Women in villages of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh talk to Lounge about navigating sexual desire and seeking pleasure amidst prejudices of gender, caste and class
The first time S had sex was with her husband, she was 17, her husband 25. They were dairy farmers in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. They had two children in the first five years of marriage. The sex was fine. Not great, but at least she was getting it. Then the husband started drinking, and drinking more. The relationship weakened, and the frequency of sex waned. He was inebriated most of the time, and hardly in the mood. S wanted love, but she also wanted sex.
She told him her body was “burning with desire". He said, “Have some shame. You have two children now. Who is putting these thoughts in your head? Koi yaar hai kya? (Do you have a lover?)." She stopped asking. She continued working on their field, raising the children, tending the cattle, and selling milk. Her husband grew unwell.
A relative of her husband’s started helping out: taking the husband to the hospital, buying medicines, even paying the bills occasionally. S felt a growing attraction to him. He was married as well. They fell in love. Sex happened. With her husband, sex had seemed like a task. Now it was different. “It was just like in the movies," she says, thinking back to the affair (S was 33 at the time; she is 36 now). “We removed all our clothes. We looked at each other’s bodies. We spent 2-3 hours in bed every time we did it. It wasn’t like performing a job. It felt like sex."
She could tell him what she wanted in bed. He told her what he wanted. The villagers saw them giggling together; sometimes they were caught walking too close to one another. People started talking. But the husband was bedridden. The village knew he couldn’t perform sexually. No one said anything. The gossip stopped—as if granting tacit approval to her need for physical satisfaction. S’s husband died two years ago. She is now in a relationship with a different man, 14 years her junior.
“When we talk about the stomach’s craving for food, why do we pretend there is no shareer ki bhook (physical desire)?" says S. “You need someone who can satisfy you mentally and physically. A woman’s life is not only about working in the fields, inside the house, eating two meals, and then at the end of the day lying down like a log of wood. Mujhe zaroorat hai abhi…kya karun? (I have needs too. What am I to do?) Sex is also an important part of our lives. It invigorates the mind, invigorates life. Even if some of us live in denial."
Sex, sexuality, desire, sexual needs—particularly those of women—are not topics that make for easy conversation in a country that seems to believe in sexually regulating one half of its population more than the other. Yet behind the closed doors of homes in the heart of our rural idyll lie undiscovered stories of female desire.
This is backed by the Union government’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), published in December. The survey has a number of findings. Compared to urban women, rural women have sex earlier in life (urban women begin having sex almost two years later than rural women); the frequency of sex is higher; and they have more sexual partners in their lifetime.
While the number of women we met for this story is hardly representative of how rural women navigate desire, we found, repeatedly amongst the women we talked to, a discernible openness around sexuality, and the acceptance of desire as a basic need.
Brinjals and belans
In the village of Charan, a few miles from S’s home, a group of women sit together, laughing about a recent incident. An unmarried woman, in her late 20s, was sexually aroused, but didn’t want to “commit a sin" by sleeping with a man. She tried to pleasure herself by inserting a stone pestle used to ground spices into her vagina. She confided in a neighbour, who immediately told others. “Usay araam mila, magar gaon hansta raha (She felt better, but the village ridiculed her)," says P, a 32-year-old farmer. The ladies have a host of ribald anecdotes. Another woman inserted a long green brinjal in her vagina, the stem broke off with the vegetable still inside her. She had to be taken to hospital. The whole village came to know of it.
But in this group, sympathies lie firmly with the women. “Ichchha aayi toh kya karey koi? Itni takleef hoti hai (What is one to do when overcome with desire? It’s so frustrating)", says 43-year-old A. A says the women of the village have age-old solutions to deal with ardour. One solution involves massaging the vaginal area with coconut oil to “cool it off".
Conversations around ichchha (desire) are so normalized in these villages that people discuss what someone did, rather than why they did it. All of the following instances occurred in Maharashtra, in the past year. There is a story of a woman who left her husband because he worked at night, and expected her to make love during the day. Another woman left her husband because “he wanted too much sex and too often". Another did not like her husband asking for anything other than peno-vaginal sex, so she publicly rebuked him, in front of her parents. In another case, a woman who had come to help her sister with childbirth, slept with her brother-in-law and became pregnant. The brother-in-law, the people of this village say, was a “nice man" because he married her too.
“It is very deeply understood in rural areas that sex is a basic need," says Archana Dwivedi, director of Delhi-based non-profit Nirantar: A Centre for Gender and Education. “From wherever they are getting or providing it, no one makes a big deal about it. Tell me one village where extramarital relations, or relationship with the jeeja (sister’s husband), devar (brother-in-law), sasur (father-in-law), aren’t rampant? Of course these relations could be both forced and consensual."
Nirantar conducted a workshop for three years, beginning 2005-06, where they brought together four organizations and tried to explore how rural women in north India perceive sexuality. One of their findings was that rural women are much more open about sexuality than urban women, despite differences across caste, class and religion. In one workshop, a group of rural women were asked to list sexual acts. Some 64 acts were listed, including fisting, inserting the penis in the armpit, or even something as simple as playing with the hair.
In another workshop, one woman said, “If I want to eat four rotis, and in my house I can only get three, I obviously have to go to the neighbour for the fourth." In another, a woman said, “Parday mai hi zarda banta hai (It is behind the veil that the real action happens)."
In Kokrud village in Sangli district, 36-year-old B has earned a reputation among the other women in her village for being gutsy. They call her “bohot daring". B lives in a joint family. Her husband, 11 years older than her, migrated to Mumbai within a month of their marriage. He visited twice a year, for four-five days at a time. While the husband was away in Mumbai, his nephew, the same age as B, tried to force himself on her. She resisted. But the next time he tried it, she let him. Soon she was enjoying the sex. The nephew tried new things—things that felt unnatural with her husband. “My husband used to turn me upside down, make me watch dirty movies, make me do dirty things using my mouth. I thought he was an animal," says B. Her husband is no more, but she still lives with his family, who know about her relationship with the nephew. They have been together for six years. The nephew is married now.
“In such situations, families think it is better if the woman gets involved with a man in the household," says Sangita Ananda Bhingardeve, who works with Sangram, a health and human rights NGO based in Sangli. “Ghar ki baat ghar mai hi rahegi (The matter will stay in the house). Even if they have kids, the kids will have the same bloodline."
Songs of separation
Male migration to the cities means the woman bears the sole responsibility for both family and domestic work. The desire and longing of the women left behind in the villages have long been a subject of both cinema and folk songs. A song in Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978), “Aap ki yaad ati rahi raat bhar (All night, I kept longing for you…)", is a tender expression of longing and desire of a couple living apart due to migration.
A folk song from eastern Uttar Pradesh goes like this: Ser gohunva baras din khaiban, baras din khaiban, Piya ke jaye na debayin ho Rakhaiben ankhiyan ke hajuravan, Piya ke jaye na debayin ho (One seer of wheat I will eat for one year, but I will not allow my husband to go. I will keep him before my eyes and will not let him go).
Yet while the husband is away, the loneliness of the bhabhi (sister-in-law), as several folk songs indicate, is sometimes addressed by the devar, the husband’s brother (typically younger). The newly-married woman turns to the devar for companionship. An academic paper, published in 2002, by Delhi University historian Charu Gupta established one reason why this might be: the wife chooses the devar because he is the only one in the household with whom she does not have a subservient relationship.
Researchers have even found that village life, in some settings, allows for freedom from boundaries and definitions concerning sexuality. Maya Sharma, a Vadodara-based feminist activist, found two women living together in a village. The people of the village referred to the couple as a miya-biwi-ki-jodi (husband and wife couple).
“There are very indirect and nuanced ways of expressing desire," says Sharma, who says she found several such cases during her field work in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. “Just them living together is an expression of affirmation through silence, without upsetting social structures. And I wouldn’t say people there don’t know exactly what is happening."
Women who might be called lesbians in urban settings because they are thick friends, pass off as “pakki saheliyan" in a rural setting. In instances where two women live together, some even admit, though not openly, to having physical relations.
While such associations in rural India are often ignored or forgiven, there are cases where too many people find out, or when certain lines are crossed. Punishment can then turn harsher than it would be in a city. Penalties include age-old forms of rural justice: parading women naked, or exiling them from their village.
A group of six women sitting outside Kokrud village in Sangli district recall an incident from about seven months ago. In the village of Islampur, in Ratnagiri district, a widow was banned from entering her village.
“Her mistake could not be accepted at all, not by the men in the family," says Y, a tailor working in Kokrud. It had been years since her husband died. When her belly became slightly protuberant, people started asking questions. Initially, she told people that she had a gaanth (knot) in her stomach and later stopped going out of the house. To keep the matter under wraps, she gave away her newborn to an orphanage.
Yet, the village did come to know of it. When the devar found out, he approached the panchayat. The panchayat asked her to pay a fine of ₹ 20,000. That wasn’t the end of it. The devar insisted the woman should never set foot in the village again. The woman now lives with relatives in a nearby village; her teenage daughters live with her in-laws.
A hierarchy of desire
It is inevitable that in a hierarchical society like India, the way sexuality is expressed by women is also dependent on the caste, religion, and class they belong to.
A great deal of Dalit literature points to how upper-caste men have for centuries exercised a sexual “right" over Dalit women when male members of these women’s families are in their employ. Yet only some of these relationships find high caste sanction. For example, an upper-caste married man can have a physical relationship with a Dalit woman, but an unmarried upper-caste man cannot, because he could potentially marry her.
Ketan Mehta’s 1987 Hindi film Mirch Masala, featuring Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah, vividly portrays the assumption of sexual availability of a low-caste woman for an upper-caste man. It also depicts the casualness with which village women talk about sex outside marriage. Throughout the film, Sonbai, a married woman played by Patil, asserts her sexual autonomy by refusing to succumb to a powerful male figure’s sexual demands, while the village women try to convince her to give in.
Yet, in a strange way, lower-caste women often have greater sexual agency than upper-caste women in the villages. Dalit women are forced by circumstance and occupation to be more mobile. They encounter more men on an everyday basis while working, and so the chances of them getting into relationships, physical or otherwise, are higher.
“Being a Dalit woman, their sexuality is not as controlled and restricted as upper-caste women," says Purnima Gupta, a senior fellow at Nirantar. “You will see in villages that it is the upper-caste women who wear ghoonghat (veil). Their men will always be around when you talk to them. Just like patriarchy, caste also decides a woman’s sexual freedom. Upper castes control a woman’s sexuality because they want to keep the bloodline pure," says Gupta.
Hunger and sexual desire are universal, visceral, primal. Perhaps this is why hunger has long been used as a metaphor for sex across cultures. These villages in the heart of India are no exception.
In Banda district in the Bundelkhand area of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the wedding season is in May-July and January-February. While marriage is the bride and groom’s big day, it is also a day for the village women to vent their frustrations with men, the enforcement of sexual regulation, and married life in general.
A few years ago men became so resentful that they went to the Khap panchayat trying to ban these songs. Women sing about coveting lower-caste men and imagine them as their grooms. That upsets men, because they think their women are questioning their virility.- Prem Chowdhry, gender researcher
On the day of a marriage, a tent is set up and women gather to perform behlaul. Behlaul happens in the bridegroom’s house after the baraat (groom’s party) has left. Two women sit back to back. Other women come and touch their breasts and other body parts; sometimes gesturing with a rolling pin (belan). An older woman acts as husband while a younger one plays the wife. “Tambuaaa taan tanay gori/Tambuaa taan tanay gori (the tent has been set, girl)," they sing. The role-playing goes on for about an hour, and the discussion can veer from subjects like pubic hair to the first night of marriage to detailed accounts of sex.
“The rural openness around sexuality is reflected in the songs they sing," says Prem Chowdhry, a Haryana-based gender researcher and the author of Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste And Patriarchy In Northern India. “A few years ago men became so resentful that they went to the Khap panchayat trying to ban these songs. Women sing about coveting lower-caste men and imagine them as their grooms. That upsets men, because they think their women are questioning their virility."
By the early 20th century, pulp fiction, semi-pornographic sex manuals, romances in colloquial Hindi, and Braj songs and poems were widely available in UP. Even today in markets in UP, you will easily find raunchy books, playing cards with images of sexual positions and naked women, and bioscopes with such photographs inserted between pictures of the Taj Mahal or Qutb Minar.
While women might have been reluctant to access such material out of fear of being seen, mobile phones have made things easier. Pornography is now downloaded online, or purchased from a kirana store (by men).
With hardly any access to sex education, navigating desire is a fraught enterprise. A lot of the women this reporter met spoke about watching porn after marriage mostly because their husbands wanted them to watch it along with them—as a way to legitimize desire. They watch desi porn, which they find easier to relate to and learn from.
Thirty-year-old M, from a small village on the border of UP and Madhya Pradesh, says women often don’t know exactly what they want in the early years of their sexual maturity. She was 17 when she got married, and got divorced after seven years. The sex was bad because there was often no consent, and also because she didn’t know her body too well. Now in her second marriage, she knows what she wants. “I don’t find anything ajeeb (strange) when two people are in bed," she says. “Everyone has their own way to get pleasure. Unfortunately, when it comes to sex, women are mostly left unsatisfied. Men come, they do it and leave. But if we know what our body wants, we can ask for it as well. But only if we know."
There is a 34 year-old woman in Mangle village in Sangli district who has made a wooden object, which looks a little like a rolling pin, but is thicker towards the edges. For several others, the fantasies involve men and not inanimate objects.
In a study conducted by Nirantar as part of the sexuality workshop, adolescent girls shared a colourful range of fantasies. One said she wanted to wear only her underclothes and fire bullets from a gun. Some girls simply wanted to cut their hair and walk around holding hands with male friends.
Then there is S. Her arms hurt from milking the cows everyday. Sometimes even the walk from the field to her home seems too long and lonely. Her clan doesn’t allow widows to remarry. But for her, to desire and to be desired are things she doesn’t need societal approval for. She says if she keeps worrying ki log kya kahenge (what will people say), who will worry about her? Two decades after the first time she had sex, it’s not the man alone who calls the shots in the bedroom. Sex is never over till S too has had an orgasm.