Lesbian women: The victims of domestic violence we don't want to talk about

'The violence is rooted in patriarchy. When women like other women, men take it as a personal insult to their manhood.'
Lesbian women: The victims of domestic violence we don't want to talk about
Lesbian women: The victims of domestic violence we don't want to talk about

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Domestic violence: the thing that happens in every family except our own. In a country that’s slowly beginning to talk about violence against women and gender based violence, domestic violence is still a contentious subject. And while legally, it covers abuse by any male member of the family or household, lesbian and bisexual women, and trans men, are pretty much absent from the conversation.

“Lesbian and bisexual women cannot reveal their identity to anyone, and this invisibility is one of the biggest forms of violence they face,” says G Sankari, founder of Nirangal, an NGO that works with the LGBTQ+ community in Tamil Nadu. “Around the age of 13, when young girls start experiencing same sex attraction, and are in a confused and vulnerable state, they have no one to talk to. In a country where even boys cannot speak to their parents about sex and sexuality, it is impossible for girls to even think about approaching them.”

But it’s when young women come out to their families, either by telling them directly or by eloping with their girlfriends, that the violence escalates. Forced into marriages in a society where all women have little say in the matter, lesbian and bisexual women are also vulnerable to quacks and fake counsellors who convince their parents that their sexuality can be changed. “Many of these doctors prescribe hormones to the women. While they obviously have no effect on their sexuality, these women face a lot of side effects because of this,” says Sankari. In many cases, parents take their daughters to psychiatrists, who even prescribe ECT (shock treatment) to “cure” them.

In extreme cases, Sankari says, they even resort to murder (‘honour’ killing), and lie to their friends and neighbours that the girl eloped with a stranger (man).

For women who want to escape the violence at home, there is little legal recourse available. While Section 377 of IPC is still in the law books, any ‘unnatural’ sexual activity is considered criminal. Same sex couples are afraid of approaching the police to complain against their parents, as the case can just as easily be turned on them.

But while 377 is only one legal hurdle, and the Domestic Violence Act can technically be used against abusive parents, siblings and relatives, women shy away from complaining about their family. “By and large, the LGBTQ+ community tries to tackle issues by getting help from friends. Women in general don’t want to drag their families to court, and while resentment is high, lesbian and bisexual women are no different when it comes to official complaints,” says Sudha Ramalingam, a lawyer who works closely with the LGBTQ+ community in Chennai.

On the other hand, parents frequently use law to separate their adult daughters from their girlfriends. They accuse their daughters’ girlfriends of wrongful restraint and confinement (Section 339 and 340) and abduction (Section 362), and use Habeas Corpus as a tool to drag them to bring them out of hiding.

In a 2012 paper titled “Queer Women and Habeas Corpus in India: The Love that Blinds the Law” published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, authors Ponni Arasu and Priya Thangarajah detail how the writ is used in cases involving lesbian women in India. Parents usually assert that their daughter was abducted by her girlfriend, and courts rarely have a clear idea of the exact nature of the women’s relationships. They’re usually referred to as “friends” by the lawyers supporting the women, since any mention of a romantic or sexual relationship can expose them to prosecution under Section 377. Although until 2013, when the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed, lesbians couldn’t technically be prosecuted under Section 377, the law has been used to harass them and drag them to court plenty of times.

Some women do escape their families to create a life for themselves. In Chennai, the LGBTQ+ community helped a woman go abroad to live with her partner, without the knowledge of her family. But for many others, this is not an option. “Many lesbian couples make suicide pacts because they cannot face the violence any more. Many more give in to the demands of their families and get married, have children and live a lie. Many face “corrective rape” as a punishment for being lesbian,” says Sankari.

“Obviously, there are no numbers,” says Sudha Ramalingam. “Everything happens under the carpet, and we have no way of knowing the extent of the violence faced by them.”

While there are helplines and services available for women who want to leave their families, unless there’s more awareness, they cannot do much. “In many cases, women realise their sexuality after they get married and have children. They tell us they did not know enough to realise it when they were young, or they could have avoided marriage somehow. We need a comprehensive gender and sexuality curriculum at the school level if we want to tackle violence against lesbian and bisexual women, and indeed the entire LGBTQ+ community,” says Sankari.

But even that is not enough to completely address the issue. “The root of this violence is patriarchy. When women say they like other women, men take it as a personal insult to their manhood. We need education, but we also need to smash the patriarchy and ensure rights for all women, in order for LGBTQ+ women to be safe,” says Sankari.

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