Last month, Ireland’s national referendum gave legal sanction to same-sex marriage, although for the most part this was called ‘gay marriage’ by the media. Now therein hangs a tale. Because everyone has forgotten, in a rush of progressive adrenaline, that last year, a young married woman dentist of Indian origin died of an incomplete abortion in Ireland. Doctors weren’t legally allowed to complete a process that had commenced naturally. How does the sanctioning of same-sex marriage speak to women’s rights around abortion in Ireland, if it does speak to it at all?
Recently, in Ohio in the US, a young unmarried woman, also coincidentally of Indian origin, was jailed for 30 years, for inducing an abortion and also bizarrely for causing the death of her born-alive foetus. More and more states in the US are making abortions difficult, even mandating that women be shown an ultrasound image of their foetus before they decide to terminate their pregnancies. Women have been jailed in several states on suspicion of having induced a termination of pregnancy, even when it has ended naturally. Last year the US Supreme Court also upheld, under the right to religion, the right of employers not to insure their employees for contraception.
Yet, state after state and country after country legalises same-sex unions, with a host of celebrity couples, in a glory of publicity, endorsing this. What explains this paradoxical situation? A seemingly progressive movement forward in terms of sexuality rights? Why is this predicated on several steps backward in terms of reproductive rights?
The answer is patriarchy. Feminism—and reproductive justice is at the heart of feminism, going beyond reproductive rights alone—threatens patriarchy, calls for its overthrow, imagines new ways of organising society. Same-sex marriages, on the other hand, by legitimising that institution of patriarchy, namely marriage, only strengthens it.
There is another empirical matter. Neoliberal states, thinking of cutting welfare, have figured out that there is less likelihood of a married person requesting welfare or unemployment benefits. For isn’t that what a spouse is meant for, cushioning social failures?
People assume that sexuality is politics and, necessarily, progressive politics. What they forget is that the call for LGBT rights also emerges from the most reprehensible right-wing politics too. ‘Apartheid’ Israel is a sponsor of many LGBT events, including the Los Angeles Gay Pride, and is a country that prides itself on being gay-friendly and has a pink-washing campaign to cover its genocidal crimes in Palestine. It must not be forgotten that when the LA Gay Pride invited Chelsea Manning to be parade marshal, and she nominated the legendary left icon, Daniel Ellsberg, to take her place, the organisers “disinvited” him for his support to the Palestinian cause.
The Irish vote has implications for India, and India’s poor women: it opens up the prospect of more western gay couples coming here seeking commercial surrogacy. The Indian draft law permits foreign gay couples to indulge in commercial surrogacy, while Indian gay couples are not so permitted. We now have Israeli gay couples travelling to Nepal, to hire Indian surrogate mothers there. (After the Nepal quake, we saw photos of a special sortie to take these babies out on a priority.) The stunning silence—in terms of active campaigning and popular debate—on the politics of commercial surrogacy from what remains of the women’s movement in India is appalling.
If the queer movement in India wants to retain any integrity in its claims to a holistic social transformation, they should, with their feminist allies, come together to offer a critique of marriage, including same-sex marriage, and a strong campaign against commercial surrogacy and indeed for pro-abortion rights. The actual realities of women seeking abortion in India are gruesome and the MTP Act stipulates stringent conditions under which women are allowed abortion. Illegal abortions in India account for about 12 per cent of the terrible maternal mortality ratio in the country. We must also not forget the manner in which female foetuses are destroyed on a daily basis in this country.
Unfortunately, the queer movement has shown no inclination to work with the women, even standing by moves like making the rape law gender-neutral which, if anything, is deeply anti-feminist in the Indian context. Instead of asking for separate laws for male and female and transgender rape, the queer movement has asked for a gender-neutral law showing no sense of context of the rape of women in India.
Finally, why is there so little critique, globally, of the institution of marriage at all? Marriage is one of the pillars of patriarchy, of the systemic and systematic exploitation of women. It is high time feminists and queer activists interrogated this institution instead of stupidly celebrating it, with the latter seeking their place at the criminal heteronormative table.
(Mohan Rao is professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU; Ashley Tellis is an LGBT activist)