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Women in Love


Women in Love
As photographer Naureen Shah’s portraits depict, South Asian
lesbians in the west, by virtue of their colour and alternative
lifestyle, are a minority twice over.

By Naziha Syed Ali

Makeover or Move Over

When Toronto-based photographer Naureen Shah (right) began to contact South

Asian lesbians in the US and Canada for a photo project, little did she know that she
would be seen as an intruder in a close-knit community fiercely protective of its own.
“This is our little world. Don’t enter it because we can’t enter the larger world,” she
was told bluntly.

The closing of ranks was ironic, given that Naureen’s intention from the very
beginning, far from being exploitative, had been to illustrate through her photographs,
that non-white, sexually diverse individuals in a predominantly white society are a
minority within a minority. “South Asian lesbians are usually disowned by their
families,” says Naureen. “Most South Asians, even those living abroad, cannot
comprehend the concept of lesbianism; they can’t understand how two women can have
sex with each other. Then, South Asian lesbians in the west can’t even associate with
the mainstream lesbians because they’re categorised as women of colour and culturally
as well, they’re very different.” This dissociation from family and from society has
resulted in an isolation that is reinforced by the community’s almost paranoid fear of

The inspiration for Naureen’s project, which was to culminate in a photo

exhibition, was a series of chance encounters with South Asian lesbians in Canada,

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Women in Love

many of whom surprised her with the ease with which they accepted their sexuality
despite belonging to a marginalised section of society. One of the lesbians whom
Naureen met was a 50-plus Indian named Rita Kohli who runs a shelter for women in
Toronto, and subsequently agreed to be one of the participants in Naureen’s project. In
the text titled “Refusing to be closeted”, that accompanies her portrait, Kohli writes:

What is it that I can say that gives meaning

to the lived experiences of South Asian lesbians?

As an older South Asian dyke living with a disability,

I am a survivor of male violence.

Now live in exile....

a precarious existence in the face of the

politics of power, privilege and oppression.

As a lesbian engaged in cutting edge political work,

I will be exiled again and again.

Still, I continue to do my work

With a sense of pride and dignity.

To do otherwise would mean living with self-hatred.

I refuse to be anything but who I am.

“My conversations with such lesbians from the South Asian region led me to
think that it would be very interesting to do a photo project with them in which the text,
provided by the participants themselves, could reach out to those who do not belong to
the lesbian community so that they can understand how lesbians feel,” says Naureen. “
It was thus meant to be an educative process and did not have a purely artistic aim – I
didn’t want to exploit the sexual aspect of their lives,” .

With the idea for the project taking shape in her mind, she applied for the
coveted Canada Arts Council grant – along with about 5000 other applicants – and
won. That proved to be the easy part. The uphill battle began when Naureen began
contacting lesbian acquaintances and lesbian organisations for participants to the
project. At best, she was firmly rebuffed and at worst, she encountered open hostility.
“The ones who didn’t know me would ask me how I identified myself – as a dyke, a
femme, or a bi-sexual – and when I told them I was straight, they would abruptly
refuse,” recalls Naureen. “‘How can you represent us? You don’t know anything about
us,’ they would say.” Resentment was voiced that a heterosexual rather than a gay

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Women in Love

photographer had received the grant for the project with some even alleging that had
Naureen been a lesbian, the grant would have been refused. No amount of reiteration
that she had not been required to mention her sexual orientation nor had she chosen to
do so on her application for the grant would convince them otherwise. Says Naureen,
“They’re very complexed because they’ve been so discriminated against even in the

It seemed that both sides were operating on entirely different wavelengths.

While the lesbian community perceived her concept as a kind of power play in which
they would be passive subjects manipulated before the camera, Naureen visualised it as
teamwork in which each participant would decide upon the text, and both would
develop the visuals accordingly.

After being turned down by almost 50 South Asian lesbians during the course of
over six months, Naureen was on the verge of shelving the whole project. As a last
resort, she posted a notice inviting participants for the project on the website of Desh – a
South Asian-based organisation that promotes artists. She avoided any mention of her
own sexual orientation. This time around, the response was more positive. “I got six
replies from New York alone,” she says. “I got in touch with them immediately. They
didn’t ask me and I didn’t tell them – they assumed I was gay.”

When she at last began the photography sessions, Naureen’s non-disclosure of

her sexuality engendered mixed experiences. While in some instances, the participants
instinctively deduced that she did not share their sexual orientation, and did not make it
an issue, all the shoots were not easy going. One experience, midway through the
project, was particularly disturbing. Naureen had gone to the New York apartment of
two young Sri Lankan women for a photography session. Another lesbian friend of
theirs also happened to be present at the time. Two of the girls were bisexuals and one
was a pure lesbian. While discussing the visuals, one of the girls suggested that they be
photographed topless. Says Naureen, “There was nothing vulgar or obscene about it;
she was a lovely girl, a butch with very short hair. Then I photographed her partner and
while I was taking pictures of the third girl, the first two spontaneously began to get
physical with each other. I shot that and they were very comfortable with it; in fact
there were shots in which they were looking straight at the camera.” The session over,
Naureen began packing up her equipment and handed over the consent forms to the
three women for their signatures, a legal requirement before she could print any of their
photographs. Suddenly, one of the girls asked, “So Naureen, what’s your sexuality?”
Recalls Naureen, “The three of them were just quietly watching and waiting for my
response and I realised at that moment that ‘Oh my god! I have a complex about my
own sexuality in this situation!’ I felt a little threatened because I was outnumbered. I
even considered whether I should lie and get out of there but in the end, with a very
guilty face, I admitted that I was straight.” The women’s reaction was swift. They
snatched back the consent forms they had just signed and tore them up, telling her
emphatically that they did not give her permission to use their photographs. Despite the
rebuff, Naureen remained in touch with the women, keen to convince them that her
intention had not been to deceive them. Although they would not concede to her
request to allow her permission to print the

pictures, one of them did ultimately consent to an alternative proposal suggested

by Naureen; that instead of her photograph, she would have an empty frame in its place
accompanied by her text. “I felt that that in itself would be a very strong statement. As
it turned out, the text is so beautiful. In it she’s put down all the reasons why her picture

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Women in Love

is missing from the frame – it’s a matter of trust.”

Following is an excerpt from the above mentioned text....

I trusted Naureen

Because she was South Asian...

Because I thought she was Queer...

Because she was a woman

She had that nervous vulnerability

I asked how she identified

And she said, “Straight”

But you said We lesbians need to show,


So today my picture and name are absent.

I am not ashamed or scared

because I want to tell my story.

Being Queer doesn’t make me less Tamil

And being Tamil doesn’t make me less Queer.

I am not the “Other” to be studied


Or put on display.

I have worked so hard

To stand where I am now

But, what if my parents see?

This is my world,

Not their world.

They are Sri Lankan.

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Women in Love

I am American.......

My photos and name are

Absent ——— NOT a slip

I want control over my own IMAGE

It took Naureen one year to complete the project. Titled, “Look beyond Labels,”
it includes photographs of 13 women aged between 19 and 50 whose only criteria for
selection was that they be South Asian and sexually diverse, which meant that both
lesbians and bisexuals were eligible. However, while Indians, Sri Lankans and
Bangladeshis all make an appearance in the collection, Pakistanis are conspicuous by
the absence. According to Naureen, Pakistani lesbians have not yet come out, and she
feels that until she includes some, her work will not be truly complete.

This omission notwithstanding, Naureen says, “With each of them it’s been a
journey. Each visual is different. For instance, I photographed a Sikh girl who’s very
traditional and lives with her family. I photographed her in the gurdwara. Her text is in
the form of a letter to her mother explaining who she is. Although she’s mentioned her
sexuality to her family, her mother thinks that she’s involved with someone, a man, and
this is just an excuse not to get married to anyone her family selects for her.”

One portrait that Naureen cites as truly remarkable is that of a Bangladeshi

father and daughter. While the father, whom his daughter describes as “her best friend”,
is totally supportive of her lifestyle, her mother refuses to acknowledge the issue of
lesbianism altogether. The rapport between the father and daughter lights up the
portrait, which was taken at her apartment, the father having come over for the shoot.

“To be honest,” says Naureen, “I didn’t realise what I was getting into when I
started. In the beginning I was working on the similarities rather than the differences. I
said I’m a South Asian, a woman, but they said ‘no, you’re different; you’re an
outsider.’ At first I was resentful of their attitude but by the end of the project I learnt to
appreciate the differences. The message I kept picking up was that it’s not just a matter
of sexuality; it’s a matter of lifestyle.” Naureen also discovered unexpected aspects of
sexual politics at play in this alternate lifestyle. For instance, she learnt that many
lesbians resent bisexuals, describing them as “tourists in the world of lesbians” and
“women who are not honest to the cause of lesbians.”

“A lot of my perceptions changed over the year I worked on this project,” says
Naureen. She mentions the shoot she did with an Indian bisexual in New York, a
performing artist who is deeply immersed in the eastern music tradition. Naureen
photographed her in a benarsi sari, bangles on her wrists, hands decorated with henna,
kissing her black American female lover. “I thought I would be repulsed,” says
Naureen. “But that wasn’t the case. I also believe now that in most cases, lesbian
orientation is inborn; many of the women said that even while they were growing up
they knew that they were never attracted to men.”

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Women in Love

The texts that accompany the photographs offer a glimpse into the psyche of the
women portrayed. A vein of defiance runs through them, a challenge thrown to the
accepted notions of sexuality and a refusal to be either objects of voyeurism or even
pity. Nevertheless, as Rita Kohli says so eloquently in her text, women like her “live in
exile” and are destined to be “exiled again and again.”

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