E-Pao! Opinions - "Gay" studies in Manipur -points to ponder

"Gay" studies in Manipur -points to ponder

By: T Deepa Manjuri *

From once a completely neglected area, gender studies are becoming popular day by day. Motivated by an article in The Sangai Express (Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004) on 'Gay (Homo) in Manipur' by a student of gender, I sat down to share with the readers some of the theoretical understandings that I have, regarding 'gender' studies in general and 'gay' research (in Manipur) in particular.

I would like to present my ideas one by one so that the reader does not get confused on what I am driving at.

In spite of society's (read "patriarchal" if you are a feminist) effort to control the sexuality of its members (especially that of a female) by laying down rules and regulations (both implicit and explicit) through SOCIALIZATION, the process is never cent percent successful in all societies. The so-call phenomenon 'homosexuality' seems to exist both in the societies of the past as well as the present - with ONE difference though.

At present, Americanisation of the world culture has resulted in its becoming more 'pronounced' and 'vocal' than before. It has become almost 'fashionable' to 'label' same-sex relationships as either 'gays' or 'lesbians'. According to Simone de Bouvoir, (The Second Sex 1997) the so-call "lesbian" relationships are very much like the 'normal' relationships. (Although she was completely devoted to her companion Sartre, driving for him, typing his manuscripts, even arranging girls for him, Bouvoir also admitted of having some 'intimate' relationships with her girl students). Following Bouvoir, we can then say that such relationships are 'homosexual' only in part and are just a reproduction of the 'heterosexual' relations.

Along with the increasing popularity of 'gay'/ 'lesbian' literatures, we also find 'theories' which claim to have explained why there exist 'homophobia'. One very popular theory is that the relationship is not 'productive', and is a danger to the species. Because of this, people have an instinctive tendency to avoid it. Hence, society also forms rules ignoring its existence (or, is it that the society sees no need to control the 'unproductive' side of sexuality?).

Shophisticated terminologies and local reality:
In gender research, we find that some students, in their effort to apply the sophisticated terminologies in empirical studies often push to the background the real meaning and the relevance of a term, in the context of the culture, where the term is in use. For instance, the term 'homo' as is used in Manipur has a derogatory meaning. It is used to drive home an insult, directed at a man (in most cases) or a woman (in rare cases), by questioning his / her sexual identity ('masculinity'/ 'feminity'). It is used more in the sense of 'queer' than indicate his/her sexual preference.

One should be very cautious while applying these terminologies in the context of Manipuri culture and society. One should not ignore the traditional mechanisms that the society has for dealing with these things. The Manipuri society has assigned a religious role to the transvestites through the institution of 'maibi' (traditional priestess) and 'maiba'(traditional priest). I am not saying that all maibas or maibis are transvestites, but that transvestites are also given a place and a socially acceptable role within these traditional institutions.

Again, one will be completely misplaced if all the nupishabis ('pretending to be girls' is the literal meaning, but I am using it to mean 'men playing the roles of women in staged plays') in shumang lilas (plays mostly staged at courtyard or any other open spaces) are branded as 'gays'. We should not forget that these nupishabis are artistes who enact the role of women in plays, perform by all-men theatre groups. You will find many of them leading a straight life with wife, children and all. The recent introduction of Maanja Competition should not blind us to the existence of all-men and all-women theatre groups (where the artistes have to enact the role of the opposite sex) since long time back.

Categories of the so-called 'gays':
One has to keep in mind the different categories of people having 'unusual' sexual preference. There are men /women who have all the qualities that the society define as 'masculine'/ 'feminine' except in their sexual preference - they prefer their own sex (gays / lesbians). Some men want to dress like women (queens). However, it is difficult to determine their exact sexual preference.

If such men are deriving sexual pleasures from just dressing in women's clothes, they are transvestites.

There are the transsexuals who have the physical characteristics of one sex and an overwhelming psychological identification with the other. They are not comfortable with their own sex and some of them even go to the extent of undergoing surgical sex change, while others try to pass off as a member of the other sex. It is more like a boy 'trapped' in a girl's body or that of a girl trapped in a boy's body. One might recall the main protagonist of the movie, Boys Don't Cry, where Hillary Swank played the girl who passed off as a boy. The discovery that 'he' was in fact a 'she' resulted in a tragic end of her life (a depiction that shows how dangerous the crossing can be sometimes). Again, there are those cases where a person may be neither male nor female as per a layman's knowledge. Scientifically, that is to say in terms of a positivist discourse, these are explained in terms of hormonal imbalance, genetics, etc. In India, some of them are socially recognized as eunuchs, the 'hijra'. These physical differences may be something a person is born with or artificially induced (for instance, castration was induced as a punishment in earlier days). Historical novels, especially those dealing with the rajas and maharajas of Ancient India are full of accounts of eunuchs, some of whom were employed as door-guards to the private chambers of the harems, possibly in the expectation that they would not constitute a threat.

Among the hijras of North India, some have male while others have female partners. It is generally assumed that the hijras have a sexual orientation towards men only. This had resulted in a serious crisis in a women's jail in India very recently when some of them had reportedly raped their inmates. After that incident, the jail authorities realized the mistake and appointed some elderly people from among the hijra community, mausis, to assist the state in determining their allocation in terms of men's jail or women's jail.

Different facets of same-sex relationships:
I would like to emphasis the point that a more thorough research is in need before we arrive into any conclusion when it comes to studies on same-sex relationships in our society. 'Gay', 'lesbian', etc. are terms that are very much western in origin (with great political overtone), and that give weight more to the sexual side ignoring the other sides of same-sex relationships.

For instance, if you are studying the same-sex relationships in Manipur, will you ignore the age old practice of ita-shanaba and itao or marup shanaba (friendship) in the state (which sometimes crosses the boundaries of geography, culture, religion, and community?) I don't think so.

Different environments support different lives. If you take a plant of sweet grapes from Delhi and plant it in Manipur, it will never bear grapes with the same sweetness - instead the grapes will be sour; the soil is not just right for it. Similarly, let us plant these 'terminologies' in our cultural soil - but lets leave them for a moment to adjust to the new environment. We will know how well they have adjusted only after they start bearing fruits.

I will give another example in order to clarify my point in this connection. In an all-girls school, we often come across cases where girls develop feelings of admiration for some of their schoolmates and they sometimes express these feelings in the form of letters and all. But will you brand them all as "lesbians"? Certainly not I guess! But if you ask a westerner (preferably an American), he or she will say, " Yeah, of course!" Here lies the difference.

Manjushri Chaki- Sircar, in her book, Feminism in a Traditional Society (1984,Delhi, Shakti Books) came to the conclusion that 'lesbianism' is casually accepted among the people of Manipur. She arrived to this observation after she saw many women sharing intimate relationships among themselves, even to the point of excluding their men in some cases. But one thing Sircar failed to explain (which I feel) is that she did not go into the length of discovering whether they have actual sexual (physical) relationships or not. Without that qualification, it will be wrong to call their relationships 'lesbian'. Sircar's work, otherwise, is a wonderful piece of serious Anthropological research. Armed with highly efficient terminologies and looking from the western Anthropological perspective, she saw them in that light only. But, there are always an insider's view as well as an outsider's view - we are "insiders" - we can not just 'know' but 'feel', 'practise' as well as 'experience' the real culture-specific behaviour of the people around us in our day to day life existence. We should not let one view prevail at the cost of the other.

I would like to conclude this discussion by drawing attention once more to the 'discriminate' use of terminologies, and also to stop ignoring the local realities so that we have access to what is really happening within the cultural context of the society we are studying.

T Deepa Manjuri, is a PhD student in the prestigious Delhi School of Economics, Department of Sociology and she writes for the second time for
You can contact her at

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