India Lesbians Wed
February 27, 2005
By Neelesh Misra, Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP)—Winter is
India’s wedding season, a time of gold jewelry, dancing and loud music.
But not for Raju and Mala. They are among three lesbian
couples who have been making headlines lately by publicly declaring their
relationships and calling themselves married.
The law is silent on gay marriages, and same-sex couples
are taking advantage of this loophole to perform marriage ceremonies and live
together. However, they are vulnerable to arrest because homosexual sex is a
crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Since the law against homosexual sex was enacted under
British colonial rule in 1861, fewer than 50 people have been convicted,
mainly because judges tend to be lenient and authorities are reluctant to stir
But India is deeply conservative on sexual matters.
Heterosexual couples rarely kiss or cuddle in public. Gays in their daily
lives face discrimination, ridicule, blackmail and persecution by police and
government agencies, human rights campaigners say.
Being openly lesbian is doubly hard in India, with its
myriad caste and class distinctions. In fact it’s difficult enough just to
be a woman. Government estimates say a woman is raped every hour in India, a
bride is set on fire in a dowry dispute every six hours and 80 percent of
illegally aborted fetuses are female.
So Raju, 25, and Mala, 22, who use single names, showed
stunning courage and eloped in December. Apart from the gender question, the
couple also defied another ancient taboo; Raju is a Dalit what used to be
called an “untouchable” while Mala belongs to a higher caste. Higher
castes often shunned physical contact with the lowest castes in the past, and
social intermingling is still not common.
So a month before Mala was to marry a man, the two women
fled their homes in Amritsar and secretly married at a Hindu ceremony in New
Delhi. But when they declared their relationship, their families tried to have
The couple was detained and taken to court which said
they could live together because the law was silent on the issue.
“Nobody can separate us. Not even death,” Raju told
reporters. “We have vowed to live together for the rest of our lives as
husband and wife.”
A second couple emerged in the same month in the eastern
state of Bihar, but was less lucky. Police arrested Pooja Singh, a widow with
an 8-year-old son, and charged her with abducting her 19-year-old female
Sarita, who uses a single name, was returned to her
parents on a magistrate’s orders. Singh is preparing her appeal to higher
courts against the separation order.
Within days a third case surfaced, in Aroor, in the
southern state of Kerala, involving Venu and Mangala, married with two
children. Mangala, 26, told Venu she had been involved throughout the 10-year
marriage with another woman, Ramlath, 23. She said she would kill herself if
the two women could not be together.
So Venu, 40, took an unusual step he married his wife’s
lover. Now they all live together.
Ruth Vanita is a professor at the University of Montana
who is publishing a book on same-sex marriages in India and the West. In an
e-mail to The Associated Press, she said the striking feature about most
Indian homosexual couples is that they are lower-middle class with no
connection to any organized gay movement.
Ranjana Kumari, head of the New Delhi-based Center for
Social Research, says lesbian ties are more visible in India now, yet “still
there is a total rejection in terms of social acceptance. ... It is only the
socially accomplished people who tacitly convey their choice.”
Gay campaigners want a repeal of the law against
homosexual sex, saying India should learn from Western countries that allow
marital rights to same-sex couples.
Vanita, the author, points to a centuries-old Indian
tradition that has celebrated love in all forms in myth, folklore and
“I think that tradition will win out against the
ignorant and heartless people everywhere who oppose the right to love,” she
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