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Indian Feminist Author Sarojini Sahoo on Female Sexuality

Writer's Themes Explore Sexual, Emotional Lives of Women

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As an Indian feminist, Dr. Sarojini Sahoo has written extensively about the interior lives of women and how their burgeoning sexuality is seen as a threat to traditional patriarchal societies. Her novels and short stories treat women as sexual beings and probe culturally sensitive topics such as rape, abortion and menopause from a female perspective.

Much of your work focuses on women and sexuality. What can you tell us about Eastern women in that regard?

To understand Eastern feminism, one must understand the important role sexuality plays in our culture.

Let's consider a girl's situation during adolescence. If she becomes pregnant, the male partner is not blamed for his role. It is the girl who has to suffer. If she accepts the child, she suffers a great deal socially and if she has an abortion, she suffers emotionally for the rest of her life.

In the case of a married woman, she encounters many restrictions with respect to sexuality whereas her male partner is free from these restrictions. Women are denied the right to express themselves as sexual beings. They are discouraged from taking an active role or even allowing themselves to experience the act as pleasurable. Women are taught that they should not be open to their sexual desires.

Even today in Eastern countries, you will find many married women who have never experienced an orgasm. If a female admits to feeling sexual pleasure, her own husband may misunderstand her and regard her as a bad woman, believing she has engaged in premarital sex.

When a woman reaches menopause, the changes brought about by this biological phenomenon often cause a woman to suffer self-doubt. Mentally, she sees herself as disabled because she cannot meet the sexual needs of her husband.

I think that until now in many Asian and African countries, the patriarchal society has held control over sexuality. So for us to realize feminism, Eastern women need two types of liberation. One is from financial slavery and the other is from the restrictions imposed on female sexuality. Women are always victims; men are oppressors.

I believe in the theory that "a woman's body is a woman's right." By that I mean women should control their own bodies and men should take them seriously.

You are known for pushing the envelope, openly discussing female sexuality in your stories and novels in a way that hadn't been done before. Isn't that risky?

As a writer, I have always sought to paint the sexuality of my characters in opposition to the Indian concept of patriarchy, where women's sexuality is limited to raising children only and there was no place for women's sexual desire.

In my novel Upanibesh (The Colony) , regarded as the first attempt by an Indian novel to discuss female sexual desire, I have taken the symbol of 'Shiva Linga' to represent the sexual desire of women . Medha, the novel's protagonist, was a bohemian. Prior to marriage, she believes it would be boring to live with a man as a lifelong partner. Perhaps she wanted a life free from the chains of commitment, where there would be only love, only sex, and there wouldn't be any monotony.

In my novel Pratibandi, the thematic development of a woman's sexuality is explored through Priyanka, who encounters the loneliness of exile in a remote village, Saragpali . This loneliness develops into a sexual urge and soon Priyanka finds herself sexually involved with a former Member of Parliament. Though there is an age gap between them, his intelligence impresses her and she discovers a hidden archaeologist in him.

In my novel Gambhiri Ghara (The Dark Abode), my intent was to glorify the power of sexuality. Kuki, a Hindu married woman of India, tries to rectify Safique, a Muslim Pakistani artist, to keep him from perversion and from becoming a sexual maniac. She convinces Safique that love lust is like the insatiable hunger of a caterpillar. Gradually they become involved with love, lust and spiritually. Though this is not the central theme of the novel, its broad acceptance of sexuality caused many fundamentalists to react strongly.

I was also heavily criticized by my use of the 'F' word in my story Rape. Yet these are themes and situations that women understand too well.

In my various stories I have discussed lesbian sex, rape, abortion, infertility, failed marriage and menopause. These are not topics that have been discussed in Indian literature by women, but I focus on them to begin a dialogue about female sexuality and to help bring about change.

Yes, it is risky for a woman writer to deal with these themes in an Eastern country, and for that I face much criticism. But still I believe someone has to bear this risk to accurately portray women's feelings - the intricate mental agony and complexity which a man can never feel - and these must be discussed through our fiction.

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