Mainstreaming The Invisible Feminist Realities
Dr. Pragati Singh (@Dr.PragatiSingh), Delhi, India
In 2019, I was invited by the BBC to speak at the 100 women conference in Delhi, India, on the subject of ‘The future of love, relationships, and families.’ The audience seated in the large hall consisted mostly of young Indians- college students, professionals, activists etc.
I believe that the only way to start considering a future is to first firmly ground ourselves in our current realities.
And so, I started the talk with a ‘thought energiser’.
“I will speak out 7 terms interspersed with pauses, and I’d like you to observe the mental image each conjures up in your mind’s eye. You may close your eyes now. Ready?”, I started.
- A flying elephant
- An intimate relationship
- A romantic date
- An ideal family
“Tell me, what did the flying elephant look like? Did anyone see one with giant floppy ears?”
I simultaneously showed them the first page that turns up on a Google search of the same term. There was a gasp of surprise when the screen was tiled with images of Dumbo, exactly how everyone had pictured.
“Did love look like a red heart for any of us?”
Again, a roar of agreement and surprise across the hall when I showed them the Google results.
“What came up with ‘intimate relationship’? Was it a man and a woman in a romantic warm embrace?”
“Did your idea of a romantic date look as corny as this too?”
Google’s idea of a romantic date: a handsome man sitting across a table from a beautiful woman, against a sunset. Some rose petals and some candles next to the wine glasses. The hall echoed with embarrassed laughter.
“And is this what the marriage looked like?”
“Was the ideal family possibly one with a husband and a wife with their two kids, one boy, one girl? Well, guess what?!”
“Anyone want to share what came up with the word sex? Genitalia? Penetration?”
The hall went quiet. In anticipation of the next slide there were muffled chuckles which broke into laughter, hooting, and claps, when I clarified that I wasn’t going to show the Google results for that one.
But what else is Google if not a mirror to our ‘groupthink’? That we all, Google included, seemed to imagine the same images isn’t really that surprising. Most of us will realize quickly that our first instinctive images are stereotyped, cliche, and limited.
Some of us might have long moved on from heteronormative and traditional ideas of love and marriage. And yet something seems to have stopped us from mainstreaming the feminist realities that are further nuanced. Including, but not limited to, those acknowledging that:
- A committed monogamous intimate relationship doesn’t have to be a romantic one.
- Or that a romantic date can include 3 people, all fully legal parents of the same child.
- Or that the happiest marriages can be those that were never consummated and involve no sexual intimacy ever.
- Or that sexual liberation can include celebrating lifelong ‘virginity’.
These feminist realities have existed in parallel to traditional heteronormative realities throughout history, are amongst us today, and in a feminist future, are going to command a larger seat at the table. These are models that challenge the romanticization of the singular ‘ideal’ template and, without attempting to replace it, ask us to make space for plurality.
My friend David co-parents Octavia with two of his friends in California, one of the few places across the world where it is now sanctioned by the state.
Each of the three are equal legal parents to the now 2 year old in every capacity. Their biggest challenge? Three sets of American grandparents, and only two sets of American annual holidays.
Such legalization forms part of a growing movement across many nations today. The ancient African proverb goes: It takes a village to raise a child. Multi-parent families challenge the notion that a couple, man and woman, is the most optimal parenting unit for a child.
In fact, is ‘a couple’ even really the most optimal unit of relationships?
"In the long sweep of human history, the nuclear family will probably be seen as a very brief aberration...”, Ernest Callenbach contends.
Traditionally defined as a couple along with their children, ‘nuclear’ families became the norm with industrialization, with the term first being coined only in the 20th century.
My 26 year old Indian friend is in a healthy relationship with two men. She might not care for its legal recognition, but she wishes that the option was available.
Polyamory refers to the ability of loving more than one person at a time, with the consent of all involved partners. Multiple studies in the US, UK, & Canada make it abundantly clear that various forms of *ethical* non-monogamy are on the rise.
Polyamory counters the central idea of ‘The One’, the soulmate, upon which the romanticization of the contemporary monogamous love is built. And while polyamory certainly isn’t everyone’s ideal, it raises a valid question for all of us: Is it fair to expect one partner to be able to fulfill all our needs, from those of security and stability, to those of adventure and mystery?
If you’d ask Dr. Paul Dolan, he’d say, “...if you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.”
He writes this based on a research study that found that the healthiest and happiest population subgroup globally were women who never married or had children. One might want to tread carefully with sweeping conclusions as that one, but even so, it’s worth pondering over if the institution of marriage benefits genders disproportionately.
One of my friends lives this feminist reality: An average Indian woman, who at about 30 years of age, actively decided to stay single. Twenty years later, she remains married, child, and regret free.
Compared to 2001, the 2011 Indian census recorded a 68% increase in the ranks of the ‘never-married woman’ in the age group of 35-44 years. Note this against the 27% overall increase in that population sub-group over the same period.
Singlehood, when chosen by women such as my friend, challenges the narrative that urges especially women to seek fulfilment through marriage. In fact, it challenges the very notion that everyone has a need to be partnered.
Anyone who’s ever used Tinder knows that sex and intimacy don’t always belong in the same chat window, much less the same room or person.
Marital relationships were initially designed to be a legal and social establishment, that allowed sex and child rearing. Soon, they became highly entangled with the idea of love, romance, and intimacy, which is where they’ve largely stayed put.
And so when I say that it is possible to have a committed, monogamous, loving relationship without romance or sex, it doesn’t immediately make sense. And if I say that to some, this is desirable, it makes absolutely none.
My friend Jay, a young Indian woman, tells me that her intimate relationships have always been romantic, deep, committed, loving, AND non-sexual.
But here’s the thing: if you google ‘sexless relationships’, you’ll see something like this.
I’m here to tell you that this too is the face of many non-sexual relationships.
We seem to have grown up believing that there’s only this one universally favourite cake recipe. It is assumed that for the ‘ideal’ cake, we all have to:
- Take 2 units of people,
- and bake a base of platonic love.
- Add an even layer of romance, as frosting,
- and sprinkle it with a generous topping of sex.
I’m asking you to consider that this cake could vary in its structure for different people. Maybe some don’t like the frosting or the sprinkles at all. I’m here to propose that the platonic base can be the tastiest cake ever, in itself, for some of us. That this cake isn’t necessarily *lacking* anything, too, is a feminist reality.
Such non-sexual and non-romantic, albeit fulfilling relationships challenge the assumed hierarchy between platonic, romantic, and sexual intimacies.
Multiple studies show that millennials are having less sex than any preceding generations did. Remember the ‘Sex is cool but have you ever…’ memes?
These ‘choices’ are, however, not equally accessible to all of us.
For the last 6 years, I’ve been fostering a space for a largely forgotten minority within minorities: The asexual and non-sexual people. Something that I started with a simple Facebook page, called Indian Aces, that has today grown into a larger movement, involved in advocacy, research, awareness campaigns, workshops, and community building.
In some cultures, the burden of the asexual and non-sexual ‘condition’ might fall equally across genders. But in contexts such as that of India, which is largely patriarchal, where sex education is minimal, where women live with such low bodily autonomy, where arranged marriages are the norm, where childbirth is an obvious expectation, and where marital rape is not recognized as rape, this burden is largely skewed.
What happens to these women, when we offer them only one ‘acceptable’ template of adult relationships and family? What happens when they are caught between a culture that’s pushing them towards sexual assault and a feminism that is blind to their existence?
They desperately write to what was only a semi- active Facebook page in 2014, telling their stories, hoping to be saved. They share that they’re planning to run away from their homes, that they’re depressed and suicidal, that they’re terrified of being raped by the man their family is trying to marry them to, and they share the poems they wrote, after the first time they were violated.
The feminist reality is one where having a relationship is not the only way for a woman to gain identity; where having a child is not the only way to feel fulfilled. The feminist reality is one where free sex is not the only way to feel sexually liberated and where we can acknowledge that virgin-shaming is as real, pervasive, and harmful as slut-shaming.
And a feminist future is one where the stories those women shared, cease to occur.
“Angels go out at night too”
Chloé Luu (@Electrichildren), France
Pictures of angels in my life, just some women and non-binary people of color hanging out, taking care of themselves and expressing love to each other. It's these simplest moments that are the most empowering.