Right to love

A lesbian couple's suicide attempt in Mumbai is just one piece of a tragic pattern

LGBT rights groups in India share stories of queer women who have left home or taken drastic steps because they did not find acceptance.

On Wednesday, the story of two women from Mumbai, who were said to be in a relationship and attempted suicide after they were forbidden from seeing each other, grabbed headlines. While one of them died, the other survived after she was rushed to the hospital.

On the morning of August 27, Aditi*, a resident of Chunnabhatti in Mumbai hung herself from the ceiling after hearing that her neighbour, Sheetal* had consumed phenyl (a disinfectant) in an attempt to kill herself. The previous day, the two had been spotted by one of their relatives and Sheetal’s father, on finding this out, forbade her from seeing Aditi, the police said. He also sought the help of a local political worker who allegedly scolded both the girls.

Heartbroken, both girls attempted suicide. But while Sheetal was taken to the hospital and survived, Aditi was found dead. The police have arrested Sheetal's father and booked him for abetment to suicide and criminal intimidation. The political worker, Mahendra Nakte, who has been booked under the same charges, is on the run.

The police are yet to confirm the survivor's age. “The matter is very sensitive,” said Sunil Bhosale, senior police inspector of Chunabhatti police station. “The investigation is on.”

Seeking support

Stories like that of Aditi and Sheetal are far from the exception – instances of young men and women in same-sex relationships being harassed by their parents, communities and the police are alarmingly common.

Sahayatrika, a support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Kerala said that 22 young women in the state had committed suicide under similar circumstances between 1995 and 2003. That was just data from cases reported in the newspapers.

Since March 2014, LGBT rights group Humsafar Trust has dealt with 12 cases in Mumbai alone where couples were either contemplating suicide or were deeply depressed or had faced some kind of harassment or coercion by family or neighbours over their sexuality.

“This is a large number and the nature of these cases is very worrying,” said Koninika Roy, advocacy manager, Humsafar Trust. “The reaction of parents in such cases is shocking. It is harrowing to hear the women speak. They are full of guilt and they want understanding from their families, but they don’t get it.”

For instance, in April, two young women ran away from their homes in Mumbai. They had met in college and had fallen in love, but after being harassed by their families and fearing social ostracism, they decided to leave the city. “I was scared of society, my family, the issue of caste and the issue of gender,” said a letter sent from one of them to Roy. “… we became sure our families will not accept us.”

When the couple was traced shortly afterwards, the two were brought to the local police station. "At the police station we expressed our love for each other and wanted to stay together," the letter said. "But they refused [to listen] and took our parents’ side and gave us the suggestion that we should marry a boy and live happily." The girls then “begged the police” to listen.

Towards the end of the letter, the writer’s desperation and helplessness became increasingly evident. "I am helpless and [my partner] and I will die now we have decided as there is no hope for help…"

The two women were forced to return home. Their mobile phones were taken from them and their parents placed them under house arrest.

"Luckily I got a chance today to send you a mail begging you to help me… You are our last hope. I beg you to help me,” the letter said.

With the help of Humsafar and Sneha, another non-profit, the women managed to leave their homes and are now living together. Humsafar has also been counselling the parents of both the women.

Roy narrated another story of two women who ran away from their homes and came to Mumbai, seeking the Humsafar Trust’s help. The father of the younger of the two had been monitoring her movements, did not let her leave the house and was pressurising her to marry, prompting them to flee.

All of a piece

This is all of a piece with the situation across the years and across the country, where women’s bodies, sexuality and life choices are tightly reined in by familial and social pressures, said activists.

“It is really saddening, the way families can be insensitive,” said Vinay Chandran, counsellor and executive director of Swabhava Trust, an LGBT rights group in Bangalore. “The risk of depression [in the queer community] is also much higher because of the kind of control women are subjected to India… the pressure of dealing with family and expectations.”

If incidents of young women in relationships being driven to commit suicide were to be plotted on a map and along a timeline, there would be a dot in almost each year and each state.

For instance, in 2001 in Kerala two tribal girls were found dead near an irrigation canal after their families refused to let them marry. In 2008, in Chennai, two women set themselves on fire, after their families tried to separate them. In 2011, in Nandigram in West Bengal, two women killed themselves, stating in their suicide note that they could not live without one another. And in 2013, two young women fled to Bangalore from Kerala, hoping to find acceptance and live together away from their disapproving families. But the father of one of filed a kidnapping case against the other. The women then approached Sangama, a support group that works for the rights of sexual minorities in Bangalore.

“For every such case, there might be several others that don’t come to light,” said Manohar Elavarthi, founder of Sangama.

Deepa Vasudevan, founder-member of Sahayatrika, which had collected data on the number of women in same-sex relationships who had committed suicide in Kerala, said that a majority of such cases involve young women from lower-middle class backgrounds or small towns who are faced with the pressure to marry a man or are forced to separate from their partners. “What’s distressing is that there is more awareness now and but this is still happening,” she said.

Double jeopardy

In India, queer men and women do not have the law on their side. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises sexual acts considered “against the order of nature” – an ambiguous definition that is taken to include homosexual sex. Though there have been several attempts to have the section repealed, the Supreme Court, which, in 2013, had overturned the 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court to decriminalise homosexuality, is yet to give its final verdict on the issue.

However, there has been no known case of a woman being prosecuted under this section. But activists said this is not the only law that can be used to harass queer people, especially women.

A post on the blog for We're Here and Queer! Women in Bangalore, a support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, said:

“It's also important to realise that there are other laws that have been used much more commonly to oppress queer women, and to separate couples by force, especially by disapproving families: Section 340 (wrongful confinement), Section 361 (kidnapping), Section 362 (abduction)… Section 368 (concealment/confinement of a kidnapped person), and Habeas Corpus writs, among others. We need to voice our concerns about the misuse of all of these laws (because unlike Section 377, they all do have their place for protecting our rights in some sense), and bring up the issues facing queer women in the LGBTQ discourse in India.”

A step in time

Though no India-specific studies are available, international research has shown that queer people are more likely to be prone to depression and suicidal tendencies. Of the calls made to Aasra, the 24-hour suicide prevention helpline in Mumbai, about 10% to 12% are from queer people.

“They call with issues related to identity, social support, acceptance, what their future holds for them,” said Johnson Thomas, director of Aasra. “Our motto is to address the suicide ideation and relieve their tension by getting to them speak about their emotions related to the problem.”

However, to bring about acceptance, there should also be support and counselling for parents of queer people, activists said – an area in which India is sorely lacking.

“It is very important to have a support mechanism for parents,” said Sonal Giani, founder of Umang, a support group for lesbians, bisexual women and transgenders. “They are frightened of the social situation they will have to face… Since the situation is more restrictive for women and family policing is higher, women often end up taking drastic steps.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities of the couple.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.