Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Rita Banerji

Sex and Power:
Defining History, Shaping Societies

New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2008
ISBN: 9780143064718 (pbk); 417 pp.; price: $US 11.69

reviewed by Anna Husson Isozaki

  1. In the newly published book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, scientist and writer Rita Banerji takes on the sexual paradox of modern India. Many know that in India, although there is a reverence for celibacy and great efforts are made to keep young women away from young men, there has been openly sexual imagery in religious symbols and artefacts through the ages. Also, says Banerji frankly, there is unarguable evidence that modern India 'may be prissy about sex, but its people are no doubt having plenty of it' (p. 285). In a nation where the word 'sex' is not to be said out loud, unprotected sex is clearly a growing issue; there are already 2.5 million people infected with HIV. Premarital sex is increasing, condom use is low, and (in an all-too-common consequence of denial rather than education regarding sexuality), this is exposing young couples' futures to the double jeopardy of undesired pregnancy and HIV (p. 286).
  2. It is Indian women especially, though, who are bearing the brunt of the sexual contradictions in Indian society, stemming from the ancient view of women as property; sexual property, useful for providing male heirs, and then ultimately, disposable. In Sex and Power, Banerji shows by an investigation of awesome scope and ambition in research that the most basic human right—the right to life—is still being denied to India's women. She traces the history of women in India through 5000 years of Indian religious and social life, presenting evidence that through progress and setbacks (and harems, cloistering and purdah) the basic patriarchal view was never entirely rooted out. Instead, it was codified and spread across the country to the present, where it lingers now, apparently out of reach of laws and crossing caste and class lines to have a more virulent impact than ever.
  3. The facts behind her conclusion are stark. A recently-published article in the American political magazine Slate alerted the world to the one-child policy's gender imbalancing effect in China—sixteen million women are missing from the population there.[1] But India, with no 'one-child' policy, has now (following on the calculations of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen) eliminated up to fifty million women from its population (p. 287).
  4. The eliminations begin before birth. Since the early 1970s in India, when gender-detection and abortions became available in cities, female foetuses have been almost exclusively selected for abortion (p. 308). The numbers of these selective abortions are increasing exponentially—from half a million a year in the last decade, to over a million yearly, now. In some places where money and facilities are less available, midwives carry out infanticide—of up to half of the female babies they see born—for nominal fees. Other families wait and through neglect or 'arranged' illnesses, proceed to account for the fact that infant and child mortality for girls is much higher than that for boys (pp. 306–08).
  5. And then there is dowry death. It has been twenty years since, on a visit to India, I asked an emergency-room doctor what the most common case coming into hospitals was. It was bride-burnings. Although outlawed in India since 1961, families with sons still often demand huge dowry payments and 'presents' from parents of a daughter for the privilege of her marrying their son (and usually, having the bride then live with and serve the new husband's family). In 'dowry death' murders, when a bride's family has been bled financially dry, the husband's family then colludes to carry out a 'kitchen accident' or 'suicide' of the daughter-in-law, usually by burning (pp. 309–10). The number of cases reported yearly since the late 1980s has, apparently, only been rising (p. 306).

  6. A journalistic treatment would report these crimes, and then try to answer the individual questions of 'why' by looking primarily at the modern day. Banerji, however, sets her scientific training and intellectual energy to the task of examining the position of women on the Indian subcontinent all the way from prehistory through to the present, in the first such comprehensive attempt to really answer these questions. Drawing on theories of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung as well as extensive scholarship on Indian religions, history and culture, she traces cycles of celebration and denigration of the feminine in religion and society, and concurrent changes in cultural views of sex, sexual morality, and freedom and autonomy of women. Her survey spans the Indus Valley civilisation and the invasion of the Vedics, the rise of Buddhism, the Golden Period, the colonial period (with invasions first by Islamic and then by Christian forces), and finally, the present Democratic period.
  7. For the casual student of Indian religion it is a fascinating opportunity to finally have the Vedic scriptures, Hindu gods, Buddhist ascetics, and the erotic celebrations of the Kama Sutra, the Golden Period and the Tantric cults set into their social and historical contexts.
  8. Particularly interesting are later sections where historical details of the British colonial period are often provided in quotations from the coloniser's own words and letters. Along with the Victorian mindset of the British being imposed on India with ridiculous effects: '…[the] new moral squeamishness of the Indian middle class…mimicked the British dress sense—a dress sense that was highly unsuited to India's hot, tropical climate…' (p. 244), Banerji also traces to the present day effects, less commonly known, of the British efforts to change Hinduism to their liking. She writes:

      The British believed that, ultimately, the only hope for the moral redemption of Indian society lay with its women…(p. 235).To prevent this new, prescribed image for Indian women from appearing too Christian and thus too alien, the British aligned their model with the patriarchal Vedic one, and declared the ancient Vedic value system to be the best role model for Indian women on how to be virtuous. A 1925 publication, Women in Ancient India, written by an Englishwoman, extolled the selflessness of the Vedic women, their service to their family, and their extreme devotion to their husbands, such that they would even commit sati for them (p. 239).

    Banerji notes that 'obviously, the author of this book had not investigated the sexual lives of Vedic women very scrupulously—their open expressions of lust, or the liberties they took with multiple lovers…' (p. 239).
  9. While this certainly inspires a sardonic chuckle, it's also frightening to imagine the influence this self-serving pastiche may have had on those studying what now was passing as 'their own' religion. Codifying some of the most anti-female aspects of the earlier religions and enshrining the restrictions Indian women had struggled with through the preceding millennia, (and indeed had already been furiously speaking out against in their autobiographies and other writings for decades), elevated to religious status again the view of women as disposable sexual property (pp. 257–65).
  10. Stories and quotes from the struggles of early Indian feminists against both the British and Indian patriarchies in India, late in the colonial period, will be new to many. Surprising too are some lesser-known aspects of Mahatma Gandhi's struggles with the British and his own character, his insistence on celibacy and his sometimes contradictory statements about women. Banerji writes that he 'declared that the only circumstance under which sex was permissible was when the aim was reproduction. He vehemently opposed all forms of contraception for he argued that birth control measures only perpetuated sexual pleasure and averted pregnancy…' a proscription she finds unhelpful to an India with more than a billion people now and so many in serious poverty (pp. 279–80).
  11. Banerji finally surveys the conflicted India of today. Handholding may be met with street violence and a kiss in public provokes an uproar that makes the news, but polygamy and polyandry are tolerated. Child marriage continues with well more than half of Indian girls married before age eighteen (p. 300). Rape remains ill-defined and is often left unprosecuted. Marital rape is unacknowledged by law, and in fact a woman who files for support from an absent husband is routinely met in response by a court-granted RCR: 'restitution of conjugal rights'—that is, for the husband. Meanwhile other violence, such as acid attacks against women, seems to be on the rise, and widows are still too often made homeless (pp. 301–04).
  12. To get some grasp on the denials and contradictions in this complex situation, Banerji turns again in the end to modern psychology and draws some interesting connections between it and insights from the ancient Tantric religions and Hindu traditions. Through these she also sees some ways forward for India, a nation she clearly loves.
  13. While some of her conclusions will provide stimulus for further, thought-provoking discussions and debate, and despite being disserviced by some typographical errors and uneven editing, Sex and Power is extensively referenced, with bibliography, a thorough index and substantial footnotes, and makes the valuable contribution of a long-delayed, clear-eyed examination of what has been going on in India, and why. Banerji has done admirable work and should be commended for the intellectual energy and courage she shows in examining and openly discussing these essential issues for women under fire today on the subcontinent.


    [1] William Saletan, 'Sex reversal – child quotas, abortion, and China's missing girls,' in Slate, 15 April 2009, online:, site accessed 27 April, 2009.


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