More or Less Equal: Reflections on Freedom

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The Indian Constitution declares that all Indians are granted the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. On Independence Day, Shaleen Rakesh explores what freedom means for young Indians struggling to express their sexuality:

I am at the barber’s shop, and reflecting on the sensual quality of something as practical as having a haircut in Delhi. The guy is massaging my scalp, it is highly tactile, and I am instantly aware of it. In India, there seems to be an unconsciousness around the body – you don’t have personal space, people do not think it wrong to crowd close together, to touch one another. In buses and the metro, you become aware of a very close and mostly unselfconscious proximity.

This unconsciousness of certain aspects of anatomy and gender and the way you are in public is a paradox – in some ways India is a tolerant society, since it recognizes homo-affective and homosocial relationships. As far as sexual behaviour is concerned, India can be very accommodating, but it becomes very intolerant and homophobic when it comes to a question of identity.

It seems like a constant partition of freedoms. You are free to do what you want but not express freely who you are.

There is a need to make sexuality more visible and to voice issues around sexuality more publicly without stigma and shame. People who are straight also feel sexuality is silenced in India: they are victims of a similar oppression. The objective of breaking silence is to look at the issue from a cultural point of view.

When I’m still waiting for my shampoo, three or four young guys walk in. One of them is dark-complexioned and is looking at himself very intently in the mirror. His friends start pulling his leg: “Dude, what a fabulous complexion you have! How come you don’t have a girlfriend?” The boy was obviously embarrassed about being dark and being teased publicly but couldn’t find the words to retaliate and offered an embarrassed smile. His friends were laughing.

Soon the friendly banter started recounting failed sexual overtures with girls. I thought the young guys, in their talking and making fun of their own sexual feats – or lack of them – there was a great irony at the core, and a certain sadness also. I felt sorry for them for a moment, thinking, why do they need to be in this place where the only way they can articulate some of their frustrations is in the form of a joke? I identified with it. At 19, I felt oppressed about my own sexuality. Of course, I couldn’t even talk about it in barber shops. I still can’t actually. Invisibility and silence are the problem we share.

As I walk out of the barber shop, I realize how conflicted and bottled up most Indians are when it comes to talking about sexuality. It’s a cultural prison most of us find difficult to step out of.


The author, Shaleen Rakesh, is Director: Technical Support, India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

India HIV/AIDS Alliance (Alliance India) is a diverse partnership that brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, Alliance India works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.

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