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Redefining Love in the Love Jihad Era

February brings images of pink hearts and ribbons, and a certain narrow form of love that we like or detest. Two campaigns, one ongoing and one just completed, do their bit to start a conversation about the innumerable forms of love there could be – and how, if we open up our eyes just a little bit, we’ll know that each one of them is worthy of our respect.

The Tathapi Trust, an NGO in Pune, is running Pyaar ki Gutargoo, to encourage sharing and discussion on non-conventional forms of love and romance. Shruti Vaidya from the NGO answers our questions.

Zehen is an intersectional, body loving, sex positive, Queer* feminist collective based in Mumbai. Zehen ran the #RedefiningLove campaign in December 2014 to encourage people to talk about their love towards different kinds of people, beings and objects. The Zehen team collectively responds.

Why the need to redefine love?

Shruti: We felt that despite the media being oversaturated with images of certain ideal tropes of love, people don’t really have a safe space to express what they feel love is and how they in their unique personal situations experience love. So, we at Tathapi Trust, an NGO in Pune, have a project called Isoch- which aims to establish a dialogue with college students on gender and sexuality, thought of taking up the issue of love for the month of February.

Zehen: The idea for the campaign started (like most of our ideas) with a casual conversation around “love” and how the only love stories we get to hear are those of heteronormative couples1. Even if not heteronormative relationships, the stories would still likely be about romantic love.

We realized that stories of love that we usually hear about not only exclude various kinds of romantic arrangements, such as polyamorous2 relationships or asexual partners, but also are defined within a very strict framework of what can be considered “romance”. Therefore, even though a lot of us are or have been invested in loving relationships of various kinds (with friends, siblings, teachers, etc.), or have experienced feelings of deep affection with different kinds of people, beings, objects (strangers on the internet, art, pets etc.), we’ve never really had the space to talk about these “love stories”. We need to redefine “love” to give visibility to these stories.

1Usually, heteronormative relationships involve the following elements: older man, younger woman, “able bodied”, in a heterosexual marriage, belonging to the same caste, class and religious backgrounds.

2 Polyamorous relationships are the romantic/sexual/intimate relationships that involve more than two people (with the informed consent of everyone involved).

Tell us about the campaign: what was the idea behind it and what did you hope it would do?

Shruti: We thought we should create online and offline platforms for young people to talk freely about love. We wanted the campaign to be quirky and fun, reflecting the fact that though we want to talk about very grave issues, we also want to celebrate consensual and peaceful ideas of love! We named the campaign, “Pyaar ki Gutargoo” and used a pigeon as the mascot because Bollywood has always used the pigeon as a messenger of love. So we thought why don’t we borrow the pigeon, but share the stories with her for a change! We want the online platform to be a space for people to share their own or some other stories of love which have made a difference to people. We thought that personal stories are relatable and can spark conversations on values around love and sexuality that we want to bring up. For instance, stories of inter-caste, inter-religious, same-sex relationships can highlight issues of diversity in a very effective manner.

Zehen: These conversations were also happening around the same time that various attacks on different forms of romantic love were happening. Right Wing forces had taken to attacking marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women claiming their marriages to be a ploy to reduce Hindu population and increase the number of Muslims through a “Love Jihad”. A few days before that, a couple was harassed and fined for hugging outside a mall in Mumbai. We were about to complete one year since the  Supreme Court’s infamous judgment upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. These incidents, amongst so many others, pointed to a growing trend wherein people in power were (are still) trying to dictate who we can love, where we can love and how we can love. We decided that it was important to reject their dogmas and diktats around love. We wanted to point out to love that exists outside and beyond heteronormativity

Over the period of a month, we wanted to fill the social media with stories of love where “love” would be defined differently by different people. We wanted people to share anything that came to their minds when they heard or thought about the word “love”. We wanted to hear about love stories that have been considered “weird” and “unnatural”, that have defied the regular understanding of “love”, that don’t get recognized enough or appreciated enough. We wanted people to tell us stories of never wanting love, never feeling love, always bursting with love, stories of love you have shared with friends, animals, siblings, guardians, strangers, neighbours, objects, teachers, idols, poems, songs, themselves…anything!

What response did you get?

Shruti: Well, the structure of the campaign is a little different on the online and offline platforms. On an offline level, the Isoch team has been collaborating with around 17 colleges for the past 8 months or so. The team has built a collaborative relationship with a few students in each college who have been actively participating in a dialogue concerning sexuality. We are hoping to bring together students from these colleges on a common platform on the 14th of February and have some events (conceptualized and performed by the students) as well as conversations around love and its various facets. We chose Valentine’s Day, because we wanted to start non-mainstream and dialogue around love on a day which has to come to denote only very conventional forms of love.

Zehen: We got a fairly good response. People wrote to us with their own stories, sent us poems and songs that defined love for them, used our hashtag “#RedefiningLove” to put up status updates and posts on their own walls.

It was great to see how many people joined in, and how excited they were – even if they didn’t post anything themselves. People were talking to each other through comments on various posts, there was a lot of love sharing amongst friends, family, strangers. It was brilliant.

Why do you think, in this day and age of connectivity and exposure to ideas from across the world, there is a lack of recognition about the various forms love can take?

Zehen: We believe that though there has been rapid globalization and dissemination of ideas, certain dominant structures of power have not been overturned. Power and the ability to express and define love still remains with the powerful few. Thus, it is very commonplace for us to see Hindutva groups abusing a Dalit woman writer on Twitter or white male gamers abuse a woman who tries to make a point about how sexist internet gaming can be.

With increasing exposure, there is also increased control over our lives and there is a constant attempt to make us fit into stereotypes. Who you love, make friends with, meet or have any relationship with is decided by family, the larger community or even the state. This control over our moralities and the restriction over who we interact with is also a sign of xenophobia, of a fear of the “other”.

This makes it important to reiterate the point of multiple and positive expressions of love. It becomes necessary to put forth unconventional stories of love in the virtual space, amidst the growing censorship and suppression of difference.

I know you juggle Zehen work alongside full time work or studies, so I understand one key reason you chose Facebook/Twitter as your campaign medium was definitely led by convenience, but do you think you were restricted in your objectives because of this medium?

Zehen: We realised that we were limiting our reach by choosing Facebook. The kind of people who we reach out to, given the language, content, references, would be limited. But we thought, given how hetero-patriarchal, casteist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, classist and generally hateful the virtual space can also be,  it was important for us to just claim the Facebook space for ourselves, make ourselves visible on people’s walls, generate some conversations through them! Just to say, “Look, we ‘all’ are here too and would like to share our loves, different kinds of loves, with the world.”

What are some of the most powerful stories you heard through the campaign? Things that give you hope?

Shruti: The best thing about this campaign is the fact that we get to listen to people’s love stories. Call it mushy, but it is so lovely to hear stories of struggle as well as everyday love. We got to hear the story of an interreligious love marriage. The woman, Shakila, talked to us about how she and her husband are completely different, but the fact that they give each other space, makes things work. She also talked about how she and her husband don’t want their son to be raised in any particular religion and he could choose whatever he wishes.

It has also been great interacting with students on the offline level. The students have been expressing very unconventional and non-aggressive notions of love. Many women students have been bringing up issues of love and possessiveness. Students have been raising questions about marriage as an institution, love and sex, queer relationships. They have also been responding well to ideas different for their own, which is a very positive sign of a healthy dialogue!

Zehen: I think the most amazing part of the campaign was that people shared very diverse stories, in very different forms. People shared articles on Love Jihad as they thought it was pertinent to them, someone shared anecdotes of being queer and experiencing love in this heteronormative world, people talked about loving themselves. They shared light hearted content like songs which remind them of love, a video talking about cis-straight men expressing their love to each other. Someone shared artwork which made them feel love not for a person, but a childhood memory or a city. So, I guess, the best part was all of these stories came together being their diverse selves on one platform.

Besides, it started a conversation – about love, about questioning heteronormativity, caste patriarchy, and so on. And that conversation doesn’t have to end with this campaign and we hope that people keep on redefining what they mean by love.

Tathapi Trust can be found on http://www.tathapi.org/

Zehen is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/zehencollective

Questions by Vani Viswanathan

Pic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/purplesherbet/

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