Fire': Symbolic Significance of Women’s Bodies, Sexuality, and Chastity for Indian Culture

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Words: 1091 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Aug 1, 2022

Words: 1091|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Aug 1, 2022

The film Fire presents an overlapping framework of different issues involving the myths and reality of lesbianism and lesbian desire, sexual preferences and freedom of expression, and the symbolic significance of women’s bodies and chastity for Indian culture and tradition. These invoked issues make up the film’s core of debate highlighting the notion of compulsory heterosexuality as it provides a strong reflection of Indian culture and tradition as essentially rooted in male control over female sexuality. Introduced by Adrienne Rich, compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that heterosexuality is enforced and made to be the norm by a patriarchal society. On the other hand, Gayle Rubin made the argument that though the social construction of lesbianism as deviant is a powerful force behind the principle of compulsory heterosexuality, the feminist insistence on regulated sexuality even between women is equally powerful and oppressive. This argument suggests that it is also important to challenge social control and sexual correctness “within” the feminist movement to prevent the type of lesbian feminism that works against liberating women from all forms of oppression.

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Firstly, one of the most horrid nature of a sexual relationship that violates the symbolic significance of a woman’s body was strongly shown through Justin's sexual attitude towards his wife, Sita. The realistic portrayal of their traditional marriage parallels with Rich’s theory of how compulsory heterosexuality emerges from the subjection of women to men. In the film, Justin's sexual access and demanding acts are evidently protected by compulsory heterosexuality and reinforced by the expected norms of Indian culture and tradition. The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir presents the same idea of how women’s inferiority was constructed and forced upon women by society. Throughout history, women were only viewed as the “the object, the secondary and the other” of men. She states, “The lie to which the adolescent girl is condemned is that she must pretend to be an object, and a fascinating one…”. This statement by De Beauvoir suggests how a woman’s power has always been linked to sexuality in being the object of sexual attraction based on their physical appearance and reproductive capacity.

Secondly, the pattern of sexual preferences was represented by Radha and Ashok’s relationship which is at the opposite side of the sexual spectrum. When it was revealed that Radha was unable to bear children, Ashok turned his wife's incapacity to conceive as an opportunity for him to attain spiritual freedom. As part of his practice, he forces his wife to lie beside him on the bed to prove that he can resist and detach himself from sexual pleasures. This image shows how Ashok used religion to control Radha as she consents to her husband's demands. In Chandra Mohanty’s article Feminism without borders, she emphasized her goal of deconstructing the monolithic construction of the “third world woman” as victims of male control and violence, but more importantly, as a homogenous powerless group, exploited, and sexually harassed mainly by men. As a viewer, one can clearly sense the imbalance of equality and the emotional agony Radha had endured to fulfill her husband’s demand. This mirrors the monolithic construction of third-world women being a homogenous powerless group, as seen from how Ashok perpetuated and controlled the power of Radha through restrictions on her sexual desires. In addition, the film also tried its best to represent the authentic construction of sexuality in lesbian desire by effectively providing a timeline of how both women developed a mutually supportive and loving relationship that progressively formed into sexual love. The shifting of sexual preferences could be read and interpreted as a strong response to the patriarchal neglect of Indian men towards their wives. As seen from Radha and Sita’s situation, as both women were oppressed in their respective marriages, one possible interpretation of lesbianism could come from the context of power imbalances. The mistreatment and abuse of women by male power within the confinements of a patriarchal and traditional family could result in the formation of sexual relationships without necessarily involving men.

Lastly, the struggle that occurred between Radha and Ashok was a pivotal point in the film. Ashok who had been asserting all his control and authority to stress his disapproval of his wife’s actions and behavior was unable to even raise a hand to help put out the flames when her saree catches fire. This is pivotal because precisely at this moment, the viewer was made aware that the fire enveloping Radha indicates a larger narrative of the film with a symbolic significance. The symbolism of fire or Agni in the ancient Hindu tradition represents a purifying god that safeguards the household and witnesses all important actions. This includes bearing witness to the chastity of women. In the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, Rama's wife Sita was forcibly taken away by Ravana, the king of Lanka, and kept in his palace as a prisoner for a considerable time. Upon Sita’s return to Rama's kingdom, she had to prove her chastity first by “Agni-Pareeksha” to determine her fate. In this ordeal of fire, the accused is made to enter the fire and emerge unhurt to prove innocence before being accepted again. In this story, Agni does not harm Sita, thus proving her chastity. Similarly in the film, Radha established her chastity by not being harmed by the fire through her burnt saree and smeared face bear traces of the ordeal.

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In conclusion, women aren’t simply silent victims of an oppressive gender system. One of their power is derived from their capacity to resist the prescribed social order of patriarchy. For years, women have always been inferior of men in all facets of life. Nevertheless, women play a pivotal role in constructing social order, not simply disrupting it. Such constructions of gender and sexuality especially of women being the powerful one as potential disruption becomes problematic, especially for men without a strict patriarchal system. With a more accepting and open outlook, we have to continue taking on modern and flexible views on sexuality and how it interconnects with different systems of oppression between and within our society. 

Works Cited

  1. Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  2. Rubin, Gayle. Thinking Sex: Notes for a radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality/ Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Carole S. Vance, ed., 1984.
  3. De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
  4. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without borders: decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Duke University Press, 2003.
  5. External source for the Story of Ramayana
  6. Cartwright, Mark. Ancient History Encyclopedia: Agni., 2015.
  7. Basu, Anindita. Ancient History Encyclopedia: The Ramayana., 2016.     
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Fire’: Symbolic Significance of Women’s Bodies, Sexuality, and Chastity for Indian Culture. (2022, August 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“Fire’: Symbolic Significance of Women’s Bodies, Sexuality, and Chastity for Indian Culture.” GradesFixer, 01 Aug. 2022,
Fire’: Symbolic Significance of Women’s Bodies, Sexuality, and Chastity for Indian Culture. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
Fire’: Symbolic Significance of Women’s Bodies, Sexuality, and Chastity for Indian Culture [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Aug 01 [cited 2024 Mar 4]. Available from:
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