected of her husband if she is expected to revere him like
a god, I get a response so irreverent, it turns the whole concept
of Sati-Savitri on its head. Maya is no Sati Anasuya who will
carry her leper husband on her back to a prostitute's house at
his bidding. She has learnt to cope with his irresponsible behaviour
because she has a very low opinion of men in general: "Men
are like dogs. They will go around sniffing in every gutter. (Char
nali moonh maar ke hi aayega)." It is part of her coping
strategy that she can think of her husband as a god and at the
same time call him a dog almost in the same breath. As a "god"
she accepts her relative helplessness before him as also the need
to accept him for what he is, as one does with gods. But in describing
him as a dog she seems to be saying that far from being superior
to her, she thinks of him as a species much lower than herself
and, hence, has very low expectations from him.
Usually, when a woman says her husband is her god, it is assumed
that she is a mental slave, soaked in unhealthy tradition. However,
when you probe deeper, it becomes clear that most women use this
rhetoric as a way to anchor their loyalties to their marriages,
not because they really believe that their husbands are infallible
or deserve unconditional obedience.
Recently, when he broke off from his latest mistress, her response
was equally cynical: "How long can a monkey go on eating
tamarind? (Bandar kitne din khatta khayega) He is bound to come
down on his own. However, when a monkey is climbing up a tamarind
tree and you call him down and say, 'don't do that, this fruit
is no good for you', the monkey will get even more excited and
climb still higher. But if you leave him be, he soon rushes down
when the sour tamarind hurts his teeth."
Even while Maya has a lot of complaints against her husband,
she is proud of the fact that her husband trusts her and believes
in her integrity completely. She tells of many women in her neighbourhood
who are beaten up by suspicious husbands when they see their wives
talking to other men. But in Maya's case, no matter what time
she returns home, no matter who she is seen talking to, no matter
what a gossip-monger might say, her husband never doubts her fidelity
_ a position more secure than even Sita's. Thus, she has him on
a permanent guilt trip. He has never been able to maintain his
sexual fidelity in their marriage. But she stays faithful unconditionally
_ not as a favour to him, but because her sense of dignity does
not allow her to stoop to his irresponsible, undignified ways
or to play the game by his norms. She despises his norms and his
lack of self restraint and, therefore, will not stoop to his level.
I don't see this resilience as that of someone trapped in an
unhealthy patriarchal ideology. I see this as an attempt by a
woman steeped in her cultural ethos to define her own sexual mores
as a demonstration that she is not living by male-defined standards.
Over the years she has been able to tilt the scales more and more
in her favour. She has been able to persuade her husband to give
up drinking. And she is proud of the respect she commands. For
instance, she says that when she gets angry and scolds him or
even abuses him, he usually listens quietly. In recent years,
his violence against her has decreased considerably. She gives
him hell if he lifts his hand to her. Maya's deliberate underplaying
of her role as a wife and emphasis on her role as a mother is
a strategy Indian women commonly use.
They often move in the direction of suspending the sexual dimension
of their relationship with their husbands, while retaining the
marriage, thus ensuring a measure of security in the outside world
and providing a stable family life for their children.
Maya lives in a dangerous and poor slum. It is infested with
drug peddlers, sundry criminals, bootleggers, and prostitutes.
Her status as a married woman provides her a measure of security
and safety in this unsafe atmosphere. Yet, so unsafe is the atmosphere
that in the hot summer months she dare not sleep out in the open
with her young daughters. They huddle up in their jhuggi lest
some goondas set upon her or her daughters. But she is never sexually
harassed by any of the men in her community. I asked her why.
Maya's answer was revealing: "They only go after the loose
women. They dare not make a pass at me because they know I will
give them hell." Not too long ago I witnessed what she meant.
A railway employee lives nearby her hut. Maya and some other women
take their regular supply of water from his courtyard tap. One
day he made a pass at her and suggested she become his mistress.
She picked up a broom lying nearby and threatened to beat him
if he dared cast another dirty glance in her direction. The man
never dared again.
Learning to Say 'No'
There is a lot more talk these days of affirmation of women's
sexuality. However, in my view, the key to a dignified life for
women is learning to say "No" to sex when it comes on
humiliating terms. Those who do not know when to reject sex end
up far more messed up than those who can do without sex when it
is available only as part of an unsatisfactory relationship.
Here is an example from a friend's life who went though years
of severe battering by her husband. Describing her predicament,
in those years she told me, "One of the most humiliating
things about our relationship was that I could not resist sex
with him even after he had beaten me black and blue. I got to
hate myself when I found that after giving me a brutal beating
along with awful verbal abuse, he would come to me for sex. As
soon as he touched me to arouse me I would find myself going wet.
I know he despised me for being so easy to manipulate and for
desiring sex on any terms, but I still could not refuse him."
She also told me that it took her so many long years to break
out of that abusive marriage in large part due to her being afraid
that she could not live without regular sex. After she broke out
of her marriage, living without regular sex has been her most
serious problem, leading to one unsatisfactory affair after another.
While most women in India do not seem to find it hard to subordinate
their sexual needs in order to enhance the well-being of their
children, too many men think providing a stable home for him and
their children is primarily a woman's responsibility and that
men ought to be free for occasional fun. But it is hard for to
realise the point when this little bit of fun on the side begins
to threaten the stability of their marriage. Maya, despite all
her self restraint, was unable to build a happy conjugal life
for herself. But many women I know have been successful in building
stable marriages by maintaining very strict discipline on themselves
as a strategy for keeping their men on a tight leash.
My friend Reena explains the subtleties of this game very matter-of-factly.
Her marriage is one of the best I know. She comes from an educated
and well-connected middle class Punjabi family. She married a
man of her choice, a high ranking bureaucrat climbing up the professional
ladder very rapidly. Theirs is a relationship of mutual trust
and respect. But she, too, feels she has to work hard to ensure
that she plays an active role in defining the norms of their marriage.
Reena is well aware that a man of Deepak's status, power, and
good looks would attract any number of women ready for short term
or long term affairs. She is also aware that he likes the company
of attractive women. With his job requiring him to travel frequently,
anything could happen to jeopardise her marriage. But she has
kept Deepak disciplined by imposing a very strict discipline on
herself. For instance, she refuses to drink alcohol, even though
she admits she enjoys the experience, simply because she wants
to keep control over Deepak's drinking. She feels men tend to
use drunkenness as an excuse for many of their indiscretions.
When they go to parties together, she refuses to dance with anyone
other than Deepak. Even though she does not forbid Deepak from
dancing with other women, she knows her refraining from dancing
with anyone else makes Deepak feel guilty and rush back to her
after a dance. It is not that she that she considers western dancing
immoral. She simply recognises its potential threat for it provides
an opportunity for male female closeness in a manner that may
become the prelude to sexual involvement. Close physical proximity
creates a whole chain reaction which, in her view, is better kept
under check from the start. Even when they went to live in Europe
for several years she did not change the rules for herself, even
at the cost of being considered a prude.
Committed as she is to her marriage, Deepak, and their happy
family, she says openly that she sees her own sexual restraint
as a device for keeping her husband under check because he, like
most men, might stray when tempted. She has already had a heart
breaking experience early in life. She was deeply in love with
one of her childhood friends. The relationship was built over
10-12 years and she believed he was as committed to it as she
was. After his engineering degree he got a job in the U.S. Before
he left, they got engaged. He was expected to come back, get married
and take her with him. However, within no time he got involved
with some American woman and broke off the engagement rather crudely,
leaving her in a severe emotional truama. Her opinion of men is
not every high even though she has a very good relationship with
her husband: "Men are the same everywhere. They have few
scruples. Society stays sane only when women set the rules."
She too, like Maya (in almost the same words), says that even
if her husband began having affairs, she would not stoop to having
affairs of her own. She is certain that his guilt would make him
so miserable, he could not continue with it for long without breaking
I am not holding up Reena or Maya as role models but simply showing
how women's strategies for building a stable family life often
make sexual needs subservient to other requirements women consider
Children as Allies
Promila comes from a fairly well-off middle class family from
Punjab. At the age of 19 she was married into the Batra family
who run a business in the walled city of Delhi. Soon after her
marriage, Promila came to know that her husband, was involved
with and had wanted to marry some other woman before their marriage,
and that he was still continuing his relationship with that woman.
About three years after her marriage, Dinesh started a business
independent from his father's and began to make a lot of money.
Whereas earlier the couple used to get no more than Rs 200 as
pocket money from her father-in-law, Dinesh was now earning Rs
15,000-20,000 per day. With that came bad company _ gambling,
liquor and drugs. (By now Promila had given birth to a son and
a daughter). He began spending the money as swiftly as it was
earned. If Promila resisted Dinesh's ways, she would be thrashed
and abused. For years she tried to help Dinesh get treatment for
his addictions. But as soon as he would return from the hospital
and meet his old buddies, he would go back to his old habits.
In the early years, Promila tried to get her parents to intervene,
and to get other relatives to put pressure on her husband. When
none of that worked, she finally simply refused to let Dinesh
into the flat. She told her parents-in-law, who live on the ground
floor of the same house, that their son was their responsibility
while her priority was to protect her two children from the influence
of such an irresponsible father.
Promila is in the prime of her life. She is 35 and good looking.
Since her husband's health and mental balance have been completely
lost because of excessive drug abuse, he is no longer able to
run his business. She gets an allowance of Rs 5,000 from her in-laws
to run the house but that is not sufficient to meet the needs
of her two growing children. Some three to fouryears ago, she
met a man at a hospital she had taken her husband to for treatment.
They became friends and he adopted her as a sister and eventually
offered her a business partnership even though she had no previous
experience. She was provided with a company car and a handsome,
regular income. This upset both her husband and her in-laws. They
began to accuse her of carrying on an affair with her "bhaiyya".
She stoutly denies all such charges and insists she would "never
do such a thing". I, for one, could not see why, if she so
desired, she would deny herself a relationship with a man who
had been so supportive of her and helped her back on her feet
again. Undoubtedly she is emotionally attached to him, but insists
her feelings are "sisterly".
Her reasoning for ruling out a romantic or sexual involvement
with the man is: "My children will not respect me if I do
such a thing" But doesn't she need sex and all that goes
with a man-woman relationship _ especially considering that the
relationship with her husband broke down more than a decade ago
when she was in her early 20s and that since then beatings, fights
and character assassination have constituted her conjugal life?
Her firm answer: "My children need emotional security more
than I need sex or romance. They already have no respect or trust
in their father. If they lose their respect for me, if they stop
feeling secure with me, they will have no emotional anchor left."
Indeed both her children are devoted to her. Even though they
are only in their teens, they are beginning to form a protective
ring around their mother to defend her from her husband and in-laws.
It is indeed likely that if she were to become sexually involved
with another man or get remarried, she could not count upon her
children as her strongest allies _ an alliance likely to be much
stronger and last longer than her relationships with her own parents
Mothers Vs. Wives
Most Indian women, even when their marriages are good, depend
much more on their children for emotional sustenance than they
do on their husbands. They recognise that to enter into a sexual
relation with a man is to enter into a power relation.
Relationships with children are considered far more dependable,
enduring, and fulfilling. This may be related to the fact that
while as a wife, a woman is expected to serve and surrender, as
a mother she is allowed the right to both nurture and dominate
and is supposed to be venerated unconditionally. She can expect
obedience, love, and seva (service) from her children, especially
sons, even after they grow up. Unconditional giving brings in
its own ample rewards. In her role as a mother she is culturally
far more glorified.
As Sudhir Kakar puts it in his discussion on the Ram-Sita relationship:
for an Indian woman, motherhood brings not only personal fulfillment
but is an event in which "the culture confirms her status
as a renewer of the race, and extends to her a respect and consideration
which were not accorded to her as a mere wife.... it is through
their children's instrumentality that the injustice done to the
mothers is redressed and they assume their rightful place as queens."6
This theme recurs in many Indian legends and tales: "Thus
Ram repents and is ready to take Sita back from her exile in the
forest after he sees his sons for the first time. Dushyanta remembers
and accepts Shakuntala as his legitimate wife after he comes face
to face with his infant son."7
Even though not all present day Indian women succeed in getting
their rightful due with the help of their young children, Indian
women are frequently able to rely on their children after they
grow up to settle scores with husbands or in-laws who may have
maltreated them during the early years of marriage. Without doubt
"a Hindu woman's `motherliness' ....is a relatively more
inclusive element of her identity formation than it is among western
women. Given her early training and ideals of femininity held
up to her, motherhood does not have connotations of cultural imposition
or a confinement in an isolating role."8 That is why, when
necessary, she is often able to suppress many of her other needs
as a woman, especially her sexual needs, without there being too
many harmful effects on her personality.
Opting for Sexual Freedom
In direct contrast to Maya and Promila is Sunanda. She lives
in a basti (neighbourhood) similar to Maya's but is from a north
Indian community. She also works as a domestic in one of the South
Delhi colonies. Though much younger than Maya, she looks wasted
and rather disoriented. I came to know her some 15 years ago when
she was in her early twenties. She was then a very vivacious and
attractive woman. At that time she was married to someone who
beat her frequently. Many of their quarrels would start over her
not being at home when he returned in the evening and his suspicion
that she flirted with other men. One day she left her two-year-old
daughter and ran away with a truck driver from another community.
However, the beatings did not stop in her new home _ if anything,
they increased. This man encouraged her to join him in drinking
because he told her sex was much more fun when both partners drop
their inhibitions under the influence of liquor. Within the first
year of their living together he squandered the money she had
saved over the years in the form of some gold jewellery. She got
into the liquor habit willingly because she says she had never
before enjoyed sex as much as she did with this boisterous truck-driver.
Even his beatings seemed less hurtful because he was not as sexually
dull as her first husband.
However, when she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and found
it difficult to have sex, he became enraged, beat her up and forced
her to submit regardless of how painful intercourse was for her.
His reasoning was: "I brought you here for fun, not to produce
babies." On several nights during the last month of her pregnancy,
he would bring another woman into their jhuggi _ often a prostitute
_ get drunk with her, abuse or even beat up Sunanda for protesting,
and have sex with the other woman right in front of Sunanda. Perhaps
due to all the beatings and stress she gave birth to a premature
baby girl who died within days of delivery. Since Sunanda was
too weak for boisterous sex and unable to work and earn money,
her truckdriving lover beat her out of his house. She returned
to her biradari's basti (kinfolk's neighbourhood) but had nowhere
Her husband had in the meantime married another woman. Her widowed
mother in the village could not support her. In any case, going
back to the village would mean living without a source of income.
Neither of her two brothers were willing to keep her in their
homes because she had "shamed" the family by running
away with a man of another community. Her sisters-in-law were
both hostile and abusive, but one of them agreed to give her temporary
shelter when she offered her the one pair of gold earrings she
had left and the promise of Rs 250 a month from what she earned.
But now she was treated as a freely available woman by the men
in the basti. She had three affairs in quick succession which
caused nasty fights with her brothers and their wives. Finally
she moved in with one of the notorious goondas of the basti who
had a wife and family, but also had the money to maintain her
as a mistress and provide her with a separate jhuggi. But for
him it wasn't just a sexual partnership. He made her join his
very flourishing business of brewing illicit liquor. He required
that she agree to make herself occasionally available to the local
policemen as a sexual bribe. If she protested, he beat her up
saying that she is hardly a Sita-Savitri to be acting so coy.
Today she is one of the most hated women in the basti. Since many
of their husbands have regular dealings with her on account of
her involvement in the liquor business, the women are very hostile
to her and have big abusive battles with her.
Women vs Women
Women who are promiscuous provoke fear and hostility in other
women rather than inspire them as symbols of freedom. That is
because most women live in fear of their men straying: "Men
are men. They will always run after sex" is how they describe
men's tendency towards promiscuity over which they can exercise
only limited control. But married women fear and despise those
women who make it easy for their men to be promiscuous by being
easily available. Among my own women friends, the few who behave
in sexually liberated ways _ that is those who are willing to
have sex whenever and with whichever man they feel attracted to,
or have no qualms about having sexual affairs with any number
of men _ are generally hated by other women in theirsocial circle
for good reasons. They have jeopardised many a marriage and stable
Interestingly, I have also observed that almost all of the liberated
women I know are fiercely jealous and aggressive when it comes
to the man they are currently involved with _ for however long
or short a period their attachment lasts. Women who consider being
sexually attractive to men a very high priority in life, tend
to be fiercely competitive and very mistrustful of other women.
One of my close woman friends who has had countless affairs with
engaged and married men takes no time to drop a female friend
if she finds the man she is currently interested in is paying
the slightest bit of attention to her friend. I personally have
been able to retain her friendship only by making sure that I
avoid meeting her in the company of men she is interested in.
On the few occasions we have met in the presence of any of her
current boyfriends, she has been so jumpy and nervous, I have
had to put in all the effort at my command to remain totally focused
on her, while avoiding conversation with her male companion so
she could be assured that I was not competing with her for his
attention. Despite all of this effort, her insecurity remains
strong. She speaks of other women, especially if they are young
and attractive, in the most disparaging terms and trusts virtually
none of her female friends and acquaintances.
Relationships of trust between women are not possible if a woman
cannot trust other women to respect her marriage or romantic relationship.
A woman cannot have close relationships with other women if she
cannot feel secure that at least her own friends or sisters will
not steal her husband or boyfriend. If women are forever insecure
about each other, if they are forever competing for male sexual
attention, they are bound to hate and mistrust each other. This
makes them self-hating as women, more dependent on men and, hence,
This is not just true in a relatively conservative society like
ours, but is even more true in the supposedly sexually liberated
societies. My American friends tell me that, usually, as soon
as a woman's marriage breaks down, hersocial circle shrinks dramatically.
Most of her married friends and acquaintances will exclude her
from their social gatherings because they are afraid of her trying
to grab one of their husbands. Single women find it hard to have
a close social relationship with married couples and are expected
to socialise mostly among singles where they are free to pick
and choose partners without jeopardising other women's marriages.
Among my friends who were sexually "liberated" there
is not one who has built a satisfactory personal life. I recall
two cases in particular. During my university days my friend Smita
was the most westernised and unconventional of us all in every
respect. She had spent a good part of her student years in Europe.
An extremely good hearted and generous friend, she believed sexual
desire was no different from physical hunger and, therefore, you
should have sex whenever you feel the urge and with whomever you
felt attracted to. She was one of the few women I knew who was
perfectly honest and open about it and had the courage to proposition
a man in so many words, whenever she felt sexually attracted to
him. A number of our fellow students had sexual relations with
her for brief periods. She was neither possessive nor wished to
be "possessed" by any one man. But over the years I
saw her become embittered over the fact that many of her male
friends used her as a stop-gap between one steady affair and another,
or someone to have a little bit of free fun with till they found
someone in whom they were really interested. Even though most
of her friends _ male and female _ liked her for her honesty,
she could see she was not taken seriously and that the men she
got involved with did not really respect her. By the time she
began to feel the need for a steady and stable emotional relationship
and became dissatisfied with casual sexual encounters, none of
the men in her vast social circle were willing to consider her
as a fit candidate for an enduring relationship. She is today
far from being an inspiring symbol of liberated womanhood. Most
of her friends feel sympathy and pity for her.
Competing with Men
Equally pathetic has been the case of my friend, Veena. She married
Rakesh after a fairly long courtship and affair. Both of them
were part of university left radical circles and resolved to have
a marriage which did not tie either of them down. In the early
years of her marriage Veena found it a very heady idea that both
of them could exercise the freedom to have relationships outside
marriage. However, when she gave birth to two children in quick
succession, the relationship began to change dramatically. While
Veena was stuck in the house nursing babies, Rakesh continued
to have his flings. Now it began to hurt. But if she protested
she was given a high sounding sermon on her "bourgeois"
tendencies, of trying to treat another human being as property,
and, on resenting his freedom. She had to learn "not to feel
jealous." After much heartache and argument they came to
an agreement that while they would keep the marriage going for
their own sake as well as for the sake of their children, neither
of them would object to the other one having affairs. She really
sees herself as another Simone de Beauvoir and claims hers is
a good liberated marriage and they both understand each other.
During the next few years, Veena, too, went on a competitive
binge and got involved with one man after another. But it became
increasingly difficult for her to find meaningful relationships
as she began to age. For one thing, only married men were available
to pick and choose from. Because of this, most of them wanted
only clandestine sex rather then open and free relationships for
fear of their own wives finding out. However, for her husband
there were no such limitations. He is a fabulous earner in a position
of power working for a multinational. For a man of his status
and good looks, getting young, unmarried women is no big deal.
A touch of silver in his hair only adds to his glamour whereas
Veena, who has greyed and become fat, has found that it has become
harder and harder for her to get men interested in her. The more
interest she shows in men, the more they play hard to get. She
is forever on the lookout for a meaningful relationship. Apart
from wanting an emotional anchor, she wants a man she can claim
to be in love with just to prove to her husband that she can also
succeed at this game. But it is becoming harder and harder to
win. Now I constantly hear her complain that while Rakesh continues
to have "a good time", she is condemned to repeated
rejections and sexual frustration.
A Losing Game
I am convinced that women cannot win if they play the game by
men's rules. Men's capacity for irresponsible sex is relatively
unlimited partly because nature has made it possible for men to
escape most of the possible consequences of sexual encounters.
Moreover, as power relations go in today's world, men, especially
if they are rich and in positions of power, can easily get young
women for sex or for marriage. However, in most cultures and societies,
women find it harder and harder to get men sexually interested
in them once they are past their youth. This is one of the reasons
it is much more in women's long term interests to bring about
a measure of sexual restraint in men, to teach them to take emotional
responsibility for their sexual partners, rather than for women
to adopt a competitive approach emulating men's casual approach
to sex. The 'I am free to have sex with who I please, when I please'
approach may sound radical and liberating in theory, but in actual
fact it works out to be patently harmful for women in the long
run, especially after the birth of children.
Women in a nuclear family set up have found it particularly hard
raising children in the absence of stable relationships with the
men who have fathered those children. Even in the West where remarriage
and step-parents are so frequent as to be routine, there is glaring
evidence that children become resentful, insecure and even traumatised
when they see their parents have multiple sexual relations or
bring home new sexual partners in close succession, especially
since fierce nuclearisation of the family has denied them the
nurturance and support of grandparents, aunts, uncles and other
Stable family life plays a far more important role in the healthy
development and well-being of children than material luxuries.
In a nuclear family set up no matter how much the two parents
care for their children, they cannot provide emotional security
to them if their own relationship is not stable, if either or
both of them are carrying on affairs outside of their marriage,
and if both of them feel they are free (or ought to be free) to
walk out of their marriage as and when they please. Sexual loyalty
and restraint are indeed a precondition for the stability of a
Extended Family Buffers
It is perhaps only in matrilineal communities with their complex
extended family system that women have been able to excercise
a large measure of sexual freedom without having disastrous consequences
for children. For instance, in the maramakuttayam system which
prevailed in Kerala till a few decades ago, women stayed with
their own families even after entering into a marriage or regular
sexual relationship with a man. A husband merely had visiting
rights in the wife's family home. Children belonged to the matrilineal
joint family called the tarwad and enjoyed inalienable inheritance
rights in the mother's tarwad.
A woman was free to terminate her relationship with her husband/lover
any time she pleased by merely placing his slippers outside the
door as a symbol that she wanted him out of her life. The brother-sister
relationship was far more important than the conjugal tie on account
of the siblings being members of the same tarwad. Consequently,
maternal uncles played a far more important role in the lives
of children than their own father.
In such a large extended family, children got emotional security
and nurturance from a large variety of relatives and were not
so dependent on their biological parents, least of all their fathers,
as in a nuclear family. Therefore, the comings and goings of men
in their mother's life were not a source of much disturbance and
anxiety for the children.
This is not to project the marumakattayam system as an ideal
to be nostalgically revived. It had many problems of its own.
For example, this arrangement of visiting husbands could not have
been very fair on Namboodri women who lived in patrilineal families
while their men were free to have relations with Nair women and
raise parallel families with them while taking little responsibility
for the latter. I give this example merely to point out that exercising
sexual freedom in a nuclear family set up causes far greater damage
to children as well as to women's emotional stability whereas
certain kinds of extended families act as buffers.
However, too many of the votaries of women's liberation seem
simultaneously enamoured with nuclear families and the supremacy
of the conjugal tie, to the exclusion of other relationships.
They see any kind of extended family situation, including those
that provided valuable support to women, as an encroachment on
their personal freedom.
Nuclear families may look liberating on the surface but they
put an excessively heavy load on women for the raising of children
and maintaining a stable family life. In societies where the man-woman
relationship and the nuclear family have come to occupy the central
place in people's personal and emotional lives, at the expense
of other relationships, women's emotional lives tend to become
far more fragile and excercising sexual as well as other types
of freedom becomes a high risk venture.
By contrast, supposedly traditional Indian women rooted in the
extended family tend to be far more resilient because they do
not put all their energy into being sexually attractive to men.
Thus, they avoid letting men play too large a role in determining
their self view. Consequently, they seem to have a stronger sense
of self definition as well as of the special requirements of womanhood.
They can more easily cope with emotional incompatibility and other
kinds of stress in their conjugal relationship because they invest
their emotions across a whole range of relationships within the
family _ parents, in-laws, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews,
and especially, among their own children who usually occupy a
far more important place in their considerations than husbands.
Since today most women live in patrilineal families, which demand
of women sexual loyalty and restraint as a pre-condition for a
stable family life, they try to stick to the rules of the game
far more determinedly than men.
It is over simplistic to interpret their opting for sexual restraint
merely as proof of their subjugation to "patriarchal norms"
as is often done in feminist literature. I see it as an effective
though costly strategy to win over the sympathy and support of
the rest of the family, which can by its disapproval of men's
irresponsible sexual behaviour excercise a large measure of restraint
on them, thereby bringing about a slow but definite shift in the
power balance somewhat in a woman's direction. This is not my
idea of an ideal situation if we subject it to the test of attaining
full freedom and equality for women. But then we are not living
in an ideal world.
The names and some details regarding the people mentioned in
this article have been changed to ensure anonymity.
Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works, Vol.XIII, p.314
Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works, Vol.XXVII, p.307 and p. 309
For a fuller analysis see Gandhi and Women, Madhu Kishwar, Manushi
For detailed discussion of this issue, see Women Bhakt Poets,
Manushi Prakashan, January-June 1989.
The Inner World, Oxford University Press, 1978, p.79
Editor's Note: from Manushi, Issue No. 98/ March-April 1997.