Cultural values and belief systems permeate the mind of an Indian woman’s view of her place in the world. Life views are based primarily on an understanding of ones dharma and karma. Dharma, a Hindu concept, is defined as the traditional established order, including all individual, moral, social, and religious duties. Each person’s dharma is determined by contextual factors such as stage of life cycle. For Indian women, identity is based on relationships—mother, daughter, niece, sister, pupil—and identities
outside of these may seem inconceivable (Jayakar, 1994). Dharma, there fore, has profound implications on a woman’s sexual identity.
In traditional Indian cultures, marriages are arranged. Women are chosen and must be observed by members of the prospective family so that they may make note of her physical attributes. Many brides and grooms do not see each other face to face until the wedding day, when the bride’s face is unveiled in a romanticized ritual. To not marry is a source of em barrassment and humiliation for the woman’s family. There is a stigma attached to remaining single, and families will pay hefty dowries to ensure that their daughters are married off. In the tradition of arranged marriages, implicit is the expectation that the bride-to-be is a virgin. Brides who are found to be sullied will be returned in disgrace to their family. This is illustrated in the following clinical example:
K., a 36-year-old Indian woman entered treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. While in India, K. was raped in her early 20s. K.’s family subsequently rushed to arrange a marriage for her as she was considered tainted, tarnished, and impure. K. struggled with issues around her self image as well as her role as a sexual being. She developed conversion symptoms whereby she was unable to “see” her body in a mirror, from her breast up. She was reluctant to engage with her husband sexually, but did so out of obligation, particularly since he was the man who allowed her honor to be saved. Although she entered treatment 15 years after the rape took place, she continued to feel dirty and spoiled, because her virtue was stripped away after the rape, and she brought embarrassment to her traditional Indian family. K., who has two pre adolescent daughters, is very fearful for them and unwilling to speak of them in any sexual terms.
Jayakar (1994) notes that Indian women are treated like property and are valued according to their physical attributes. Jayakar notes that “stories of the wedding night experience highlight the blatant lack of attention given to the importance of sexual satisfaction for women, and sexual ed ucation in modern Indian culture for both men and women” (Jayakar, 1994, p. 170).