Growing up Hindu, the message was clear: men could enjoy sex, women could not. I broke the rules anyway; I knew I could not be caged in like some animal controlled by the village of aunties, uncles, and the temple community, always watching me, reminding me how to be a “respectable” woman. A budding feminist, I recoiled at the expectation of modesty and pressure to repress my sexuality. I decided this interpretation of Hinduism wasn’t for me.
But I wasn’t going to let backward misogynists take my faith — and a major part of my culture — away from me entirely. Outside of temple, my mother taught me that Hinduism is about the oneness of all living beings, and that we have a moral duty to love and protect one another. I learned the importance of seva, or selfless service, and the principle of karma, as we made food to donate to the homeless. I learned about the fierce power of shakti, the divine feminine creative energy. I was fascinated by the beautiful nude statues affixed to ancient temples, which showed men and women enjoying pleasure.
When I became pregnant as a teenager, I only told two friends. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents, and the thought of my community finding out made my stomach churn. Like Sita, I knew I would end up standing trial and banished. I’d be labeled a pariah in my family and community. I’d be held up as an example of what young women should aspire not to become. And when I decided to have an abortion, my religion’s cultural expectation of purity was swirling in my mind. I knew I wasn’t ready to parent, that to try to do so would cause my dreams to come crashing down. I also knew that going through with the pregnancy would expose that I had done the most shameful thing: sex.
After my abortion, I moved away from home. I read literature by feminists of color and built a circle of friends who supported me to be my most authentic self. Knowing there were others out there like me, and that they weren’t ashamed, really changed my perspective and helped me on my journey.