Posts Tagged ‘Sex’

Sex in Perspective

January 23, 2014

Hollande. Royal. Trierweiler. Gayet. Tharoor. Pushkar. Tarar. A person hospitalized. Another dead.

France and India popped up in the news simultaneously for similar reasons and certainly not at our bidding. True, we had compared the countries before on the blog (Dynastic Succession: What is the Difference Between India and France?) but there was no intent to push the matter further. Now that fate has intervened, however, let us leverage it for comparative speculation on other issues of general interest.

To recap, our message on political institutions was clear enough – dynastic succession was acceptable in France at one time but not so anymore; In India it remains very much the norm, something both the majority of the rulers and the ruled take for granted. The question we asked was what this said about the peculiarities of democratic governance in India – was it just the old monarchical system in a new guise? Our answer was that such was indeed the case – in India, we could still promise the people cake and get away with it; the guillotine was barely a glimmer on the horizon, Kejriwal notwithstanding.

We can now proffer some observations on the differences between France and India in the social domain of family life. It is inconceivable, for example, that a First Lady in India today could be the kind of live-in partner there is in France (although this might not have been all that impossible in the age of monarchy, something that William Dalrymple could be read to suggest in his excellent survey India: The Place of Sex – an interesting thought on the nonlinearity of history that we set aside for another occasion).

We can hazard some broad generalizations about marriage. We might say, for example, that compared to India, the institution is on its way out in some countries in the West, if not yet in France – more people are living together in unregistered unions than in those sanctioned by formal or traditionally contracted marriages. Marriages, when they are contracted, are done so at a later age in France than in India. And, family sizes are smaller on the average in the former compared to the latter.

Sex is related to marriage – ‘responsible’ sex being one among the reasons for marriage since procreation out of wedlock had various strikes against it and contraception was not reliable enough – but, as everyone knows, it has a life of its own. And when it comes to sex matters are not simple anymore. That is because sex, unlike marriage, is not an institution but a potent human instinct.  And that leads to both more similarities and more differences across countries.

The similarities stem from the fact that basic human instincts – the fatal attraction of older men for younger women, for example – give rise to virtually the same desires and temptations across time and space. How many times have we heard or read the same story that is in the news these days. Some things just don’t change – only the characters that embody the stories are new, which, perhaps, accounts for the abiding interest in the oft-repeated phenomenon.

The differences, on the other hand, emerge from the circumstance that the nature of relations between the sexes is culture specific in the sense that there are local norms pertaining to the extent of control or discretion that is called for in the exercise of sexual desires before, during, and after marriage. What, for example, may be considered appropriate sexual behavior for college undergraduates or a recently widowed woman with teenaged children?

Not only is the nature of the relationship culture specific, it varies across sub-cultures which makes this a subject on which one cannot generalize at the level of India let alone South Asia. In fact, I would be reluctant to generalize even at the level of a neighborhood in a large cosmopolitan city. The one thing to avoid would be to prescribe how someone else ought to behave based on the set of moral values to which I subscribe. My values are just my values – they are neither the only legitimate values in the world nor are others obliged to pay any heed to them. One ought certainly to be true to his or her values but there is no logical basis for judging others from the perspective that they provide.

There is thus a great deal of relativism in matters of sex. When individuals contemplate a partnership they would have some sense of the norms applicable to their relationship, the ease or casualness with which the union might be dissolved, and the dignity and options that would be available to them afterwards.

Despite the relativism though, there are some universals involved in matters of sex. For example, there seems little variation in the condemnation of sex without consent, or under false pretense, or involving individuals not old enough to be cognizant of their own well-being. But there is more beyond these obvious hard lines as the fallout from the recent incidents in France and India seems to suggest. It is that relationships involve some modicum of trust – albeit varying, with ‘till death do us part’ not taken as seriously as it once was – and that violating that trust hurts no matter what the expectations with which a particular partnership was established. Valérie Trierweiler, who herself displaced Ségolène Royal in the affections of François Hollande, ended up in hospital in a state of shock when an even younger woman entered the picture. Sunanda Pushkar could not survive the trauma of the thought of betrayal.

With pleasure on one side and pain on the other, discounted differently as they might be in different places, how is one to get away from the universal calculus of pain and pleasure? Many questions arise. How does one tradeoff one’s pleasure against another’s pain? How much room is there for relativism in the drawing up of this balance sheet? Is this a subjective determination that is almost always biased in one’s favor under the heady dictate of a powerful instinct?

Is it this subjective determination, increasingly freed from externally imposed constraints, that distinguishes one type of person from another not just in matters of sex but more generally? Could one make the case that a resolve, even within vastly varying moral systems, to not hurt others, by word or deed, would lead to a better world?

The minimizing of aggregate pain seems a desirable social objective, more so in a world today that is rife with the indiscriminate inflicting of misery on millions. Perhaps this is the compassionate element of the Buddhist and Jain worldviews that one ought to re-examine with care. But would this restraint have some downsides of its own? What might we need to give up to achieve a world less selfish and less prone to accumulate satisfaction at the cost of others? And have we ventured too far along the road to turn back now?

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Testing the Hypothesis of Sexual Repression in Pakistan

June 29, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

My response to Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair was not well written because it got hijacked into areas that I did not intend to stress. In this post I will try and refocus the discussion on what I consider germane to the objectives of this blog, i.e., to examine a hypothesis critically in order to establish its validity.

The task therefore is to describe the hypotheses proffered by Hitchens and suggest how they may be fairly tested. As part of this exercise, I am not concerned with disputing or establishing the truth of facts; the emphasis is solely on the exercise of reasoning through the arguments assuming the facts to be true.

The central concern for Hitchens is the situation in Pakistan. This concern is well placed and thoroughly justified. The challenge that Hitchens assumes is to identify the most fundamental cause that explains this situation. (more…)

Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens

June 26, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.”

Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat: (more…)

L’affaire DSK: What Can We Learn?

May 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization. (more…)

Some Thoughts on Patriarchy

May 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities.

The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes. (more…)

On Values: The Example of Marriage

November 21, 2010

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage.

The principal conclusions are the following:

  1. Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity.
  2. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. (more…)

The Sexual Divide

October 23, 2009

Gender discrimination (which includes harassment, abuse and violence) was at the top of our list of the most unacceptable things in South Asia. How bad is the situation?

Some time back we had mentioned the introduction of the ‘Ladies Special’ trains in major Indian cities to counteract the harassment of women using public transport. Recently there was an update to that story titled ‘Joy of India’s women-only trains’ mentioning that the service has been a big success.

In reading this update I was particularly struck by the remark of one user of the service: “We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want.” The sense of freedom that this conveys is almost beyond belief – women feel they cannot even laugh or sing a song in the presence of men. (more…)

Hinduism – 6: Interactions in the Mirror of Sex

December 27, 2008

Continued from Hinduism -5: Impacts of Interactions With Muslims

The aim of this series of posts is to comprehend how Hinduism was impacted by its interactions with outsiders – first Muslims and then the British – in order to better understand where we are today and how we got here.

In the last post, we concluded that interaction with Muslims had very little impact on how Hindus viewed their own religion – its philosophy, practices or traditions. However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim.

We will argue later that the impact of the interaction with the British was very different. But before we address that topic in detail, it is both useful and interesting to presage the argument with a specific illustrative example. The illustration pertains to the attitude towards sex and is described largely in the words of William Dalrymple as they appear in his highly informative article (India: The Place of Sex) in the New York Review of Books (June 26, 2008). 

Dalrymple portrays pre-Islamic India using the art forms prevalent at the time of the Pallava dynasty (590-630 AD):

This was a world where the frontier between the divine and the human remained porous. Vishnu, Brahma, and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and intervene in its battles. Images of the holy family of Lord Shiva echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms and heads distinguishes one from the other. Queens, courtesans, and goddesses alike are shown carefree and sensual: bare-breasted, they tease their menfolk, standing on tiptoe to kiss them, hands resting provocatively on their hips….

There is something wonderfully frank and direct about these gods who embody human desire. Lord Shiva reaches out and fondly touches the breast of his consort, Uma-Parvati, a characteristically restrained Chola way of hinting at the immense erotic powers of a god who embodies male fertility. Elsewhere, Hindu sculpture can often be explicitly and unembarrassedly erotic, as can much classical Hindu poetry: Kalidasa’s poem The Birth of Kumara has an entire canto of ninety-one verses entitled “The Description of Uma’s Pleasure,” which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of the divine couple. The same is true of much of the secular poetry of the period….

Sexuality in India has traditionally been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry. It was looked upon as an essential part of the study of aesthetics: srngararasa—the erotic rasa, or flavor—being one of the nine rasas comprising the Hindu aesthetic system. If the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, the oldest scriptures of the Hindu tradition, collected in the Rig Veda, begins with the creation of kama—sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the Hindu scheme of things, the gratification of kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma—duty or religion—and artha, the creation of wealth.

The explicitly erotic sculptures that fill the walls of temples such as Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, as well as the long Indian literary tradition of erotic devotional poetry, may be read at one level as metaphors for the longing of the soul for the divine, and of the devotee for God. Yet such poems and sculptures are also clearly a frank expression of pleasure in life and love and sex. In pre-colonial India the devotional, the metaphysical, and the sexual were not seen as being in any way opposed; on the contrary the three were closely linked.

Here is how Dalrymple describes the encounter of this world with Islam:

Islam brought with it to India a very different attitude toward sexuality, which was much closer to Eastern Christian notions—the environment in which so many early Islamic attitudes developed—and which divided the mind from the body, and the sensual from the metaphysical. Like much early Christian thought, Islam emphasized the sinfulness of the flesh, the dangers of sexuality, and, in extreme cases, the idealization of sexual renunciation and virginity. In Iranian literature, love is usually portrayed as a hazardous, painful, and dangerous condition: in the great Persian epic Layla and Majnun, Majnun is driven mad by his love for Layla, and ends up dying wasted, starving, and insane.

Yet, remarkably, Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing. The Kamasutra survived and in time even helped to convert to the life of pleasure India’s initially puritanical Muslim rulers. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries many of the classics of Hindu writing on the erotic were translated into Persian for the use of the princes and princesses of Indian Muslim courts. At the same time there was an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art and literary experimentation. This was the age of the great poet-courtesans: in Delhi, during the late eighteenth century, the courtesan Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice:

“She decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers in ink exactly as is found in the finest cloth of Rum.”

At this period, too, a new specialist vocabulary of Urdu words and metaphors developed to express the poets’ desires: the beloved’s arms were likened to lotus stalks, her thighs to banana stems, her plaited hair to the Ganges, and her rumauli—a word that was coined to describe the faint line of down that runs down the center of a woman’s stomach, just below her navel—to the River Godavari. In this spirit, the Lucknavi Muslim poet Shauq (1783–1871) wrote a series of masnawis—or rhymed couplets—on amorous subjects entitled Fareb-i-Ishq, or The Wiles of Love. At the same time Islamic weavers struggled to produce not the heavy burkhas now worn by their Wahhabi-influenced successors, but ever more transparent and revealing cholis, or blouses, with weaves of wondrous lightness named baft hawa (woven air), ab-e-rawan (running water), and shabnam (evening dew).

Similar concerns inspired the ateliers of the miniaturists. In eighteenth-century Delhi one of the later Mughal emperors, Muhammad Shah II, commissioned miniatures of himself making love to his mistress, while further south in Hyderabad the artists were producing miniatures that tapped into the old erotic pulse of pre-Islamic Indian art, and that were concerned above all with the Arcadia of the scented pleasure garden. Here courtesans as voluptuous as the nude apsarases—the beautiful, heavenly sprites of ancient Pallavan stone sculpture—attend bejeweled princes. Such images would be unthinkable anywhere else in the Islamic world.

And what transpires with the arrival of the British:

It was not, therefore, during the Islamic period that the dramatic break with India’s erotic traditions occurred; instead that change took place during the colonial period with the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Responding to the evangelical diatribes about “Hindoo immorality,” a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to reexamine their own traditions. A movement arose advocating the banning of courtesans, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.

Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about both the role of the erotic in pre-modern Hinduism and India’s history of sexual sophistication. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian AIDS crisis a few years ago, the health minister of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed that “India’s native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms.”

Dalrymple traces this history partly to explain the prudishness of modern right-wing Hindu reformers. We will argue that their militancy can also be attributed to a similar process.

This is the essence of the story of India and its interactions with outsiders – how Muslims became Indians absorbed by the openness and informality of Hinduism; and how Indian elites (both Hindu and Muslim) became quasi-English impressed by the superiority of science and rationality.

This was also how Hinduism began to doubt its strengths and started to remake itself in the image of another faith. The details have to await the next post which will then set up an explanation for how two streams, Hindu and Muslim, merged into an Indianness only to diverge again with tragic consequences.

To be continued…

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