Observations on recent events in India and Nepal

Introduction

In 2009 widespread celebrations greeted a historic Indian High Court judgement that ruled that the criminalization of homosexual acts contravened fundamental rights including the right to equality as enshrined in the Constitution. 2008–9 saw the advancement of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights in Nepal too, a development acknowledged and greeted with hope in and beyond the country. There was a sense of optimism that conservative attitudes to sexuality were loosening their grip on the lives of Indians and Nepalis.

In contrast, in 2010 the media reported case after case of ‘honour killings’ in northern India, mostly related to young people choosing marital partners and often perpetrated by the family of the woman concerned. These two threads, apparently contradictory, speak to the nature of change and resistance in the arena of sexual choice and sexuality. Conclusions may yet be premature but there are some interesting indications about the spaces in which sexual straightjackets will continue to be challenged.

Sexual rules and power dynamics enable or constrain individual lives, impacting on health and indicating the state of individual rights, freedoms, and opportunities. The HIV epidemic has enabled, or perhaps forced, attention onto the nature of, and the negotiation around, hetero-, homosexual and MSM1 activity. Gender and development discourse has also tackled this taboo, asking us to look into the institutions of marriage and the household which shape ‘normal’ sexual relations. A recent interest in violence against women has further pushed us to problematize the construction of female sexuality and efforts to control it, and has promoted the links between these concerns and development agendas.

This chapter considers two aspects of sexuality considered ‘unauthorized’ or non-standard: the first in the context of husband-wife heterosexual partnerships; the second, homosexual relationships. I look at events in India and Nepal, neighbouring countries where there appear to have been important shifts in the community policing of heterosexual relations (in India) and steps towards acceptance of homosexuality (in both India and Nepal). At first these dynamics seem to be at odds with each other – one moving in a progressive direction and the other conservative. But I conclude that they do not constitute a single site of struggle over sexuality. Rather, the control of male sexual access to women takes a course that is different and possibly distinct from the struggles for respect and legitimacy for gay, lesbian and trans lives.

This chapter does not attempt to give a comprehensive overview of these two arenas but draws attention to some contemporary dynamics in the battles over sexuality in the two countries concerned.

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