Heterosexual Profession, Lesbian Practices: How Sex Workers’ Sexuality Right Positions Through Intersection of Sexuality, Gender, and Class Within the Hierarchy of LGBT Activism in Bangladesh

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The politics of gender, class, and sexuality has put women’s sexual diversity issues at the bottom of LGBT activism in Bangladesh. Focusing on women’s same-sex desires, this chapter specifically looks at a group of female sex workers who practice heterosexuality as labour and homosexuality as personal sexual desire. Choosing ‘lesbian’ as a strategic label to make space within LGBT discourse and activism, this group of women challenges the politics of sexual identity, labelling, and representation. These women’s ‘personal is/and political’ practices mark the emergence of ‘new sexualities’ in Bangladesh, and their almost invisible presence in an otherwise educated middle-class fabric of sexuality rights activism questions our middle-class framed understanding of heteronormativity, womanhood, sexualities, and rights discourses.

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Understanding heteronormativity through the ‘lived sexualities’ of single women in urban Bangladesh, who are rarely included in any discourse of sexuality, this paper looks at middle class women who do not conform to marriage normativity but who carve out a space of social respect, acceptance and happiness through a long process of negotiation and careful navigation. Taking the intersectionality of gender, class and sexuality as its focus—this qualitative study seeks to understand the tactics of avoidance and the strategic routes women employ in their everyday lives as they negotiate heteronormative prohibitions to pursue sexuality and pleasure.
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This article discusses the levels of autonomy and self-definition of the ‘new Indian woman’ in the contemporary literature written in English by Indian women writers. The article will analyse the role, position and influence of the natal family in this delicate and highly experimental identity negotiation by contemporary middle class, single, urban Indian women. The focus of this article is on young, single women who have careers or waged employment, and who thus function in both private and public spheres. Caplan (1985) contended that for Indian women, the family alone represented their economic and psychological source of security. The article explores how the contemporary literature portrays changes in this setup and how aspiring new Indian women at the turn of the century perform cultural balancing acts to defend ever greater levels of personal autonomy, while maintaining (even, in some instances, consolidating) their place within their families. The article finds that despite the burgeoning of the middle class in urban India, which sees a radical economic shift towards increasing numbers of single women working outside their homes, as yet there has not been any equally radical shift in the social, cultural or familial situation subsequently; neither has there been a radical change in women’s roles nor societal expectations of them. However, emerging narratives of the last decade show that some small but significant shifts are occurring at this most fundamental level of identity negotiation, and that the identities of women may be more fluid than they had previously been permitted to be.
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If some research indicates that bodies are becoming central to the life projects of “new liberal Indian” women, public debates simultaneously reveal that their bodies are entangled in satisfying traditional and modern ideals of womanhood. There are few studies, though, that have looked into how women reconcile and make use of contradictory cultural signals surrounding their bodies that arise out of a rapidly changing gender and class structure. We draw upon both followers and critics of Bourdieu to show that bodily concerns and undertakings of 48 urban Indian women, and the ways in which they resist and embrace cultural demands on their bodies, vary by social class locations. The women in the study who were most keenly aware of “options” embedded in thin or fit bodies were the ones who could take advantage of new careers and styles of living that the global economy was bringing to their doorsteps. In contrast, women who saw limited prospects for social mobility were unconvinced of the symbolic value of a thin body and rejected appearance concerns on the ground that it interfered with their mothering responsibilities. We conclude that while the fit body has indeed emerged as an important site of self-making for the modern Indian woman, the degree to which she sees costs and benefits involved in the bodywork of losing weight depends on her class location.
Sexually diverse and marginalized groups are constantly challenged to create spaces for realizing their sexual fantasies, desires and politics within the all-pervasiveness of heterosexual spaces. Technology has brought about the possibility of creating spaces that are simultaneously private and public. In the context of Bangladesh, technology, specifically in the form of computers, mobile phones, and the internet, is rapidly gaining accessibility and popularity, resulting in opportunities for many to link up with local, regional, and global communities. Cyberspace is being used both by individuals and groups to set up communities, and go beyond the realization of personal erotic desires, to take up sexual politics and activism. Taking sexuality, gender, class and space as its central concepts, this article looks into ways in which cyberspace and technology affect the cultural and political dimensions of sexualities, identities, and sexual rights activism in the contemporary urban Bangladesh. The study focuses on non-normative homosexual groups and individuals using the internet. Using qualitative research methods, it looks into non-normative sexualities as expressed, practiced and organized through two Bangladesh-based same-sex online networks and groups: one online gay group and one online lesbian group in the year 2009. Findings from this study show how within cyberspace, the public and private overlap, intertwine, and make erotic desires and identities deeply unstable, permeable, inexact, and ambiguous. The sexual spatiality of public spaces, especially the relatively new arena of the virtual world, shows the contradictions of conformity and resistance to heteronormativity present in contemporary lives. Gender, class, and age are significant factors in creating hierarchies, discriminations and exclusionary spaces that are new but influential, especially in sexual politics.
Many legal arguments pertaining to equal rights for gay and lesbian families have relied upon empirical research on the `healthy' childraising environment of these families. While neither disputing recent legal gains nor diminishing their importance, this article looks at some of the conceptual categories that drive this research. The limitations of such research, as salutary as it is, are typically understood in terms of their obvious political context. Such research avoids highlighting any differences between gay/lesbian families and traditional families because an emphasis on such differences feeds cultural stereotypes that are damaging to non-traditional families. This article takes a different tack, looking at how the concepts that frame research are based in binaries and fantasies about families and sex that we argue are too limiting. It assumes that the elision of sexuality within such studies is symptomatic of a broader repression of a variety of meanings of family. In response, the article brings in queer theory and psychoanalysis to broaden our approach to understanding new forms of family and kinship initiated by gay and lesbian families. The article addresses single household lesbian families that are most frequently the object of empirical research.
Queer theory has been criticized for its textual focus and lack of attention to the structural and to everyday social practices. This article is part of a wider attempt to draw on the different strengths and insights of queer theory and qualitative social sciences. I identify areas of intersection between them which suggest potential ways of developing a queer sociology. The article considers the negotiation of gender and sexual identity categories at the level of individual butch and femme identity narratives. The concept of interpretative repertoires is used to theorize the ways in which lesbians are both positioned by and actively negotiate particular discourses. I am interested in the spatial aspects of the negotiation and contestation of identities and the article examines the ways in which particular interpretative repertoires produce butch and femme metaphorical and material spaces. The article draws on a concept of space as fluid, contested in meaning and created through social interactions. The achievement of lesbian visibility is examined as a strategic intervention in the establishment of subcultural space in which lesbian genders may be performed and read in specifically lesbian ways. Butch and femme aesthetics are examined as tactics in resisting heterosexual space and demanding lesbian presence.
In 1999 the government of Bangladesh forcefully evicted sex workers from a large cluster of brothels just outside Dhaka, Members of the sex worker organisation, Ulka, immediately sought support from Naripokkho, a country-wide women's NGO, The Naripokkho office was transformed into an impromptu shelter with over 40 women sleeping there, and a few more staying with staff in their homes This led to a new set of relationships and alliances between the sex workers and staff. Naripokkho and other Bangladeshi women's organisations supported a campaign for the rights of the sex workers and their struggles to defend themselves against the illegal evictions, This article explores the lessons learnt by these organisations through their involvement, It suggests that these struggles gave a new and more public meaning to discussions on sexuality and sexual rights that had already been taking place within the women's movement.
References are often made in contemporary Indian discourse, both popular and academic, to the ‘new Indian woman’, a subject position that is seen as coterminous with the emerging identity of the Indian nation as modern - the ‘new India’. This article unpacks key discourses that construct the ‘new woman’ in the public imagination and suggests that the modernity of this imagined figure is founded upon a notion of autonomy that is deeply embodied. While the characteristics of this embodied modernity challenge influential feminist arguments as to the ‘shallow’ modernity of the ‘new Indian woman’, it nonetheless has problematic implications from a feminist perspective. The narrative shaped by these discourses around the question of what it means to be modern not only perpetuates an historically pervasive reductionism in which woman is seen to be defined and determined by the corporeal but also, and more problematically, constructs a boundary around the notion of modern womanhood that excludes women whose bodily autonomy has been compromised, for example through sexual assault. This narrative exclusion is perpetrated in at least three ways: through a discursive rendering of the woman as passive, the objectification of the woman, and a narrative structure that mimics the act of violation. Such erasure of the autonomy of sexually violated women is not inevitable, however, and an analysis of two ‘counter-narratives’ demonstrates how discourses of rape may both reinscribe the autonomy of such women and re-orient the reader to a position of empathy rather than opposition.
The ‘new Indian woman’, among the few to have gained from the ‘benevolent’ capitalist economic forces, has been projected as the new face of global India in the development discourse of the Indian state, as well as the media discourse. The article refers to professional women managers working in multinational corporations (MNCs) in Kolkata as subjects of enquiry in real spaces of the category of the ‘new Indian woman’. The proper functioning of a dual-earner household, as in the case of the professional woman, is largely dependent on the presence of a domestic worker(s). The article uses empirical evidence to demonstrate ways in which the legal definition of marriage becomes a crucial point around which a redefinition of the middle class, and its differences from the working class, becomes possible. Despite the contradictions and conflicts visible in their own married lives, most professional women rhetorically assert their cultural and moral ascendancy over domestic workers, who are allegedly marked by their undisciplined sexuality and disrespect for the legal sanctity of marriage. The ‘new Indian woman’ chooses to push into the background similarities in marital experiences, while foregrounding experiential dissimilarities across classes. This article represents an attempt to understand the ways in which the married ‘new Indian woman’ uses the trope of marriage to reinforce the hegemonic discourse of the new middle class.
This article explores the rapid evolution of the New Indian Woman, defined as an urban, educated, middle classed Indian woman, whose development has paralleled the equally rapid growth of the middle-classes in India. It explores the double-edged positionality of women negotiating their societal roles and places, within and without the family and home. The oeuvre of Deshpande is particularly edifying in such a study as the progression of her novels and character depictions (spanning decades) reflects, traces, and captures the rapid social and cultural changes which have been taking place in urban India as a result of swift economic development and expansion. The works of other contemporary Indian women writers are also discussed for their conceptualization of what constitutes the New Indian Woman. These contemporary writings highlight social norms which may have been expected to change, but remarkably, either have not, or else have simply assumed a new guise.
Colonial texts condemned the treatment of women in India by identifying a scriptural tradition. The nationalist response was to construct a reformed tradition and defend it on the grounds of modernity. In the process, it created the image of a new woman who was superior to Western women, traditional Indian women and low-class women. This new patriarchy invested women with the dubious honor of representing a distinctively modern national culture. [Colonial discourse, nationalism, gender construction, cultural modernity]
Jaya Sharma shares her concerns about assuming that norms govern us entirely and of constructing a binary between the ‘normative’ and the ‘non-normative’. She argues that such a binary can be arrogant and privilege as ‘ideal’ those seen as ‘non-normative’. It is perhaps closer to reality and more empowering to see the play of norms as a process of negotiation rather than placing them in a hegemonic and binary framework. Development (2009) 52, 52–55. doi:10.1057/dev.2008.72
Sexualities: Issues in Indian Feminism
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