Saturday, 18 January 2014

Religion, Homophobia and the Aftermath of 377: Some notes from Jamaat-e-Islami Hind's “protest against homosexuality”

I was walking past Azad Maidan on my way to CST when I saw something that caught my eye. It was, as most things at Azad Maidan are, a protest. But the nature of the protest is what intrigued me: it was a “protest against homosexuality”, organised by Jammat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), which appraised the Supreme Court verdict of December 11th, 2013, which effectively criminalized consensual same-sex between adults under the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This wasn’t surprising since Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) has been very vocal in its support of the Supreme Court verdict. Against my better judgement, I decided to stay there for a few moments, and try to understand what this “protest” was really about. Never before, have I been in an atmosphere that was so intolerant and venomous. I sat amidst JIH volunteers holding placards like: “GAY: God Abhors You!”, “Homosexuals are selfish”, and “Gay rights are not human rights!” It was, also, an atmosphere fraught with fallacies, hatred and misinformation.
Before I proceed with an overview, and criticism of the JIH “protest”, let me clarify a few things: firstly, I write as a student of gender studies, so my views are more concerned with JIH as representing a patriarchal ideology, than they are as a religious organisation. There are homophobic and irrational views across the political and religious spectrum—and most of them are as worse, if not more, than the others. In this case, as it just so happens, Jamaat is an Islamic organisation. In fact, they had even roped in a sadhu to speak out against homosexuality. Secondly, in this article, my argument is against the misinformation, lies and inaccuracies about homosexuality that the JIH presented. Finally, this article attempts to examine how differing ideologies (religious, political) coalesce under patriarchy and, in that respect, it also presents a critique of such pervasive patriarchal structures.

Homosexuality is a Western idea; it is against Indian culture; it will lead to population decline”
First of all, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that homosexuality made its way from the West to India—even during colonialism. That India has its own legacy of homoerotic representations in literature and art, and that there are prominent queer themes in Hinduism, too, is entirely (and purposefully) absent in their discourse. As Devdutt Patnaik writes:
“…homosexual activities – in some form – did exist in ancient India…its existence was acknowledged but not approved. There was some degree of tolerance when the act expressed itself in heterosexual terms.”
Indian “culture”, therefore, for organisations like Jamaat and the political Right, exists purely in a rhetorical space, and is divorced from historical facts. Their limited and myopic reading of history of the West also fails to see the moral panic over homosexuality, even in the United States and Britain, and Europe. As Abhay Kumar points out:
“The argument is made in such a way that Indians – both Hindus and Muslims – are opposed to homosexuality, while Indian culture is painted as morally sound and Western culture is morally repulsive and corrupt. The difference between Hindus and Muslims, seen as the source of perennial ‘Hindu-Muslim’ conflicts, suddenly disappears.”
Thus, events like the persecution of homosexuals by the Third Reich, the Stonewall riots, the assassination of Harvey Milk, Proposition 8, and the present-day persecution of homosexuals in Russia—to state a few examples—cannot at all figure in their interpretation of the “West”. It, like their definition of an “Indian culture”, is an empty category to be used for political mobilisation. In fact, what both Jamaat and the sadhu forgot was that Section 377 is an explicitly colonial legislation, based on Victorian morality and control over sexuality. To put it simply, had it not been for the West and British colonialism, there would be no Section 377, and by extension, there would be nothing for Jamaat to protest against.
Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that it is homosexuality that’s affecting population growth in the West; and the same would hold true for India. An examination of the population growth and total percentage of homosexuals in the United States of America, for instance, lends no credibility to the claims of the JIH. The population of the USA in 1970 was 205.1 million, and in 2012 it was 313.8 million—a population rise of approx. 65.3% in 42 years. At the same time, according to a study conducted by the Williams Institute in 2011, an estimated 3.5% of adults in the USA identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. On the other hand, as of 2013, the contraceptive prevalence rate in the USA is 76.4%. This, coupled with factors like increased costs of livings, declining family size, capital-intensive labour, and so on, have possibly contributed to a slower growth rate – and, most definitely, not homosexuality.

Homosexuality is a disease; it causes AIDS; it can be cured”
As with their earlier claims of homosexuality being a factor causing population – and thereby, civilizational – decline, these claims of the JIH, too, are untenable. First of all, in 1973, the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) eliminated ‘homosexuality’ as a mental disorder. Through this elimination, argues Dr Robert Spitzer, who authored the paper:
“…we will be removing one of the justifications for the denial of civil rights to individuals whose only crime is that their sexual orientation is to members of the same sex.”
Clearly, then, homosexuality per se is not a deviance, or a disorder, and much less a disease (However, the ASA’s usage of the term ‘Sexual Orientation Disturbance’, too, is extremely problematic. But that’s an argument for another discussion). Further, questioning the givenness of gender and sexual identities, anthropologists have presented compelling cases wherein several indigenous cultures (and, even biology) do not conform to the binary model of gender. Anne Fausto-Sterling, for instance, has presented a historical overview of “intersex” identities and argues for a need to think of five sexes, and not two. Sharyn Graham, studying the Bugis in Indonesia, too, presents a case for five genders, as well as a ‘meta-gender identity’.
Their arguments on HIV and AIDS, too, are ill-founded. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is transmitted by only four means—of which, homosexuality can account for only one, i.e., unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected partner. It is estimated that 85 to 87% of all HIV transmission is through unprotected sex. And while anal sex does increase the chances of HIV transmission, it is difficult to estimate exactly how much of it is through homosexual sex. Thus, homosexuals who have sex without using condoms would be at no more, or less, risk of contracting HIV, than heterosexuals who do the same.
According to the Supreme Court verdict, HIV prevalence among MSM (Men who have sex with men) is approximately 7%, and that there are about 25 lakh MSM in India presently. This, however, is a contested figure, as the category of MSM does not just include gays, but also men who are married, and do not identify themselves as homosexuals. According to the Behavioural Sentinel Surveillance (BSS) report in 2006, “three percent” of all respondents “indulged in sex with males in the last one year”. And, in the states with high awareness on the issue “the involvement was also reported to be the highest”; among these, “only one-fifth used condoms during the last occasion of sex with a male partner” (BSS, 2006: p. xix). The BSS 2006 report on MSM further estimates that, on an average, consistent condom use among MSM is approximately between 35 to 36% (this includes both, with commercial and non-commercial partners, in 10 Indian cities) (ibid, p. 42).
Thus, on a practical note, the dynamic (and dangerous) nature of HIV transmission makes it extremely difficult to chart out an exact statistical figure of risks. Instead, it is more feasible to understand the notion of “risk” through vulnerabilities—that is to say: communities that are socially, economically and culturally vulnerable are at a greater risk of contracting HIV. By forcing the question of AIDS on only homosexuals, we run the risk of misunderstanding how it affects other marginalised groups, like drug users, female sex workers, AIDS widows and orphans. Furthermore, as Shivananda Khan of Naz Foundation (one of the petitioners in the SC) argues, factors like stigma, discrimination, violence etc. are responsible for driving the disease underground, and these seriously harm intervention efforts that are trying to address issues like transmission, prevention and building support systems for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHAs). This persecution of homosexuals—and, those who work on health issues of MSM—is, thus, framed under the misguided assumption that social ostracism can deal with AIDS.
In fact, JIH wants these people to hide, and be underground—to live in khauf (fear), as one of their speakers put it.They said, that after the 2009 verdict, gays “came out on the street and marched fearlessly”. This, for the JIH, is in absolute contravention of patriarchal norms. Homosexuals, further to being persecuted, must also be deeply shamed for being who—and, what—they are. More to the point, not only is this attitude being deeply dehumanizing, it is, I argue, also one that seeks to entrench them in the worldview of the dominant patriarchal discourse.
The questions that I have raised above, however, are of no concern to the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, and other patriarchal ideologies. They are resistant to viewing social reality, and problems, as complex; for them, the force of their arguments comes from simplifying issues of sexuality, reducing it to a notion of patriarchal control over bodies, and stems from the concern—or obsession, more correctly—over control of sexuality and property rights. For instance, their supposed “cure” for homosexuality is early marriage. In older days, they said, people were married off precisely because this “prevented them from getting homosexual desires”. So, for people to get these “desires” in the first place, would not the homosexual desire be “natural” in all of us?—which must, then, be “prevented”?
Further, they claimed: “If we legalise homosexuality today, then tomorrow will we also legalise crime, rape, sodomy, bestiality, incest, and so on?” Once again, the Jamaat speakers displayed their ineptitude at understanding Section 377. In cases of rape and sodomy, insofar as there is evidence to indicate that it was non-consensual and/or coercive, Section 377 can, in theory, be applied—and the victims of such sexual assaults could be women, minors and even other men.The merit of the Delhi High Court verdict was that it presented such a nuanced reading. But nuances, for Jamaat, and other like-minded organisations, are almost incomprehensible, it would appear. In fact, they would rather cite the “historical evidence” of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to justify their view that homosexuality is a sin, that it is immoral, and so on. I won’t even try providing any credible references to refute these claims because that would only insult my intelligence, and that of the readers’. Their entire “protest” was rife with such logical inaccuracies. This evidently demonstrates that the JIH did not have the first clue about what homosexuality actually entails; theirs was, from the beginning, a prejudiced view—nothing more, nothing less. However, the crux of Jamaat’s protest, I suspect has more to do with their desire to portray themselves as a masculine, chauvinistic outfit, than one actually concerned with religion.

The government must not amend Section 377, or they will lose our votes”
I confess, they did not use the exact same words; but, their sentiments were apparent. Indeed, this was their primary reason for holding the “protest”. They said, Congress ministers who are supporting the amendment of Section 377, and thereby “decriminalising homosexuality”, should think twice about it, given the 2014 General Elections are only a few months away. There was also a vague, and snide, speculation over Rahul Gandhi’s (prolonged) bachelorhood, and the Congress’ desire to amend the said Section. Jamaat’s criticism of the Congress, thus, was an implicit projection of their support for the BJP (as if the presence of the sadhu was not enough)—whose president, Rajnath Singh, “welcomed the Supreme Court verdict”, making their stance on homosexuality quite clear.
Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s intolerance of homosexuality, and its alignment with the Hindutva Right on this, therefore, is much less a coincidence, than it is an indication of a condition that gives them power and legitimacy in the dominant patriarchal nature of politics in India. This kind of political machismo and parochialism aims to ’emasculate’* a certain section of the population, and is perhaps the most prevalent form of power-mongering in Indian politics—the MNS’ tirade against the “north Indian migrant”; Shri Ram Sene’s and the VHP’s assaults on women in pubs and public spaces; the violence directed on individuals by the Khap Panchayats in the form of “honour killings”; and, now, this renewed persecution of homosexuality. These are, all of them, indicative of a masculine politics of domination in a system of the patriarchal moral-political economy. Patriarchy, more than being a redundant concept, is widespread in contemporary society, institutions, and politics in renewed and pervasive forms. It functions on the subordination and persecution of sexualities (and other caste, religious etc. identities), and aims to punish the transgression of patriarchal norms.
Moreover, what I found particularly infuriating was one speaker’s reference to Ambedkar, and how, he added, the constitution must “prevent homosexuality from spreading”. As an admirer of Ambedkar, this statement was offensive to me personally, and it also undermined and insulted Ambedkar’s legacy, and all that he stood for. Ambedkar was a revolutionary—if not the most revolutionary—thinker of 20th century India. Besides his struggles against Brahmanical hegemony, it was Ambedkar’s Hindu Code Bill that not only challenged Brahmanical patriarchy, but also gave civil liberties to Hindu women, such as rights over property, divorce, and so forth (see Sharmila Rege’s Against the Madness of Manu, Navyana, 2013, pp. 204-243). As with the championing for the rights of marginalised communities, the legacy of Ambedkarite political thought underscores the contemporary struggles against the homophobia and sexism of (patriarchal) organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, and the Hindutva Right-wing. Homosexuality—as with giving property rights to women—is precisely the target of such masculine politics of domination, because it deeply unsettles the notion of power that comes to be defined in terms of, and gains privilege from, a hegemonic masculinity.
By the end of the “protest”, I wanted to speak out, and question their claims.
But, to be really honest, I could not take that suffocating and venomous atmosphere anymore. I left. And then, I Tweeted this whole incident—a pointless exercise, really. Not entirely because I failed to say this to the JIH “protestors”; but because they—like other organisations are trying to assert a patriarchal moral superiority—did not possess the acumen or sophistication to engage in any kind of debate, especially one that would undermine their masculine imagery. Their attack on homosexuals is an empty exercise to gain masculine capital in a patriarchal moral-political economy. To conclude, therefore, Jamaat’s “protest” was no more than a self-congratulatory exercise; a desperate bid to keep itself—and its sense of morality and patriarchy—relevant in a charged political scenario.

This post first appeared in the secular humanist website,, under the title ‘Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s Homophobia.’ I am thankful to the editors for their feedback on the post, and for publishing it on their platform. You can read the original post here.

* The term “emasculation” is used here very specifically. In case of analysing violence against homosexuals, and especially gay men, it is important to see how entrenched patriarchal and homophobic attitudes work insidiously to deny them a “gay” masculinity—because, that would mean the constitution of a masculinity outside of the hegemonic and patriarchal moral-political context. ‘Masculinity’ is a reified category precisely because it is such reification that gives it power in certain contexts. Thus, something as ubiquitous as using the term “gay” or “faggot” as an insult, seeks to undermine (and, in more serious cases, deny) masculinity to even (presumably) straight men, until they conform to the notion of hegemonic masculine identity. I have explained this in detail in an academic research paper on masculinity in the critically acclaimed TV show, The Wire. Access it here.

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