Young Married Muslim Couples Negotiating their Sexual Lives
in the Urban Slums of Kolkata, India
This paper explores how inadequate sexual and reproductive education affects the intimate lives of recently married young people in India. The experiences presented here have been drawn from ongoing qualitative research (since 2005) that investigates how Muslim youth living in the urban slums (bustees) of Kolkata are participating in a globalising India and a rapidly modernising bustee. Most recently it draws on two months of field research (January–March 2011) with six young married couples. Six men and six women participated in various qualitative processes to share how they negotiate their sexual and reproductive health in their everyday lives. The paper highlights how both young men and women struggle with negotiating sexual communication, sexual and reproductive knowledge and sexual rights. It also reveals how inadequate sex education greatly impacts on the physical and emotional wellbeing of young married people. The paper, thus, showcases the need for a comprehensive, gender-appropriate and accessible sex education curriculum for marginalised Muslim youth in the bustees both pre and post marriage.
The bustees in which this work has been conducted are two large slum communities, and home to a marginalised, mostly migrant and displaced Muslim population. Migrants are predominantly from within India, especially Bihar state. The bustees also house many large factories, and homes are often built around them. Notably the community serves as headquarters to numerous religious and political organisations, many of them conservative in nature. Second- and third-generation migrants often live in homes that are permanent (brick buildings, with infrastructure including electricity). The bulk of established residents live in the interior of the community, which has tens of thousands of permanent one room homes, most sharing at least one wall. The periphery of the slums—marked by a large garbage dump, two railway-lines and several sewage canals—houses mostly first-generation and recently-arrived migrants living in more precarious and temporary dwellings.
The bustees are characterised by class- and caste-specific occupations including leather work, rubbish and scrap collectors and rickshaw pullers. The community is poor, with local NGOs reporting the average monthly family income at around 3000 rupees, and it is densely populated. Young people in this study come from both established and non-established communities. Couples live in large joint families, comprised of multiple generations within a one room home. Young men are all employed locally, and some young women are also engaged in home-based employment. The participants have varying degrees of education, with young men leaving schools in their early teens to participate in the workforce. In line with growing support for young women's education in this community, many of the young wives in this research had education levels equal to, and some greater than, their partners.
Formal and informal sex education
In India contemporary support for formal sex education for school-going youth has grown out of the Central Governments' 2005 Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) (later referred to as Life Skills Education – LSE). I have described elsewhere that the AEP/LSE scheme has been a very contentious programme and soon after its launch in 2007 it received various levels of support and opposition from different states. After reviewing the programme the government of West Bengal (where Kolkota is situated) banned the scheme in all of its state secondary schools (CBSE institutes), joining a list of states to do the same. The state then revised its decision and in 2009 began to offer a limited sex education curriculum from classes six to ten—technically ages eleven to fifteen years, but it is important to acknowledge the varied drop-out, incompletion and failure rates across India. Controversially the course is not subject to examinations, and has not been offered to all students—younger or older. Formal sex education for older teens is particularly relevant in West Bengal, with the National Family Health Survey reporting the state has the second highest rate of teen pregnancy (25 percent of all live births) and a high maternal mortality rate as well (194/100,000). Sex education is also important for the state as it is estimated that 40 percent of all young women marry before the age of nineteen. In India, marrying young has been shown to increase marginalised young women's risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) including the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and to contribute to other poor reproductive health outcomes. Moreover early marriage has also been shown to multiply young Indian women's experiences of sexual violence and inadequate sexual communication within marriages.
In the bustees of Kolkata young people have limited access to formal sexual and reproductive health information. As described above, CBSE institutions have cohort-specific classes, with older and younger students unable to obtain information about sexual and reproductive health. Youth who do not attend central institutions, the majority of young people in the slums, are dependent on unregulated information that they may or may not receive at their local schools. These schools, which are overwhelmingly private and religious institutions, can choose to include sex education in their curricula. If they do teach sexual and reproductive health matters, it is presented in biology and health/hygiene classes. Topics vary from school to school, but in general biological changes in humans, reproductive organs and their functions, and general health and hygiene are covered in a number of private institutions in the slums. Outside of the classroom different NGOs in the bustees offer their own sexual and reproductive health programmes, but like the curriculum in private institutions, the content of these are not standardised. Moreover, different religious, social and political NGOs offer varying and conflicting information. Public health research has shown that even when NGOs offer accurate information in slums across India, such programmes are not always well received, well understood, or open to all members of the community.
Researchers working in slum and poor communities throughout the nation report that most marginalised youth rely on a variety of informal sources of knowledge to learn about sex, sexuality, intimacy and reproduction. In the bustees, friends, family members and the media —including public health campaigns, Bollywood popular culture and pornographic material —were the most popular ways for young people to gain this type of information. However, not all of these avenues of learning were available to all young people, and research has shown that access to these informal sources is highly gendered. For example young Muslim men in the bustees are able to access different pornographic texts with more regularity than young women, as access often requires a greater public mobility. Moreover, the all-male socialisation which takes place in spaces like cinema halls, internet cafes, brothels and bars, can serve to reinforce male beliefs of sexual entitlement and make these spaces unsafe for women. This in turn can increase a young woman's vulnerability to sexual and physical violence in her marriage, and sexual harassment in public spaces. Young Muslim women, in contrast, have greater access to private and home spaces where informal sex education is derived mostly from television programmes, including popular Bollywood films and television advertisements. All-girl socialising in theses spaces, Geeta Sodhi and Manish Verma argue, has played a 'role in perpetuating gender stereotypes, by encouraging girls to idealise the notion of "true love" while encouraging boys to seek sexual gratification.'
Information from these informal avenues is not always accurate and can easily be misinterpreted. Alexandra McManus and Lipi Dhar report that informal sources of knowledge including media, peer groups and public health campaigns can be inconsistent sources of sexual and reproductive learning, a claim echoed by public health researchers throughout India. For example researchers have shown that school children in South Asia have a poor understanding of how HIV is transmitted after consulting books and the media. Seema Chopra and Lakbir Daliwal's study reveals that couples in North India also have a low awareness of the side affects of emergency contraceptives (EC) with Mridu Relph adding that television commercials advertising EC promote these methods as anonymous and risk free, resulting in EC being misused by young women as a regular form of contraception. Friendship and peer groups, the most popular portal of informal knowledge for young people in the bustees, are also viewed with distrust. I have detailed elsewhere that young men find their peers to be untrustworthy sources of knowledge, citing how bragging and competition taints any information they receive from them. Young women are also careful when discussing sex with friends, fearing gossip and slander could result from such discussions.
Young people in the slums entering sexual relations, thus, often do so with a rudimentary understanding of what to expect and how to perform in a relationship. Scholars across India have argued that such preparation (or lack thereof) can increase young people's exposure to sexual violence and STIs including HIV. Less is known, however, about how inadequate sex education affects the everyday sexual discourses, expectations and experiences of young married couples. How are sexual negotiations made? How is intimacy discussed? And what do partners expect from each other when they have little or no understanding of their sexual rights?
The experiences presented in this paper are drawn from couples who have married within the last two years, and are aged between eighteen and twenty-five years. One couple has a child, with another couple expecting their first child. Five of the couples live in joint families, where a young woman resides in her husband's home with her partner and his family members. One couple recently began living apart, with the young woman staying with her own parents, while her husband began to work overseas. Five of the couples had love marriages, marriages where couples find and choose their own partners. A local NGO working in this community reports that over 80 percent of all marriages in the bustees are currently love marriages, a significant trend away from the arranged marriage systems which were typically the norm in this community a generation ago.
Methods used in this research include interviews, focus group discussions, art and photography (PhotoVoice). Triangulation of these multiple qualitative methods has revealed how inadequate formal sex education and informal sex education impacts on the sexual and reproductive lives of young married couples in the slums. Given the small number of couples presented in this paper, I do not claim these experiences are representative of the larger bustee population. I will show, however, that young people's views fit with larger studies exploring sexual communication in India. Moreover, the perspectives of young married people offered in this paper are important material to consider when developing a sex education curriculum targeting both unmarried and married youth in India.
Young couples negotiating sex
Talking about sex is taboo across India. Intimate relations are viewed as highly private, and young unmarried people in particular are discouraged from discussing sex in any capacity, especially in public. Public discourses opposing formal sex education in India argue that talking to young people about sex before marriage will invoke sexual desire, leading to the 'moral decay' of Indian society. Similar discourses are present throughout Asia. Once married, however, one's sexual knowledge and communication skills are expected to change very rapidly. Young people in the bustees may find themselves in situations where they are expected to know the best time to fall pregnant, or how to prevent STIs. It is usually at this time that young people recognise the lacuna of knowledge in their everyday lives, and the impact of poor reproductive and sexual health preparation on their intimate relationships:
If you asked me before marriage I would say no. No way should people before marriage learn about sex
it would cause them to do it before marriage and that is haram
. But now I wish I was more prepared, that I knew more. Both my husband and I wish we knew more (IZ female, 19)
Instep with dominant public discourses opposing sex education, as an unmarried young woman, IZ once believed that formalised sex education would tempt young people into sexual relations. Before her marriage she understood that pre-marital sex education was forbidden (haram) in Islam as it provided young people with the knowledge and incentive to want to experience sex before marriage. Now eight months into her marriage, both IZ and her partner have been struggling to obtain accurate and trustworthy information about contraception. The knowledge she received pre-marriage about terminating pregnancy—including standing in the sun all day and lifting heavy items—was tested, and not effective. Soon after her marriage IZ found herself pregnant and opted to terminate her pregnancy, which she found very traumatic. As she explained, 'I didn't know what to expect, my husband said it would be easy.' TK Sundari Ravindran and P. Balasubramanian contend that terminations in poor communities were met with very flippant responses from young men in their study, 'men may be taking abortion very lightly—as something they can pay for and be done with.' IZ's recollection of her experience is similar to their findings. She explained to me that her husband 'said that it is a very commonplace surgery and I was over reacting.' Like Ravindran and Balasubramanian have reported, women's use of abortion services in India should not always be equated with women exercising their reproductive rights. 'A large number of women who have had abortions in this study have been denied their sexual rights but were permitted—sometimes even forced—to terminate their pregnancies for reasons unrelated to their right to choose abortion.'
According to IZ, her situation was crafted by her own poor sexual preparations. She felt that her husband RB (male 21), in contrast, was better prepared as he obtained more 'credible' information from pornographic films and older peers. It was her husband that explained standing in the sun and picking up heavy items may not be an effective strategy to terminate her pregnancy. RB contends that he anticipated sexual relations with his partner before marriage, and that his sexual learning was an organised and well planned affair:
When we first married I watched so many blue films to catch-up on what to do for sex. I talked to my friends and my brother and my cousins because I wanted to be prepared
they shared with me tips and things and I shared with them as well my tips (RB, male, 21).
RB's desperation to 'catch-up' and be a romantic and sexual expert before his wedding is inline with a dominant understanding of a 'good Muslim boy' in the slums. The normative construction of masculinity in the bustees is recognisably heterosexual, sexually confident and in some cases, sexually experienced before marriage. RB explained that he did not have access to the local NGO-sponsored class on sex education because he was not working at the time. Thus, he depended on a variety of informal sources of knowledge to prepare sexually. As a single man he shared with his peers his intimate experiences; Thomase Walle demonstrates, in certain all-male spaces in Pakistan 'moral sins are regarded as relevant for expressing maleness.' Specifically, he shows how acknowledging romantic relations, and displaying sexual knowledge amongst same-sex peers 'is itself a masculine value.'
RB and his friends joked and compared their sexual experiences in peer groups before RB's marriage, and they ritually observed pornographic movies together. RB was able to negotiate the taboo nature of these actions by suggesting that young women, and especially 'good girls', had an easier time to control their sexual desires before marriage, as 'their urges were not nearly as strong'. Like other researchers have noted, male discourses of urge and control allow young men to use sexual desire to write their own masculinities in opposition to a less amorous femininity. A 'good girl', then, is sexually controlled, chaste and inexperienced before marriage. Thus it is unsurprising that in many early marriages in the slums, sexual power imbalances exist, and this affects men and women in different ways.
Like researchers have found in South India most young women in the bustees relied completely on their husbands to educate them about intimacy. This expectation put a lot of pressure on young men to have accurate sexual and reproductive health answers:
I felt so much pressure when we first married to know everything. And even now my wife asks me all these questions and I just don't know the answers
I say go to the doctor
I do feel bad about that (W, male, 25).
In contrast to Will Courtenay's theory that health seeking knowledge and behaviours are intertwined with dominant perceptions of femininity, young women depended on their partners for accurate health information. This, of course, differs from couple to couple, and I have discussed elsewhere how health knowledge is constructed to be female knowledge in the same community. In the bustees some young men were expected to not only to posses knowledge on sexual performance—that is information on how to be good lovers—but were also expected to know and understand reproductive health matters to keep themselves and their partners healthy.
I told my wife that we can have sex during her periods, but then she heard from her friend that you can get diseases that way
she asked me and I said maybe she should go to the doctors to ask and she said "You don't know? Why don't you know?"' (V, male, 24).
As V explains, learning from pornography and peers did not adequately prepare him to be knowledgeable on both biological and emotional relationship matters, but the dominant construction of masculinity did not make room for him to say he did not know. Rather V's understanding of a good heterosexual man is one who should know everything about relationships and not knowing may cause anxieties within relationships. V's wife had two miscarriages in the last year and a half, and he explained to me that he really felt like a poor husband because he could not solve his wife's miscarriage issues. His confidence and identity as a good husband was greatly impacted by these events, and this caused strain within their relationship, 'you know that my wife had two miscarriages—I just feel so helpless about that
she asked me what we should be doing, and I don't know and feel helpless' (V, male, 24).
As similar research has revealed in the slums across India, young women in the bustees of Kolkata were much less prepared for sexual relations and intimacy than their partners. Unlike young men, however, there was little, if any, expectation for them to be knowledgeable in such matters.
I had known nothing before marriage, and not even my mother said anything to me the day before our nikah. My husband had to talk to me about it, I learned everything from him
my mother-in-law also took me to the doctor about a month after marriage (M, female, 19).
In line with the dominant social, cultural and religious expectations that young women remain sexually naïve, M reveals that she had limited knowledge about intimacy, nor was she educated by other women in her family about sex before her marriage. Once married, however, M struggled to find accurate information about contraception and spacing births. All of the young women I spoke with shared similar concerns, many revealing to me that they were desperate not to fall pregnant soon after marriage. S, the only young woman with a child, revealed to me her attempts to control reproduction soon after her marriage,
When we first got married I went to the doctor and they told me what I can do, the (birth control pill) and condom—but (her husband) would not wear condom, and I don't want to take so many pills, and the copper-t I heard it can make you infertile
I just tried to tell him no, or make a face to say no. I also took the i-pill [emergency contraception] several times when we first married S (female, 22).
S reveals a handful of methods she was aware of soon after her marriage. Like health researchers have reported throughout India, reversible contraceptive methods such as the pill, IUDs and condoms were not well used in this community. For S, the daily birth control pill felt like 'too much medicine' to her. Moreover, she understood that excessive pill taking would lead to other problems. Similarly, IUDs were seen to be unsafe, as S heard from a friend that it could cause infections, leading to infertility. Condoms were also not a suitable option as her partner refused to wear one. Public health researchers have reported South Asian women can face accusations of infidelity and/or violence when negotiating condom use in their marriages, which reflected the experiences of several young women I spoke with. S's partner PJ (male, 22) contends that condoms 'don't feel the same, you loose at least 10 percent sensitivity with it', and he was not supportive of the regular use of condoms in their relationship.
Like researchers across India have found, marriage is certainly not a protective factor against early pregnancy, STIs and sexual violence in the bustees. S, thus, resorted to other ways to prevent pregnancy and used emergency contraception (EC) several times a month. For S the popular EC 'i-pill' was both a convenient and anonymous way to control child-birth; 'I saw it on t.v, you just take it soon after you have (sex)
I've taken it like four to five times a month
that's too much, right?'.
As Relph reports about the situation in Delhi, the young women I spoke with in the bustees used EC as a regular form of contraception after marriage. Although young women suspected that such use could be harmful, the convenience and anonymity of EC made it the most popular method of 'regular' contraception in this community. Importantly, young women here are anonymous in two ways. They can purchase the pill from the local chemist without a prescription, and they can also hide taking a single pill from their family and partner. This latter point was importance for S, 'PJ thinks that babies are a gift [from Allah] and you harm your own soul by destroying it.'
Relph reports that doctors in India are increasingly seeing young women with symptoms of excessive progesterone caused by regular use of EC including the i-pill, including hormone imbalances and disrupted menstrual cycles. Just as Ravindran and Balasubramanian found in South India, young women's misinformation and incorrect use of contraception often leads to adverse health consequences—including early pregnancy. In a community where literacy levels are low and sexual and reproductive education scant, pregnancy or infertility resulting from a woman's incorrect use of an EC can possibly blacklist these methods from further use by other women in the community—as has happened with the IUD. Without formal sex education young women continue to place their own and other women's reproductive systems at risk, while young men continue to perpetuate myths of virility and desire, contributing to poor health outcomes for the community.
One of the most normative ways to control pregnancy in the bustees was abstinence, or as in the case in the slums—young women avoiding sex with their partners. As recent studies on sexual communication in India have revealed, young women often have limited communication skills or avenues with which to express desire. For some young women expressing the desire not to have sex allows them to attempt to control their fertility, as S describes above. In contrast young women had difficultly expressing sexual desire, with four of the young women I spoke to suggesting they did not have much desire to begin with. Performances of disinterest allowed young women to abide by the rules of a dominant femininity which sees women as sexually controlled beings—but these identities also perpetuated myths of male and female sexual desire and performance.
When speaking to young men and women about their intimate lives, many young couples felt they had to perform sexually in a certain way. Both men and women articulated that they felt the pressure to satisfy their partners. Since young couples have not been taught their sexual rights—including the right to say no within a relationship and the right to learn how to negotiate intimacy inside relationships—both wives and husbands expressed a sense of duty to their partners. As S explained, 'I am afraid not to have sex with my husband because I think then he'll want to go outside to have sex' (S, female, 22). P put it this way: 'I often think that it is my duty to have sex when he wants because he has been working outside all day and is tired and needs some release too' (P, female, 20).
Within a patriarchy, which privileges men's sexual desire, young women often felt pressure to have sex to make their partners happy. Men's use of sex workers and their ability to engage in extramarital affairs also pressured young women to have sex with their partners to prevent husbands from seeking sexual fulfilment outside of their marriage. For many young women, then, sex is used at times to protect themselves from STIs, and safeguard their marriages. Researchers studying sexual communication between couples in India, also suggest that young women find it easier to show that they are not interested in sex, rather than negotiate contraception use or show sexual desire. Concurrently the normative constructions of femininity suggest that a good wife should be obliging to her partners' sexual needs, especially if he is a dominant financial contributor to the family. In this way young women can use sex to achieve their desire for security within a relationship, rather than their desire for sexual fulfilment. This position is also articulated by many female members of the community. IZ's mother said: 'I told her, "now you are married, when ever he wants to do it, you do it. That is how you will keep him and how he will always listen to you".'
As researchers have found in South India , young men in the bustees also felt the obligation to satisfy their partners, and like young women, they felt they must meet the demands of their partners because of a perceived duty to be intimate in married relationships. Two different males put it this way: 'Of course when we are unwell that is different
[but] I believe that when I want to have sex I should get it because we are married, and any time she wants to I must also oblige because we are married' (W, male, 25) and 'Since we are married we must always adjust to each others feelings, and sex is also the same, we must adjust to each others needs
sometimes we will have to sacrifice to satisfy each other (Q, male, 23).
But as research has shown most young women in India find it difficult to communicate their desire. Many couples in the bustees find sexual expressions highly imbalanced, with men articulating desire for sex, and women articulating desire not to have sex.
Although both young men and women felt a strong duty to be intimate in married relationships, they also lacked the skills to negotiate sexual decision making and the skills required to communicate sexual needs. Though both young men and women lacked various communication skills, the potential for sexual violence and unwanted contact impacted on young women in particular ways. All of the young men and women I spoke to were unaware that coercing or forcing themselves on their partners was unacceptable in a marriage. They felt that married couples 'have sex', and sex was a right of 'both' husband and wife within a marriage:
I am sometimes really tired and don't want to have sex. When I tell my husband this, he says "then why did I marry? This is for married couples"' (M, female, 20)
'If I ever reject my husband he says "why should we always do it when you want to? When you come to me when you want to have it I will say no too", or he said that he will go outside or just take it from me' (IZ, female, 19).
Male sexual dominance and sexual privilege is often understood to be a key feature of a dominant masculinity in India. Young men in India often believe that they are privileged to assert their sexuality and sexual desires in particular ways within a marriage. Though a patriarchal culture does support some expressions of male sexual violence, some young men in the bustees were clearly unaware of their sexual rights and responsibilities within a marriage, as expressed by AJ, 'I didn't know that I shouldn't pressure my wife
because I am her husband, not a stranger' (AJ, male, 25). Without a comprehensive sex education programme both men and women were unaware of their sexual rights—and as a result these rights were violated because of misinformation, ignorance and poor sexual communication skills.
Conclusion: standardised sexual learning
Dominant government and grassroots level support for formal sex education in India highlights the imperative of protecting sexually-active citizens across the country, while addressing issues of population control. National organisations including public health and human rights associations have also drawn attention to risky sex practices particularly by young men, and climbing teen pregnancy rates amongst young women, to rally support for formal sex education. Though Renuka Motihar reports on a variety of responses that move beyond protectionist discourses, such advocacy is certainly in the minority. Advocacy which focuses on young women as mothers, and young men as sexually permissive, fails to challenge the dominant construction of masculinity and femininity throughout the nation. In addition it dangerously disengages from the emotional realities of sex. Such advocacy influences and feeds into the formal sex education programme in India, which covers a range of topics including hygiene, HIV, yoga and puberty. Rarely discussed is how sex education can support the intimate relations of couples. Sexual rights, desire and the skills required to negotiate a healthy sex life are mentioned in limited capacity in most sexual and reproductive health discourse and curriculum, and this obvious gap must be addressed.
To acknowledge the emotional and relational aspects of human sexual interaction is to acknowledge that sex is more than just a reproductive act. Moreover, a holistic view of sex education recognises that young people are developing beings with sexual desires, goals, needs, skills and questions. Though this comprehensive viewpoint has been argued to be contrary to 'Indian culture', there is tremendous historical and religious support for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health learning throughout Asia. Linda Rae Bennett, for example, has discussed in detail how the Qu'ran can be used to inform sex education for unmarried youth in Indonesia, and is a culturally appropriate sex education tool. She argues 'the imperative of protecting the umma (the global Muslim community), ensuring the survival of humanity' is inline with a comprehensive rights-based sex education curriculum for Muslim youth both pre and post marriage. Moreover, Bennett and Fida Sanjankar both have reviewed strategies to appropriately teach sexual and reproductive health to unmarried Muslim youth in different contexts.
Existence of an appropriate curriculum, however, does not guarantee access. Young people in marginalised communities across India have uneven and inconsistent access to formal sex education, especially state-level education. Given that private and religious educational organisations are dominant in poor communities, comprehensive sex education should be made available—and should be standardised—for these school systems as well. A standardised programme for all youth across India must have a gender sensitive curriculum focusing on a variety of sexual and reproductive health issues and include a practical component that teaches communication skills and assertiveness training. Thus there is a great need to revisit the standardised AEP/LSE curriculum currently offered, and an imperative to standardise sex and reproductive education throughout formal and non-formal institutions across India.
 The author would like to thank all the young people who have participated in this research, my fellow panelists at the 2010 Women in Asia Conference, The Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, and the Shastri Indo Canadian Institute for funding the research on which this article is based.
 At the time of writing $1US = Rs. 44
 250,000 people over a 2.5 square kilometre area.
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 Add endnote for quotation here
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