The Politics of Identities and Languages: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India

Excerps from Giti Thadani’s essay in female desires

“I use the word ‘lesbian’ in a generic sense to connote various levels of interfeminine fusion and play that may be situated not only on sexual planes but also on cosmogonic, psychic, erotic, and kinship levels. Although the use of the word ‘lesbian’ may seem somewhat essentialist, I choose to employ this concept because it raises the problematic of lesbian invisibility in non-Western histories. My use of the concept of ‘lesbian’ is a political choice meant to foreground erotic and sexual desire between women and to break the isolation that is imposed through compulsory heterosexuality.” (67)

“In contemporary India the rich traditions of the feminine are either masculinized or subsumed under dominant male traditions. Secular hisoriography and writing about the present are no different in this respect, for they do not explore the shirt from plural cosmogonic traditions to monotheistic or monoandrocentric religions . Instead, those kinds of simply become a liberal other to fundamentalist ideology and thereby subscribe to the absencing of the ‘cosmo-social-sexual’ feminine.
This absence is carries out above all through language. Words such as bhagini (female erotic bonding), sakhi (female companion, lover), jami (twin) have lost their former sexual, cosmo-social meanings; they are translated today simply as ‘sister’ or ‘woman friend.’ Most Hindi to Hindi dictionaries do not have any explicit word to connote lesbian sexuality. The words shanda/shandali are translated as follows:

a woman desiring like a man
a woman having properties like a man
a biologically deficient woman
a woman having no breasts
a woman not menstruating
a wanton woman
a selfish woman
an autoerotic woman (84)

“Lesbian sexuality is equated to male desire and thus invisibilized. Where there is visibility it is usually through reference to the ‘West’ as either a neutral derivation of the English word or in few case as a return back to a homophobic context.” (85)

“The bringing together of different geographic-sexual contexts through language is important in breaking the dichotomy set up by opposing ideologies. When a word like sakhi associated with the word ‘lesbian,’ it creates a multiplicity of contexts. It grafts cosmological feminine traditions onto the sexual-political visibility generated by outside lesbian movements. Moreover, it questions the inherent bigotry of the compartmentalized ‘Western’ and ‘traditional’ beliefs in the modern urban Indian who would not question speaking in English but yet would object to using the word ‘lesbian.’

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