Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Silences Between: Are Lesbians Irrelevant? World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, 16-21 January

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Silences Between: Are Lesbians Irrelevant? World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, 16-21 January

Article excerpt


In this essay, I reflect on my experience at the Mumbai World Social Forum in 2004. I begin with a discussion of silence as methodology in research with, by and about lesbians. I examine the silence around lesbian politics as well as the silences between lesbian activists and those they encounter in discussion, political activism and research settings. I explore some of the differences and similarities between Australia and India both within the mainstream culture and in the freedoms or otherwise of lesbians. I then go on to describe the workshop I organized for the Mumbai World Social Forum on "Torture of lesbians: what can be done?" in which a number of politically silencing factors come into play. I investigate the ramifications of this session in terms of the marginalization of lesbians at the World Social Forums and the implications for future Forums.

The poem that accompanies the essay is extracted from "India Sutra," a long poem that arose out of my attendance at the Mumbai World Social Forum and my subsequent travels in India with two lesbians, one of whom was born in India.

Keywords: lesbian, silence, marginalisation (or World Social Forum)


"... the many silences that fall in between the uttered and the unutterable"

--Maya Sharma. Loving Women: Being Lesbian and Underprivileged in India, 2006:104.

They hear my words but not the silence between us.

--Susan Hawthorne, "India Sutra" 2005a: 153-4.

The World Social Forum, since its beginnings in 2001, has provided a structure for social justice activists, most of whom could be described as left-leaning and progressive and some of whom are aware of issues around class, race and ethnicity, ecology, feminism, disability and sexuality. The latter three are areas in which there is much more work to be done and in this essay I want to discuss the particular gaps in knowledge around lesbian feminism. I specify lesbian feminism because there has been some incorporation of the queer agenda, and perhaps because of this, campaigns and debates relating specifically to lesbians, when the critique is made from a feminist perspective, remain marginalized and ignored. Furthermore, the high profile of "lesbian antifeminists" (Hanscombe 1991: 217) has skewed perceived agendas of lesbians to the extent that many in the heterosexual community think that what lesbians want is hot sex, sex toys, "our own pornography" and a host of other commodified "desires" that lesbian feminists have long argued against.

I have encountered similar levels of misperception and marginalization among those of the left in Australia and other Western countries, so my critique has more general application than would be suggested if I were to say that the shortcomings I point to at the Mumbai World Social Forum (WSF) were to be taken as directed solely at the Indian organizers. (2) However, it would also be misleading to suggest that there is no fear of the word lesbian in India. A report by Caleri, the Campaign for Lesbian Rights (1999:17) is used by Maya Sharma (2006: 5) to indicate why she uses the word lesbian in her survey of working class lesbians in India. The word 'lesbian' is:

   ... so loaded with fear and embarrassment and prejudice, a word
   shrouded in silence, a whisper that spoke of an identity that must
   be hidden from others, that frightening word that dare not cross
   the threshold (Caleri Report 1999:17).

Methodology: Silence

Maya Sharma's (2006) survey of underprivileged lesbians in India provides a rich vein of material on the effect of silence on researching lesbians. Using the word lesbian provokes what she calls a "discourse of catastrophe" (Sharma 2006: 38), while on the other side the need for nuance, for understatement can result in what might be called a discourse of ambiguity. In attempting to ascertain the nature of two women's relationship, she is confronted by a wall of silence. …

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