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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.