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Monologue: Lesbian Narratives from Bangladesh and West Bengal

Each story portrays the various challenges lesbians face in living lesbian lives, either secretly or in the open. The book gives the reader insight in
lesbian narratives from Bangladesh & West Bengal
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This anthology, edited by Minakshi Sanyal Malobika and Sumita Beethi, published by Sappho for Equality (October 2021), will feature at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (2023).  Forged in 2003, Sappho’s vision is to create a society that respects and ensures the lives of sexual minorities. “It addresses issues concerning gender-sexuality marginalised cis women, gender non-conforming persons assigned gender female at birth and trans masculine individuals in society and to broaden the struggle for social equality and human rights.” Sappho provides a safe space, offers peer support services, operates a helpline, runs counselling services and does crisis intervention work.

These twenty-two first person narratives of lesbian women from Bangladesh and India is the second anthology Sappho has published. Sappho published ‘Shame! Are you a ……!’ (2005);  Meenakshi Sanyal in her introduction notes: “the unspoken word in the title of the earlier publication is named…” marking the “emergence of a lesbian identity from a state of tortured unspeakability into confident articulation is indeed a symbolic coming of age.”  To name the stories as lesbian rather than queer highlights both the specificity of lesbian experiences, and “lesbian” is more used even in Bengali representing a hard-won recognition – Bangladeshi and women from West Bengal have “naturalized and indigenized the lesbian identity to come into their own.”  

“Monologue” opens space for women to speak about aspects of their lives they wish to share in a very direct, free-flowing and intimate way.  Each narrator, identified by country, profession and age has the anonymity to speak freely in their own idiom.  We hear from young women struggling to accept their same-sex desires and from older women comfortable in their choice of living as lesbians.  Rural women, government officials, teachers and college lecturers and other professional women poignantly reveal their past and present emotions, their aspirations, dreams, and ideas about how they want to organize and live their lives.  

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon (1840-1905).

Many reflect about the difficulty of understanding and then accepting their sexuality.  “I was attracted to females at an early age, had a crush on my school best friend…when I went to college, but she too married and took off.  I was totally demoralized…. I used to pray to Allah regularly, please cure me of these sinful thoughts….once my phone got internet access I started searching for such stuff and got the word gay……” and through social media, she came to understand her desires, met other lesbians and built a community.

The challenges of establishing lesbian relationships, and the disappointments of their partners very often entering heterosexual marriages, is a theme that runs through many of the accounts. For those who knew, but could not come out as lesbians, the pressure to get married from family and colleagues, was very onerous and ingenious ways were devised to avoid marriage.  The women speak openly about the various often tricky and doomed relationships they navigated before coming to terms with their lesbian desires.  Defining the terms of their relationship both with their partners and with family and the broader society was typically perplexing and difficult.

“Monologue” opens space for women to speak about aspects of their lives they wish to share in a very direct, free-flowing and intimate way. Each narrator, identified by country, profession and age has the anonymity to speak freely in their own idiom. We hear from young women struggling to accept their same-sex desires and from older women comfortable in their choice of living as lesbians.

Marriage and the ways in which heteronormativity continues to subconsciously affect lifestyle and choices often resulted in feelings of confusion and/or guilt. Some spoke about performing Hindu or Muslim marriage rites secretively to absolve their guilt of being in a same sex relationship. Others subconsciously followed patriarchal marriage traditions: “To live like a family means living like a married couple. That’s what we thought also…. We even had a small ceremony to exchange rings. I thought I’d be able to carry this out…. but our relationship started getting bitter, it became abusive….and now I can understand that, since I consider myself a queer person, I’m not hetero, I need my relationships to be different, I don’t enjoy so much bindings….” Many did not feel the need for marriage and rejected marriage as a patriarchal construct: “So, even if two women get into this cage instead of a man and a woman, both of them will be imprisoned…Moreover it established monogamy as the only option.”   

Several women dreamt of living abroad with their partners to escape the prejudice and discrimination they experience in Bangladesh and India especially in villages and small towns. Coming to live in metro cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore offered a sense of relief and freedom to live openly as lesbians or queer women.  They reveled in the solace of finding community and camaraderie.  

Lesbian padlocks at Pont de Arts, Paris.

Each story portrays the various challenges lesbians face in living lesbian lives, either secretly or in the open. The book gives the reader insight in terms of both the progress made and the miles to go, before a lesbian and queer identity is not stigmatized or constrained. While many did face emotional and even physical violence when they asserted their identities, this was not the dominating story.  Several found acceptance by families and friends. “I’d told my younger sister that I’m same sex oriented. She accepted it quite readily; she even tried to explain it to my mother…(she) tried to create a level of acceptance within the family, she thought it would be good for everyone, but not everyone was happy about that.”  

Through Monologue one feels that life has changed for some, especially younger women like a 28-year-old NGO worker from West Bengal. “I don’t call myself a lesbian, I rather identify as queer, but I’m in a same sex relationship only.  I don’t even call myself a woman, really.  I am non-binary, but a woman also…. I don’t want to be a man. I dress like a woman, everyday, because that is my preferred way of dressing, but I feel differently inside on different days.  So sometimes when I enter office, the first thing I state is that – I’m not feeling like ‘she/her’ today, it’s my ‘they/them’ day.”  

The narratives normalize lesbian lives.  For people of alternative sexualities these stories will bring comfort.  They illustrate that, despite the pain, feelings of rejection that lesbians confront, it is increasingly possible to successfully navigate alternative sexual identities.

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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