Conversation with Indian Feminist Sarojini Sahoo

Traditions Restrict Women's Rights, Discourage Female Sexuality

Indian feminist Dr. Sarojini Sahoo. Photo courtesy Sarojini Sahoo

A distinguished feminist writer, novelist, and author of several short story anthologies, Sarojini Sahoo was born in 1956 in Orissa, India. She earned MA and Ph.D. degrees in Oriya literature - as well as a Bachelor of Law degree - from Utkal University. A college instructor, she has been honored with a number of awards and her works have been translated into several languages.

Many of Dr. Sahoo's writings deal candidly with female sexuality, the emotional lives of women, and the intricate fabric of human relationships. Her blog, Sense & Sensuality, explores why sexuality plays a major role in our understanding of Eastern feminism.

Is feminism in India different from feminism in the West?

At one time in India - in the ancient Vedic period - there were equal rights between men and women and even feminist law makers like Gargi and Maitreyi . But the later Vedic period polarized the sexes. Males oppressed females and treated them as 'other' or similar to a lower caste.

Today, patriarchy is just one of the hierarchies which keep females down, oppressed by the traditional system.

So what does this mean for men and women who marry? In the West we like to think of marriage as an equal partnership. Couples marry for love; few would consider an arranged marriage.

In India, arranged marriages are always preferred. Love marriages are viewed as a social sin and are regarded with shame. Many Indians contend that arranged marriages are more successful than marriages in the West, where staggering divorce rates are the rule. They argue that romantic love does not necessarily lead to a good marriage, and often fails once the passion dissipates, whereas real love flows from a properly arranged union between two individuals.

Unwed mothers, separated, single or unfaithful women are considered outcasts. Living out of wedlock with a partner is still virtually unheard of. An unmarried daughter -- seen as a spinster even in her late twenties -- brings shame upon her parents, and is a burden. But once married, she is considered the property of her in-laws.

Is this where the concept of the dowry comes in? Westerners seem fascinated by the idea of a dowry, along with the disturbing stories of what happens when a dowry is seen as inadequate.

Yes, the marriage of the bride and groom requires the bride's father to pay dowries -- large amounts of money, furniture, jewelry, expensive household items and even homes and expensive foreign holidays to the bridegroom. And of course you are alluding to the term "bride burning," which was coined in India after several young brides had their saris lit on fire in front of a gas stove either by their husbands or in-laws because of their father's failure to meet demands for a bigger dowry.

In India, as there is the custom and tradition of joint family, a bride has to face her tyrannical in-laws, and traditional Hindu society still rejects divorcees.

What are the rights and roles of women in society?

In religious rituals and customs, females are barred from taking part in all worship. In Kerala, females are not allowed to enter in the Ayeppa temples. They are also barred from worshiping the God Hanuman and in some regions they are barred from even touching the 'linga' idol of Lord Shiva.

In politics, recently all political parties have promised to reserve 33% of legislative seats for women in their manifesto, but this has not been passed into law as the male-dominated parties oppose the bill.

In financial matters, although women are permitted to work outside of the home, their rights on any household matters have always been denied. A woman has to take charge of the kitchen, even if she is a wage- earning member of the household and holds down a job outside of the home. The husband will not take charge of kitchen even if he is unemployed and at home all day , as a man who cooks for his family violates the laws of manhood.

Legally, although the court recognizes that sons and daughters have equal rights regarding patriarchal property, those rights are never exercised; today as in generations past, ownership changes hands from father to husband to son and the rights of a daughter or a daughter- in-law are denied.

As an Indian feminist, Dr. Sarojini Sahoo has written extensively about the interior lives of women and how their burgeoning sexuality is seen as a threat to traditional patriarchal societies. Her novels and short stories treat women as sexual beings and probe culturally sensitive topics such as rape, abortion and menopause from a female perspective.

Much of your work focuses on women and sexuality. What can you tell us about Eastern women in that regard?

To understand Eastern feminism, one must understand the important role sexuality plays in our culture.

Let's consider a girl's situation during adolescence. If she becomes pregnant, the male partner is not blamed for his role. It is the girl who has to suffer. If she accepts the child, she suffers a great deal socially and if she has an abortion, she suffers emotionally for the rest of her life.

In the case of a married woman, she encounters many restrictions with respect to sexuality whereas her male partner is free from these restrictions. Women are denied the right to express themselves as sexual beings. They are discouraged from taking an active role or even allowing themselves to experience the act as pleasurable. Women are taught that they should not be open to their sexual desires.

Even today in Eastern countries, you will find many married women who have never experienced an orgasm. If a female admits to feeling sexual pleasure, her own husband may misunderstand her and regard her as a bad woman, believing she has engaged in premarital sex.

When a woman reaches menopause, the changes brought about by this biological phenomenon often cause a woman to suffer self-doubt. Mentally, she sees herself as disabled because she cannot meet the sexual needs of her husband.

I think that until now in many Asian and African countries, the patriarchal society has held control over sexuality. So for us to realize feminism, Eastern women need two types of liberation. One is from financial slavery and the other is from the restrictions imposed on female sexuality. Women are always victims; men are oppressors.

I believe in the theory that "a woman's body is a woman's right." By that I mean women should control their own bodies and men should take them seriously.

You are known for pushing the envelope, openly discussing female sexuality in your stories and novels in a way that hadn't been done before. Isn't that risky?

As a writer, I have always sought to paint the sexuality of my characters in opposition to the Indian concept of patriarchy, where women's sexuality is limited to raising children only and there was no place for women's sexual desire.

In my novel Upanibesh (The Colony) , regarded as the first attempt by an Indian novel to discuss female sexual desire, I have taken the symbol of 'Shiva Linga' to represent the sexual desire of women . Medha, the novel's protagonist, was a bohemian. Prior to marriage, she believes it would be boring to live with a man as a lifelong partner. Perhaps she wanted a life free from the chains of commitment, where there would be only love, only sex, and there wouldn't be any monotony.

In my novel Pratibandi, the thematic development of a woman's sexuality is explored through Priyanka, who encounters the loneliness of exile in a remote village, Saragpali . This loneliness develops into a sexual urge and soon Priyanka finds herself sexually involved with a former Member of Parliament. Though there is an age gap between them, his intelligence impresses her and she discovers a hidden archaeologist in him.

In my novel Gambhiri Ghara (The Dark Abode), my intent was to glorify the power of sexuality. Kuki, a Hindu married woman of India, tries to rectify Safique, a Muslim Pakistani artist, to keep him from perversion and from becoming a sexual maniac. She convinces Safique that love lust is like the insatiable hunger of a caterpillar. Gradually they become involved with love, lust and spiritually. Though this is not the central theme of the novel, its broad acceptance of sexuality caused many fundamentalists to react strongly.

I was also heavily criticized by my use of the 'F' word in my story Rape. Yet these are themes and situations that women understand too well.

In my various stories I have discussed lesbian sex, rape, abortion, infertility, failed marriage and menopause. These are not topics that have been discussed in Indian literature by women, but I focus on them to begin a dialogue about female sexuality and to help bring about change.

Yes, it is risky for a woman writer to deal with these themes in an Eastern country, and for that I face much criticism. But still I believe someone has to bear this risk to accurately portray women's feelings - the intricate mental agony and complexity which a man can never feel - and these must be discussed through our fiction.