What are the legal experiences of queer women in India? This is a severely under-researched topic from the legal point of view. Most of the academic work on the experiences of queer women in India lies in the area of literature and culture and associated fields.
In the present blog, I will discuss one aspect of an article that I recently wrote about the legal issues of queer women. That article had the following aims: 1. to study the case law and understand the legal narrative surrounding queer women in India; 2. theorize about the main legal problems faced by them; 3. analyze the Navtej judgment to see whether it provides solutions for those problems; and 4. begin a conversation to address the problems.
Queer women are women, i.e., persons who are socialised as women, who have, romantic and/or sexual feelings for/relations with, other women. The history of activism on this issue in India has shown that a variety of terms have been used to refer to them. Examples include, lesbians, bisexual women, ekal mahila, gender non-conforming women, women in a husband-wife relationship. Some of these terms reflect personal choices, but some also reflect what was possible to say at a particular time in history. In this article, I argued that the experiences of transgender men may have commonalities with queer women since many of them may have been socialized as women. Therefore, to that extent, the findings of the article were relevant to understand the problems faced by that community as well. I identified the core issues faced by queer women through two distinct methods. The first was a case-law method where I identified cases pertaining to queer women using a keyword search on Manupatra. The second was to study various scholarly articles and stock-taking reports that have concentrated on queer women in India. These two methods allowed me to cull out the seemingly core areas of concern for queer women that law needs to address. They were: 1. Privacy; and 2. Live-in relationships; 3. Marriage pressure; and 4.allegations of lesbianism in divorce cases. In this blog, I will discuss the issue of privacy as it relates to the legal entitlements of queer women.
The lack of privacy is a major area of concern for women, and queer women India. The Navtej judgment has allowed sexual relationships between two consenting queer adults in private. This formulation of the sexual right has failed to take into account the realities of the lives of queer women. Women in general, including queer women, do not have access to privacy within their homes, and little say over how they would like to exercise their sexuality. In the first known large-scale Indian study to understand the violence faced by lesbians, Bina Fernandez and NB Gomathy found that the family was the main source of violence for lesbian women. They faced physical, mental, and sexual violence from their family members, which only ever abated when they either left their homes or lied about not being attracted to women anymore. Thus, for this section of the queer community, granting a right in private was no grant at all, not unless the idea of privacy was connected to the idea of access to public spaces. What those spaces could be, whether hostels, or cafes, or parks, etc. is a question that can be best answered by taking the views of a wide cross-section of queer women, and the State and funding bodies should devote funds to this enterprise. In the meanwhile, within existing structures, two options can be further strengthened; 1. Access to shelter homes; and protection orders.
1a. ACCESS TO SHELTER HOMES
Shelter homes have their own set of problems. They restrict the mobility of women, and their ability to take up employment among other things. Many of them are queerphobic, and either refuse to take in queer women or claim to cure them. Still, being able to take shelter in a shelter home offers immediate access to a physically safe place for queer women who leave their home, and are in need. They also offer a bargaining position to women who can then negotiate better terms of treatment with their families.
1b. PROTECTION ORDERS AS PRIVACY ENHANCING TOOLS
Understanding privacy from the point of view of queer women also offers up other legal solutions to their concerns. One such solution is a protection order which is available through the writ jurisdiction of the High Court. Recorded cases show that women who exercise their choice to live with one another have taken recourse to these orders. These orders typically place the local station house officer in charge of the physical safety of the couple, with the responsibility to determine the safety protocol for the couple. Usually the phone number of a beat constable is shared with the couple to call in case of any actual or apprehended danger. Lawyers working on these cases have shared that these orders provide an immediate sense of physical safety to the couple, even if they can provide only limited protection from emotional blackmail from the families involved.
The discussion on other areas identified by this blog, along with a fuller discussion on privacy can be found in the forthcoming article, Surabhi Shukla, The L World: Legal Discourses on Queer Women 13 NUJS Law Review 3 (September 2020). Update (Oct, 2020): The article can be found here.