Body Normativity and Sexuality

Session Report
Narayani Bhatnagar

In celebration of pride month, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, in association with Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC), initiated An Online International Summer School Program | A Five-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India.

On Day 1, Professor Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Distinguished Professor, at IMPRI, focused her presentation on ‘Body Normativity and Sexuality’. She began her presentation by defining the distinctions between sex and gender, focusing on the primary areas of sexual, biological, cultural (cultural social) interaction, and psychological differences.

Gender and Sex

Gender is defined via a cultural lens for both males and females through duties and responsibilities, attributes, and entitlements; gender is a social construct that is not fixed but is consistently reinforced through social connections and economic and political power dynamics; and gender is a social construct that is not fixed but is consistently reinforced through social relationships and economic and political power dynamics. Sex, on the other hand, is physiologically characterized by chromosomes, reproductive organs, genitalia, and hormones, and it has biological/physiological qualities.

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Professor Patel proceeded to define terms like gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression. She moved on to explain how gender and sexuality are intertwined; sexuality is influenced by gender norms. Sexuality ideologies and theories work to control women as well as those believed to be less powerful and the weaker gender. Gender norms around sexuality can have an impact on health and access to fundamental services, such as education, work, respectability, and social life in society.

She stated, “Bodies are gendered, and the gendering process is ongoing,” which aids in the analysis of power dynamics under patriarchy. The institution of Patriarchy has its foundation on a person’s sexuality, reproduction, and labour of a person.

While examining the relationship between gender and power patriarchy is investigated, it becomes clear that male dominance exists in both the private and public spheres. Patrilineage and Patrilocal are practised in families with male heads of the family. Every relationship within the family is defined by patriarchal power relations. 

Professor Patel addressed in full capacity the relationship that patriarchy has with women’s sexuality, fertility, and labour.

Patriarchy, as an institution, has power over women’s sexuality. It includes anything from dress code restrictions at places of earning an education and work, to the taboo associated with menstruation and menstruating women. Women are viewed as repositories of custom, tradition, and cultural practice, devoted as devadasis and jogtis, and made to undergo a sequence of masochistic fasting, scarification, and self-inflicted anguish, rendering them unemployable and forever dependant on patriarchs. They have just the subversive power of a comfort woman, which is also mediated via males because they have no legal rights. 

As a cultural phenomenon, patriarchy also has control over women’s reproductive health. Women are viewed as male-child-producing machines. Customary or female infanticide, as well as the mistreatment and abandonment of girl children, scientific procedures of sex determination tests used for female foeticide, and pre-conception removal of female embryos via sex-preselection techniques.

She further elaborated, prostitution laws penalise and persecute women victims of exploitation, resulting in a parallel economy worth up to 200 billion rupees. 

Unwed mothers face a social boycott. Society stigmatises illegitimate offspring and denies them economic, social, and educational opportunities. They are further disadvantaged in an economy undergoing major structural changes and volatility. Identity cards, ration cards, and other legal documents that are required for citizenship rights are not issued to them.

Advancing further on patriarchy’s connection and access to women’s work and labour. Our economy functions on a gender-based labour divide, where jobs for women in the economy are extensions of the household, that are, the three Cs (cooking, cleaning, and caring). 

Only 6% of women work in the organized sector, which is protected by labour laws and the ERA (Equal Remuneration Act). 94% of women work in the inf sector, which does not provide job stability, consistent income, or personal safety. Sexual harassment is an occupational hazard to undermine women’s confidence and keeps them in a state of continual anxiety, humiliation, and intimidation.

On Masculinity

Professor Patel then proceeded onto understanding masculinity. She stated that it is important to include men in the process of gendered empowerment, as it is imperative to understand masculinity/masculinities and their effects on men, women and sexual minorities to bring about gendered societal attitudes and expectations in our society and identify action agenda to move towards the direction of gender equality. 

She emphasised the importance of having more conversations on the concept of masculinity. Gender concerns are not restricted to women. Femininity cannot exist apart from masculinity. Women are subordinate to males in societal order and all genders have internalised masculine attitudes and behavioural tendencies.

The patriarchal society also victimizes boys and men since they are stereotyped as ‘protectors’ and ‘providers’ to the entire family. For example, unemployed men committed suicide. Men are vulnerable to hierarchical power dynamics as well. Non-aggressive and sensitive males, for example, are sexually exploited by physically larger bullies.

Professor Patel further addressed masculine manifestations. She emphasised nature and nurture, as well as hierarchy and power dynamics, deemed to play crucial roles in the social construction of masculinities and femininities. But it is neither physiology nor hormone play. Men who are polite, loving, and appreciative of their fellow humans can be found. 

In our culture, males are assumed to be dominating when we interpret masculine and feminine attributes in human interactions. Women are meant to be subservient, silent, meek, patient, and docile, whereas men are expected to be aggressive, intolerant, and hot-tempered. Thus, ‘strong’ and ‘superior’ males govern, while ‘weak’ and ‘inferior’ men, women, children, and minorities are oppressed. 

To progress and promote gender equality and sensitivity in our society, we as a community must challenge hierarchical power relations and structures.  Social interactions, communication media, and state policies should be adopted as they play an important role in promoting gender equality that promotes a relationship of care and mutual respect, equality of opportunities, non-violent behaviour and rejects sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. 

Policy and practice should adopt an intersectional framework to understand the complexities of all genders-men/boys, women/girls and transgender persons’ lives, recognizing that some men have more power than others as a result of different social inequalities based on caste, class, race, ethnicity, religion, ableism and gender; and to engage with them in relatable and relevant ways. Policies such as, Women’s Empowerment Policy, 2001, Legislative Reforms in India from 1976 to 2022, and the Landmark Nalsa Case Judgement, 2014.

In the case of National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India (2014), the Supreme Court of India gave a landmark judgement that declared transgender people as the third gender, affirmed that the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution of India will be equally applicable to them, and gave them the right to self-identification of their gender as male, female or third gender. Moreover, the court also held that because transgender people were treated as socially and economically backward classes, they will be granted reservations in admissions to educational institutions and jobs. 

It also directs the State for legally recognising those who are transitioning between the sexes. Sanitation and public health. Raising public knowledge in order to better integrate transgender people into society and eliminate social stigma; and seriously addressing issues such as shame, fear, social pressure, despair, suicide ideation, and gender dysphoria.

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Colours by Lara Jesani

Professor Patel concluded her presentation with a discussion of a poem by Lara Jensani (1998), Colours, spreading the notion that the rainbow represents the gender spectrum, which will grow and expand over time.

Every lecture was followed by an interactive question and answer session which facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the topics covered and cultivated a critical understanding among the participants about beyond the binaries. 

Read more session reports from Day 1 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India:

Maya Awasthy on Historical Aspects of Trans Lives in India.

Northeast India: An abode of “Double minorities”

Situational Analysis and Needs Assessment of Lesbians, Bisexuals Women and Transmasculine Community in India

Narayani, is a research intern at IMPRI.



    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Vibhuti Patel

    Distinguished Visiting Professor IMPRI and Former Professor, TATA Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai

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  • Samriddhi