Let's talk sex: Malayali women are using Clubhouse to break taboos

From female sexuality to masturbation and breaking taboos about women discussing sex, the Clubhouse rooms hosted by these women have generated a lot of social media debates.
Man and woman hugging with man's back facing camera and woman's hands around his neck
Man and woman hugging with man's back facing camera and woman's hands around his neck
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It was around 2 am on June 20, when the majority of people in India were in deep sleep, but a group of Malayalis on Clubhouse, the popular social media app that allows voice conversations, was engrossed in a discussion with more than 4,000 attendees. The discussion was on ‘healthy sex life and women’s satisfaction’, moderated by Kafeela Parvin, Shaheeba VK, Wafa Hussain and Mahafoosa who met through the social media app at the beginning of the month. They have been instrumental in creating discourses around female sexuality, masturbation, marriage, dowry and higher education. “We would like to identify ourselves as four Muslim women who came together when we felt that women’s perspectives have to be heard in Clubhouse,” says Kafeela, a content writer from Kodungaloor.

In their initial days on Clubhouse, they used to spend hours on different groups with the intention of bringing awareness on gender inclusivity and women's empowerment. Language instructor Shaheeba, based in Malappuram, divulges, “A lot of toxicity is being spread about feminism and gender on the platform. I noticed Wafa and the rest being muted and at times removed from the speakers' panel when they tried to explain what feminism is, with substance. We share the same thoughts, and that’s when we decided to start one for women with democratic rules.”

While scholars and authors like Canadian Indologist Robin Jeffrey celebrate Kerala as a plural society and say that the ‘Kerala Model’ should be followed for its progressive thoughts on gender equality, Malayalis have always had conservative views about Kerala women and their idea of femininity. Post the '90s in India, globalisation, economic liberalisation and its impact created a cultural transformation from ‘No to Yes’ for public displays of affection in many places. However, Kerala continued to strongly uphold its rigid social conditioning and formative sexual thoughts. The ugly truth was clearly echoed during the 'Kiss of Love' protest against moral policing and the discussions that developed alongside it. The gender paradox prevailing in the state with a history of matrilineal social structure in many communities, the highest female literacy in the country and a better sex ratio, lowest infant mortality, came as a surprise to many outside Kerala.

Mahfoosa, Wafa, Kafeela and Shaheeba

Filmmaker and feminist Kunjila Mascillamani started conversations on Clubhouse with the title 'Anungal alathavar mindum' (Those other than men will talk),  when she found that men were consistently interrupting when women spoke. “During my preliminary days on Clubhouse, even in the groups which I was moderating, I wasn’t able to talk. It reminded me of the studies on men barging in while women talk in workplaces as it is considered normal and natural. I wanted to create a space where a gender beyond men can talk,” she says. The group has been hosting discussions on breaking social norms, gender disparity and sexuality where women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community actively participate.  

When Malayali women started talking on the app openly about their sexual needs, liberation and rights, screen recordings were shared across social media platforms. It created a hullaballoo among Malayalis and the app and its users were strongly criticised for "overrepresentation of sexual content on cyber space". Parallel groups to counter their perspectives and to criticise the idea of women talking openly about taboo topics, emerged. In these rooms, users mostly spoke on 'meninism', anti-feminism, male rights and a group even had a discussion on – ‘Men don't even have the freedom to put a title here’.  

On her third day on Clubhouse, Kannur native Mahafoosa had to attend a family function.  The screen recordings of the opinions that the marketing professional had shared on feminism and the headscarf, had already reached her relatives through social media platforms. “My relatives got a hot topic to talk about during the housewarming ceremony and I was the subject. As I have fought and gained my freedom at home, post-divorce, they don’t really interfere in my life now. So things are cool,” laughs Mahafoosa.

Shaheeba’s husband’s friends and peer group too received recordings of her various Clubhouse discussions. “The only question they ask me now is, ‘Why can’t you speak about anything other than SEX?’ Until today, their complaint was that I always speak about politics,” she quips.

Though women have excelled in every professional field, they are still expected to conform to their domestic roles, glorifying their ‘nurturing capacity’. Even the mainstream media celebrates this, and mostly features women in the lifestyle sections which predominantly focus on beauty, home and fashion. So, on Clubhouse, when women became vocal about the intellectual and profound topics which were said to be men’s forte, many sensed the changing power dynamics. This created discomfort, anxiety and confusion, the common symptoms of cultural shock that happens when an individual is suddenly transplanted to an environment that is different from their comfort zone. It is visible not only on Clubhouse but also in the inboxes of the speakers on their other social media platforms.

Journalist Wafa from Kozhikode joined Clubhouse on June 8. While joining the app, she had 1,500 followers on Instagram and in just two weeks, it crossed 4,000. “Messages are flooding my inbox and every post has 20 to 30K reach. On June 20, while we were coordinating the discussion on female sexuality on Clubhouse, I was pinged, poked and even video called on Instagram. Some of the messages are sent with good intentions but the rest are from fake ids,” she says.

It isn’t just men who are feeling angry and frustrated on the ‘forbidden discourses’. “Women too are intimidated by our talks because for them, female sexuality is immaculate. So, the opposition was in different modes. Some join as speakers and howl while we talk and many outright express their anger. There is also a set of men, in the disguise of women, who join as speakers and they keep changing their profile pictures making statements like ‘Fake Rape Cases’ and ‘My Masturbation, My Choice’.   I removed my Instagram account information from Clubhouse soon after messages and calls started pouring in,” adds Kunjila.  

Applying the socio-semiotic theory to the current scenario, the  exchanges happening on Clubhouse can be considered as social meaning-making practices where codes of language and communication are formed. These shape individuals, relations of power and bring in change. Writer Gargi Harithakam is elated and has been thoroughly enjoying the debates on Clubhouse.  “This is historic. All this while, we were having distorted ideas on female sexuality.  There was no information on female pleasure. Our sexual queries weren’t ever addressed. The soft porn books available in local markets carry the so called wild and savage idea on sex and nothing from the perspective of women’s desire. It has a huge part to play in the construction and reinforcement of gender stereotypes,” she says.

Activist and former sex worker Nalini Jameela has been very vocal about female sexual liberation on Clubhouse. She says, “In a world where there is an unwritten rule that one shouldn’t even utter the word 'sex', I found this to be an interesting space to talk openly about it. I have been on Clubhouse for a month now. I was asked many kinds of questions and abused too. A lot of women are feeling empowered, some are realising that they can be sexually assertive. Clubhouse is a space where anyone can talk while being in their comfort zone. I also saw groups which talk about romance and desires after 40s, which is actually considered a non-existent category for sex and love. New femininities are on the rise,” she says.

Young women are sensibly utilising the possibilities and opportunities that the ‘window period’ of Clubhouse offers, Gender Studies researcher and academician Bindu K.C. from Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) observes. “During my growing up days, women were not allowed to appear in the public sphere without violence from society. For instance, even an ordinary act like singing on stage would be welcomed with booing and harassment.  It was so difficult for us  to bring out our voice in the public sphere. In spaces like Clubhouse, I notice with joy, that young women are able to claim their own space. That is a possibility opened up by the technology itself. This is because  groups can design their own rooms.  We must remember and never forget that this is a space also created by many generations of dedicated women who have been  fighting for all our rights for 50 or more long years. I would also look at platforms like Clubhouse as an educational space where young men now have a great chance to listen to the honest opinions of young women on issues they have never dared to discuss with each other before - like sexuality, desire etc.  This awareness, I hope, will lead to more democratic relationships. Everybody - men, women and non-normative genders - in this society suffer due to the silence and hypocrisy that surrounds  relationships." she says.

The frustration and outrage will eventually subside and the conversations will be normalised. The society may not have completely accepted and understood the new cultural cues but they will be more familiar and comfortable when women try to voice their opinion.

Marketing professional Antony Ozal George from Wayanad says, “My life was confined to my family and office. I have been a listener and moderator on Clubhouse and I feel many are using it creatively. Listening to the stories of women and their experiences was an eye-opener for me. I never looked at an issue standing in the shoes of a woman. I would definitely listen to sensible realities, irrespective of gender, henceforth.” 

Anjana George is an independent journalist, gender advocate, film critic and theatre enthusiast from the pristine valleys of Wayanad, Kerala. The former lecturer in Journalism at St Aloysius College, Mangaluru, has worked in various media including The Times of India, Deccan Chronicle and Radio Sarang. Her areas of interest are culture, gender, cinema, art, civic issues and lifestyle.

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