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Gender, sexuality and society in tribal northeast India

Patricia Mukhim

Recently Martin Luther Christian University (MLCU) organized a seminar on the above this week. The theme is intriguing yet challenging and one that most colleges and universities shy away from. Seminars on the topic that young people seek to understand such as that of that of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) are not easy topics. Yet more and more young people are today choosing not to be male or female because their sexual orientation does not fit that binary. Besides, the church is not open to giving this issue the weightage it deserves, perhaps because church elders are themselves in denial about a natural proclivity that some people have and are living with.   

To meld the issues of gender, sexuality and society, each of which require stand-alone discussions, is indeed a bold step. As far as gender is concerned, for over two decades we have tossed around, prised open, deconstructed and reconstructed its meaning and arrived at a point from where gender transcended its grammatical function to that of understanding that ‘gender’ is society’s way of constructing the roles of male and female based on their sex. We also know that it is patriarchy that has defined that role since women’s voices are hardly captured in literatures of all kinds except after the rise of feminism in the west in the 1960’s.

In India the awareness about gender and its concerns – which essentially traps women in domestic roles and does not see any economic product in the nature of their domestic duties, even though when someone else other than the wife or mother does it then it becomes an economic activity – came rather late.

Most of us were introduced to its meaning and metaphor in the late 1980’s or early 90’s but even now most institutions of governance do not understand the underpinnings of gender and have therefore failed to evolve gender friendly policies. Why, even at home, women continue to bear the burden of patriarchy and are slaves of gender constructs which strictly define their roles. Trying to break out of that mould has consequences which many women would not dare contemplate. Hence governments have taken the easy route of using the word ‘women’s empowerment,’ to appease gender activists. Women’s empowerment essentially adds up to external interventions by way of schemes etc., without touching the core which is to deconstruct the present meaning of gender and reconstruct it to ensure that women and men are equal citizens deserving of equal rights not just outside the home but especially in the domestic sphere. Women’s empowerment remains only an ideal if women themselves fail to assert their voices and claim their rights and if they have not come out of the gender trap that is enforced, reinforced and has become part of their consciousness and which they act out as a matter of habit. This is the most difficult part. The easy part is to study, research and write about gender –its discourses – its implications – how it limits women from emerging as equal partners in development.

And now that we are at a juncture where a third gender has emerged that wish to assert their rights and to claim their space in society we seem to be twiddling our thumbs and don’t know how to deal with this new social identity. In the past it was male and female – now it’s more than that. But what is the society’s response? We don’t seem ready to embrace this gender yet.     

This is where the understanding of sexuality matters. Sexuality is a person’s sexual orientation or preference. A person’s sexual orientation influences that person’s sexual interest and attraction for another person. Sexuality involves biologicaleroticphysicalemotionalsocial and  spiritual feelings and behaviour. The term is broad and is evolving hence it lacks a precise definition. The biological and physical aspects of sexuality involve the human reproductive functions. The physical and emotional aspects of sexuality include bonds between individuals that is expressed through profound feelings or physical manifestations of love, trust, and care. The social aspect means the impact of sexuality on society. And the last, spirituality concerns an individual’s spiritual connection with others. Sexuality therefore affects and is affected by cultural, political, legal, philosophical, moralethical, and religious aspects of life. Considering that sexuality has an overpowering effect on humans which in turn affects society, we need to talk about such issues so that we can begin to understand them better and get out of our conservative moulds.

Ironically, some societies, while they appear to be progressive in the way they dress, speak and socialize, as a result of western education are resistant to speak about sexuality. Societal conversations on emerging social issues such as the LGBT issue or rape etc., which should involve the church, the traditional institutions and educational institutions don’t happen.  In fact society itself, which includes the social circle that a person moves around in, does not encourage conversations that are ostensibly ‘embarrassing.’ The Khasis are overly concerned with ‘Ka akor ka burom’ (ethics and respectability) to allow any such discussions. I have stated times without number that discussing sexuality or family planning in Khasi is difficult because of the absence of appropriate vocabulary, especially when both male and female are present in a discussion.

But now that societies have evolved and progressive laws allow the expression of more than one form of sexuality we ought to grapple with these changes to move from a position of being judgmental to acceptance and perhaps even to redefine the very notion of gender.     

Let’s now come to society. What is society? Society essentially comprises a group of people involved in frequent social interaction and sharing a geographical or social space and who are subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Society can also be described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent members. Sociologist Peter L. Berger defines society as, “a human product, and nothing but a human product, that continuously acts upon its producers.” According to him, society was created by humans but this creation turns back and creates or moulds humans every day. Hence while we create our own societies we also pose questions which the creation itself is often forced to provide answers to. Society is a complex subject as its study is not confined to the social sciences but also to its metaphysical realities. Like human beings, societies too carry the problem of hatred, hubris, narcissism and nativism. And yet at times societies can rise to the occasion and bring much good, when faced with an existential crisis.     

Our problem in this whole complex chain of issues is the dialogue bit. So who in society is talking to whom about whom and about what? To expect consensus in society is to undermine the diversity of the human mind and to imagine that humans are designed to work together on a rational module.

While there can emerge a consensus on certain areas of conflict among scholars at academic seminars, because that is the only space where people listen respectfully to each other, the reality of life outside the precincts of academia is something else. There will be resistance to ideas thrown up in seminar halls; people will challenge those ideas. Do academics then engage with these dissenting voices? Should there be a jingialang (public conclave) for explaining the outcomes of such seminars?  Or are colleges and universities happy with only a press release?

How do we engage with people (you can call them society) outside academia? That is the persistent challenge that academia fails to address. Those resistant to such ideas are not people from academia – they are the people running institutions with whom one must engage with – not once – not twice but consistently – in a language they are familiar with not with jargons.

Who will take up this challenge? Do we dare call a meeting of heads of traditional institutions and speak of the above challenges before them since they are the ones who can and have to take the conversation forward.

The other group we can call a ‘society’ are ‘women’s groups,’ but they have always taken safe stances. They can’t rebel against tradition and how it defines their roles. How do we take the conversation to them and engage them to become agents of change? Can we do that or is the task too daunting? Or is that beyond the ambit of the university? How much can universities do? Which social agents do they engage as force multipliers are questions to grapple with!

Then there are the youth. They are society too. So who is talking to them? Who is engaging them? Who is interested in listening to them? Who is having a conversation with them? Currently they are the most troubled members of society despite living in one of the most fascinating periods of history. Technologically they are supermen and women. But technology is not leading to social change at the local level. We are a society that still believes in human interaction and human conversations. This is where the cyber space fails us.  

Do we care to find out where the youth of our localities congregate? Let’s find out and begin the conversation with them as they are the future change-makers. They need to understand gender, sexuality and society as much as researchers and scholars do. That the Khasis are a matrilineal society does not mean anything. On the contrary matriliny itself impinges on male sexuality and masculinity. But this will be discussed in another article.         

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