‘The World Did Not Let Us Live’

What Led To The Suicide of a same sex couple in ‘Homophobic’ Gujarat

By Simantini Dey

At about 1:46 am on 11 June 2018, the cops of River Front West Police Station received a distress call from the control room and were asked to hurry near Ellis bridge on the River Front, where two women had reportedly committed suicide with a child.

By the time they reached, the fire brigade had already fished out bodies of these women and the child from the Sabarmati River. The women were already dead, but they suspected that the child may still be alive and therefore, rushed her to a nearby hospital. However, she too was declared dead at the hospital.

After going through the belongings of the deceased, police discovered one of the women's Aadhaar card, in which her residential address was listed as Bavla, Gujarat. They intimated the Bavla thana to locate the family of the deceased and inform them. The other woman was identified as a resident of Rajoda.

In the next few hours that followed, before the families of both the women arrived, and reporters began to flock, police also found two suicide notes -- one scribbled on a plastic plate and the other written under the railing of the riverfront with red lipstick.

In the reported suicide notes that these two women left behind first came a disclaimer—“We did not have any men with us". Perhaps this was their way of 'protecting their families' honor' by letting the world know that they had not run away with men. Both the women belonged to the Thakor community, a socially and economically backward class in Gujarat, which is deeply patriarchal and conservative.

However, what followed the disclaimer was a declaration of their love for one another. One of the suicide notes read, "We had distanced ourselves from the world so that we could unite, but the world did not let us live." Although it cannot be said for certain if the two women were lesbians or bisexuals, one thing was clear: they had chosen to come out to the world about their homosexual relationship after their deaths, through their suicide notes.

Like many other homosexual couples from rural India, they were left with hard choices. They had eloped three days before their deaths (8 June 2018), in the hope to find a safe space for themselves, where they will be accepted. Unfortunately, they never found it.

"Generally rural areas are controlled by caste identities and male domination, which is why lesbians or even issues related to gender are marginalized in Gujarat society..."

noted sociologist Gaurang Jani. "We cannot create an enabling environment for discussion of such issues, and that's why these incidents happen," he added.

  • One of the suicide notes which was scribbled on a plastic plate.
  • Jani pointed out that no one discusses or talks about the LGBT communities even from a social science perspective in Gujarat. "In schools and colleges, there is no sex education...you cannot find a single article or a lesson in the Gujarati textbook from the sixth standard to twelve standards, about homosexuality. So I think there is a culture of silence about it," he said.

    Despite the growing number of pride parades, Facebook support groups and communities, as well as pride filters on Instagram, things aren't particularly better in urban cities as well. However, in rural areas, the entrenched stigma against homosexuality is so deep that it makes it difficult to even start a dialogue about it. What makes it worse is, there are very few NGOs or social workers who work on queer issues.

    Ashok Row Kavi, founder of Humsafar Trust pointed out that the divide between rural and urban is in terms of perception to sexuality. “It is because the exposure of female sexuality in urban areas is high. In rural areas, it is not so much," he said.

    However, he added, "Men cannot tolerate either in rural or urban areas that women can do without them. There is some sort of bitterness when they see that women can do without them..."

    One of the few groups that work closely with the LGBTQ community in rural Gujarat is Vikalp Women's Group. Maya Sharma from the organization pointed out how little has been done, especially for lesbians in rural areas.

  • Another suicide note which was written under the railing of the riverfront with red lipstick.
  • "There are very few people who are reaching out to the rural areas and working on queer issues," she said. Sharma pointed out that because of HIV sensitization, gays and transgender members of the community are quite visible and have some support, but lesbians are stigmatized. “Even those who work on these issues, are likely to stay underground," she said.

    However, Maya, who has worked with several queer and transgender couples over the last decade was full of heartening stories from the same rural Gujarat that forced the two women to commit suicide.

    Sharma said that she’s aware of couples, even in rural areas, who have been accepted by their family. “There’s a farmer couple, and they live together and has been accepted into their families," she said.

    Although rural communities are generally perceived as anti-homosexuality, it is not always the case, noted LGBTQ activist, Harish Iyer. "When I came out to my house help and told her that I was gay, she just said that 'hamare gaon mein bahaut sare hai aise.' It didn't seem to be an issue at all..." he said.

    Unfortunately, though there are these exceptions, they are not the norm. While lesbian suicides in urban cities make headlines every year, the main reason for them being familial opposition and reactions of parents, the reports that sometimes come out of the hinterland of India are horrifying tales of attempted honor killings and/or corrective rapes.

    Most LGBTQ activists believe that even among homosexuals, lesbians are marginalized. "I personally believe that women even within the LGBT community face discrimination, one because of their gender and second because of their sexuality,” said Harish Iyer.

    "Even when we speak about the LGBT community, it is not a monolith. It is not that all of us are all loving and all kind. If there is patriarchy, if there is misogyny in the general world, there is misogyny in the LGBT world as well," he added.

    There are very few people who are reaching out to the rural areas and working on queer issues - Maya Sharma
    Sadly, most of the times, crimes against lesbian women are not even reported, and media too pays very little attention to such news.

    The reports that media do pick up, for example, is the recent suicide of the two women in Gujarat. With sensational headlines like "Lesbian couple commits suicide, throwing baby in the water" which are clickbait at best, they pay no heed to the impact that these headlines might have on popular perception about homosexuality.

    Vidya, a member of LGBTQ community from Ahmedabad says, "The moment you say that 'lesbian mother' throws the baby in water, it implies that a lesbian mother is capable of killing her child, a lesbian mother is a bad mother. You cannot put it out there without contextualizing how she must have been forced by the society to take such an extreme step." But, what is more problematic is, she pointed out, despite good intentions, media doesn't know how to report queer news with the sensitivity it requires.

    While reporting this particular suicide case, some channels resorted to a re-enactment of lesbian relationship by showing two models canoodling, others took sensual representative images of two women. However, no one bothered to ask the most obvious and simple question: What drove these two women to take such an extreme step?

    Police inspector of River Front West, MA Singh told this reporter that she suspected that the families knew about their relationship, which may have been a big reason for several clashes and showdowns in their respective households.

    The relatives of both the women did not take back their corpses to their respective hometowns and completed the last rites in Ahmedabad itself, she informed.

    Both the families considered this incident to be a public embarrassment and wanted to be done with it as soon as possible. When I called one of the family members in Jalalpur, asking when I should visit him, I was told, "mat aayiye madam, aap ayenge toh gaon wale sab jama ho jayenge, hamari badnami hogi" (Please don't come madam. If you come, the villagers will all gather here, and we will be shamed publically)

    Despite the growing number of pride parades, Facebook support groups and communities, as well as pride filters on Instagram, things aren't particularly better in urban cities as well.

    The families had all the sympathies of the cops as well as their villagers. Singh narrated to me in great detail how one of the women's husband fainted on seeing her body and was rushed to the hospital where he was admitted for two days. On the night the families came to claim the bodies, the woman inspector said that she didn't want to disturb them in "their moment of grief" and therefore, she did not insist on asking too many questions. However, now that a whole week has passed, the families have not been particularly cooperative in answering questions and filing statements with the police.

    When I visited Rajoda (a small village in Bavla Tehsil, Gujarat), where one of the deceased lived, I realized that locals were very resentful of 'what she had done'. One of them told me bitterly that the deceased was responsible for the predicament her in-laws and children are in.

    The deceased woman's brother-in-law revealed that his brother had forbidden her to go to work for the past few months after he came to know about her relationship with the other woman.

    "She (my sister-in-law) used to finish all her household chores before going to work, but my brother might have sensed something, therefore, he stopped her from working," said Mukesh. He also revealed that his brother, i.e. the deceased woman's husband committed suicide, a day after she left.

    "After she left, my brother started regretting. He thought now she will never be found, so he committed suicide," added Mukesh. As Mukesh spoke to me it became obvious that he had no intention of victim shaming. However, his reasons for not doing so was different. He thought the more his sister-in-law's name got dragged into discussions of homosexuality, his and his family's honor will get maligned. He also questioned the legitimacy of the suicide note, "My sister-in-law is not that educated that she would write all that. She had only studied till 2nd standard."

    The family of the other deceased woman, who lived in Bavla claimed to be oblivious of the relationship. Her mother told me that she had left home on 8 June. "She took her younger daughter and said, 'I'll go and get my salary from the factory' and she left." said her mother.

    When she did not return for hours her mother called Vishal (the deceased woman's brother)who started looking for her. Vishal said that the whole incident was a big shock for him. During this period, Vishal told me that his sister was contacted by the factory she worked in and she reportedly said that she will be back for work in a few days.

    Talking about his sister, he said, "Bahaut achchi ladki thi, kabhi kisi ladke ko aakh uthake nahi dekha." (she was a girl of good character. She never looked at another man) He too denied that the suicide note was written in his sister's handwriting.

    At the time of their deaths, one of the women was 30-year-old and the other was 28. One had two sons (age 13 and 14) and the other had two daughters, one age 6 and the other, who died along with her was 3-year-old. Both had been married for years.

    While the locals and family members will talk about their deaths, no one is willing to talk about there relationship. Therefore, it is hard to know their love story. It began in Sari gaon, near Matoda, where the two women met at their work place I have been told, but that's the beginning and end of it all. The rest, only the dead knew, because such relationships are not still not discussed among friends or told to families.

    The woman inspector who handled this particular case told me that these two women eloped on 8 June, 2018 and yet no missing person's report was filed by either of the families. Her team has pulled out phone records of one of the deceased and discovered that she had spoken to one of the family members between 8 June (the day she left home) and 11 June (the day her body was found) although the families had not revealed that information to the cops initially.

    What transpired in the three days that drove them towards suicide is hard to tell. Singh told me that they mostly spent their nights in temples and kept moving during the day and they had some money left, which was found along with their belongings. A question that kept bothering me was who could they have turned to for support?

    Sociologist Gaurang Jani pointed out that in district level there are helplines that have social workers who are generally women, and who are supposed to offer counsel to such women if they reach out. However, he added, these social workers have very little understanding of homosexuality themselves, and therefore, often they do not know how to offer correct counsel to such individuals who are in desperate need of help.

    On the last day of their lives, these two women were in Ahmedabad, where they finally committed suicide at the wee hours of the morning. Ahmedabad has a vibrant yet small LGBTQ community that comes out to support one another in times of need and support. However, despite the good work they are doing, it is still hard for them to reach out to the rural sections of Gujarat and offer help and support and they are acutely aware that much help is needed by queer communities in such areas.

    Anahita Sarabhai and Shamini Kothari opened QueerAbad almost two years ago in order to provide an all-inclusive, safe space to the members of LGBTQ community in Ahmedabad. However, they too have been forced to work within their limited parameters of urban, people-with-access-to-internet section. In a short span, they had done some good work, however, the reason why QueerAbad is significant is that it is one those rare LGBTQ communities in Gujarat that is public and therefore, way more accessible.

    When I asked them about the suicide of these two women, Shamini Kothari said, "... if life is complicated for you even though you have money and are queer, for somebody of a lower caste, who is also queer, life is just doubly hard."

    There is a clear gender divide, that is not even urban or rural - Ashok Row Kavi
    "Access to everything becomes a struggle, and most often it is not as simple as saying, I'm going to put on a pride filter, and come out to the world and that's the end of my struggle. The struggle is every day, the struggle is existence, which is partly the reason why suicides happen, and why so many queer lives are lost or killed and those are not the kind of news that get out very often," she added.

    Police have filed a case against the two women who committed suicide under section 302 for the alleged murder of the child. "They (the women) might have wanted to commit suicide, but the child didn't," the police inspector of riverfront west, Singh pointed out.

    While it is true, that the law must take its course, it is also perhaps time to ask the question that where is our collective consciousness as a society, if we passively keep consuming news of such tragic suicides, and accusing the victims, who have been pushed by societal and familial pressures to take such extreme steps. In a country, where the law doesn't provide protection to members of LGBTQ community, if we too as a society, do not persevere to be more inclusive what does that say about us? Row Kavi suggests we should all go back to the basics. Begin with sex education, teach children, as well as adults about gender and sexuality.

    "There is a clear gender divide, that is not even urban or rural...I get letters from Satara or ladies reading groups in Kohlapur, and these women do ask questions like, 'why don't we ever see young 7 or 8-year-old hijras on the road?', 'Do homosexuals have same sexual organs as the hijras?'”

    Kavi said that there is a woeful ignorance about sexuality and gender. “Whether it is rural or urban, the levels of awareness about these issues are very poor,” he said.