A queer teacher and theorist, Madhavi Menon’s latest book, The Law of Desire, delves into the enigmas and paradoxes of Indian court rulings on gender, sex and sexuality. By Khushbu Kirti
What inspired you to write The Law of Desire?
The Law of Desire is a book about the law written from the perspective of gender and sexuality. It examines four different terms the law uses to describe desire – criminal, immoral, obscene and unnatural – and examines the stories that have accumulated around the use of these terms. I have always been interested in law, and I would sometimes consider it a missed vocation! I am fascinated by how the law – like literature – requires the ability to read and analyze texts. When I wrote a chapter on “law” in my previous book, Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger 2018), I had plenty of thoughts I wanted to explore; so this book.
What is the meaning of the title “The Law of Desire”?
As in my previous book, I also wanted to have the word ‘desire’ in the title of this one. And the actual title – The Law of Desire – was taken from Pedro Almodóvar’s brilliant 1987 film of the same name. I hope my text can achieve even one millionth of the brightness of Almodóvar’s film!
What is the purpose of talking about the tangled relationship between law and sexuality?
We don’t often stop to reflect on the active role the law plays in our daily lives. When we think of the law, we tend to think of a court case, trouble with the police, or some such unusual occurrence. But the law shapes who we are, how we behave, and what options we have in the world. It has a particularly deep and insidious force in relation to desire. We view desire as a deeply private feeling, but it is actively shaped by public considerations. I wanted to lay bare some of these considerations in this book.
“No one knows what fundamental rights have to do with gender in the first place…” Please elaborate.
Where does this quote come from? Not from this book. But as I point out in The Law of Desire, several fundamental rights — to exercise one’s profession, to reside where one wishes, freedom of expression, freedom of religion — are all restricted for women. Because women are burdened with the symbolic expectation of upholding the honor of family and nation, their rights are the first to be nullified when that honor is assumed to be in question. This is a widespread phenomenon that results in greater legal control over what women can do with their bodies and their desires.
We keep hearing obscene comments from MPs, comparing the woman to a flower and a mithai, and how a man is innocent, and the rape was just a mistake. It’s not just the objectification of women, but marital rape is still not considered a crime. Do you want to weigh in?
Over the past eight years, we have witnessed a great valorization of masculinity in India. Women have always been mistreated here — as they are everywhere — but in recent years that treatment has been actively aided and abetted by an official structure that values machoness. Whether it’s the description of rape victims as zinda laash (living corpse) or the all-male mobs running amok in parts of northern India, aggressive masculinity is seen as the norm and praised as such. . In such a climate, it is inevitable that women will experience more violence, and that is what we see.
The issue of marital rape brings me back to my earlier answer about women as keepers of ‘honour’. The Indian government claims that criminalizing marital rape will weaken the institution of marriage, which it further describes as an age-old “Indian” tradition. Thus, in order to protect a supposedly ancient Indian tradition, women’s safety and happiness may be sacrificed. There is no attempt to portray resistance to marital rape as anything other than protecting men’s rights to be violent and abusive. It’s sad. But the matter is now being heard in the Delhi High Court, so let’s hope for a healthy, less patriarchal outcome that meets the current dispensation.
The “Me Too” movement has been one of the most groundbreaking and successful movements of modern times when it comes down to victims fighting back. Do you agree?
The law needs to be addressed and structurally changed to address issues of patriarchy and male paranoia. While #MeToo was an important social phenomenon, it hasn’t brought about the kind of systematic legal and bureaucratic changes we need. Courts need to look more closely at what counts as evidence in cases of sexual harassment and rape, for example. Internal complaints committees should be set up in each organization. Employment laws, rape laws, inheritance laws all need to be refined to ensure a level playing field for women. It would also be good to see, for starters, a less horrendous gender imbalance of justices than we have on the Supreme Court – currently there are only four women out of a total of 32 justices. The fight against patriarchy is a complex and nuanced battle and it must be fought with consistency.
You mentioned, Sita as the bearer of ‘Shame’…wars have always been fought to protect ‘woman’s honour’, from Helen to Draupadi. If ancient epics are what people revere, how do you suggest worshipers should beat that thought process? Does education help change it?
If education is, as it should be, a process of asking questions and challenging the status quo, then yes, it will enable people to think critically about the world they live in rather than blindly following someone else’s footsteps. But if education is reduced to a matter of getting top marks and regurgitating the “right” answer, that only increases the investment in never questioning what you are told. Repeated valorization of “old times” in India seems to go hand in hand with increased misogyny and patriarchy. We need to encourage people to rethink their critical thinking.
While awareness is a way to make people see the truth that has always been brushed aside, what else do you suggest to get people to see things from a different perspective?
It’s always funny when people who question the status quo are told they’re going “too far”. Who decides how far and no further? “Too far” is always a patriarchal defense when neither logic nor rationality can be taken into account. Laughter would be a good response to this particular bit of punishment. As for fairy tales, like any literary work, they are hotbeds of ideological struggle. There is nothing innocent about them, and as such they are fair game for political dissent.