HIV/AIDS in India: Voices from the Margins.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a serious issue in India, which ranks third globally in the number of individuals living with HIV/AIDS. For the uneducated and undereducated and poor in India, this disease brings new social, legal, and economic struggles. Sunita Manian, a professor of political economy at Georgia College and the former president of the Association of Global South Studies, tells the stories of HIV-positive individuals from the lower-income sects of the Tamil Nadu population and provides a valuable commentary on the consequences of the heteronormative social structure in India.
Manian conducted her research in Tamil Nadu, where she interviewed male, female, and transgender (aravani) sex workers and married and widowed HIV-positive women who had become infected by their husbands. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the reality of sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual orientation in India cannot be categorized according to a western formula. For example, the sexuality and sexual identity of male and transgender sex workers in India are not as straightforward as simply being gay, bisexual, or queer. Socioeconomic factors influence even the term that one uses to express their sexual identity/activity. Manian interviewed several male participants who referred to themselves as MSM (men who have sex with men) without identifying themselves as homosexuals. Manian argues that although MSM was a term used to express sexual activity, it has become an identity marker (p. 43).
In the introduction, Manian begins by discussing sexuality in India and the social perceptions of nonheterosexual relations. Manian argues that characterizing HIV/AIDS as a heterosexual disease is disingenuous and has dire implications for decreasing the spread of the disease in India (p. 3). She criticizes the Indian government by arguing that manipulating information is one of the factors behind the distorted characterization of the disease. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on sexual minorities from the low-income and undereducated sects of the population. In chapter 2, Manian argues that the non-Anglophone, low-income sexual minorities in India lack the knowledge and agency to connect to the global virtual communities where they can be themselves without legal consequences (p. 31). In chapter 3, the stories of aravanis and MSMs highlight a stark difference between them and female sex workers. While female sex workers can work in the field exclusively for financial reasons, MSMs and aravanis do sex work both to earn money and for pleasure. This makes them more vulnerable to emotional rejection by sex partners and clients (p. 67). The question of how the MSMs and aravanis discovered their sexuality is a bit underdeveloped. The examples suggest that most MSMs discovered their sexuality after unwanted sexual interaction from a male friend or relative (p. 53). It is not clear whether this is true for only MSMs in the lower-income, non-Anglophone sects of the population.
In chapter 4, the author describes the dangers aravanis and MSMs face. Manian presents an interesting perspective on sexuality and power derived from sexual acts. In traditional India, the mere act of having sex with another man does not make someone an MSM from the perspective of an MSM (p. 81). A man who has the power to penetrate another man without thinking about the partners pleasure/desire remains masculine (p. 81). From a western standpoint, this understanding of sexuality is more fluid and more difficult to categorize. Manian, however, presents only the MSMs' understanding of their abusers' sexuality. According to MSMs, abusing policemen or rowdies (local thugs) view their own sexuality as absent. Admittedly, that side of the story might be difficult to present. In chapter 5, Manian discusses how the status of nonconjugal heterosexuality changed during and after colonialism. Courtesans or devadasis existed in South Asia before the British rule. They were creators and patrons of arts and had considerable power rivaling that of the queens (p. 92). As the British Raj dismantled old traditions, the status of courtesans changed and they became "common prostitutes" (p. 92). While Manian provides an in-depth discussion of the changing status of the courtesans during British Raj, she could have compared the status of the devadasis to women from other social classes. Normally, people in power are not as strictly bound by social rules and norms. Thus, while not all devadasis engaged in nonconjugal sexual relations, it is worth exploring whether they were as strictly bound by the rules of virtue for women as were women from other social classes. Since class is an important variable in Manian's analysis, this was a missed opportunity.
In chapter 6, the author presents the stories of eight women sex workers who wanted to present their truths to the world. Chapter 7 includes the narratives of married or widowed women who contracted the disease from their husbands. Through their narratives, Manian makes the argument that Indian institutions and the government focus more on female sex workers and the people in a high-risk group, such as clients of sex workers that form a bridge to the general population. Because married women lack knowledge about the disease or their husband's HIV status, they are vulnerable. Chapter 8 presents the struggles of HIV-positive women to live with the disease. Their narratives highlight the social and professional ignorance that is fueled by social norms about ethics and female virtue. It is a widespread belief in India that an HIV-positive woman does not deserve to live because she acquired the disease due to immoral behavior (p. 157). This belief is important, since in the concluding chapter Manian presents the way to prevent the spread of the virus and to better the lives of HIV-positive people. While it is possible to provide access to health care and advocacy for those with HIV, changing the perception of society is problematic and requires a lot of time. Manian seems aware of this conundrum.
Manian's work is extremely insightful. Anyone interested in gender studies and queer studies will benefit from her work. Manian challenges the western understanding of nonheterosexual identities and presents a unique understanding of sexual identity.
Florida International University
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|Publication:||Journal of Global South Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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