How Indian courts define a married woman’s place

In defining ‘cruelty’ in divorce cases—wives who don’t wear a mangalsutra or prioritise careers or want to live separately from their in-laws or do not make tea—Indian courts often fall back on stereotypes of the role of wives in marriage. My report with Surbhi Karwa for Article14.

Illustration: Tara Anand for Article14

Momita was visiting her grandmother at 7 pm on 13 January 2018 when Alamin Miah dropped by and asked her to step outside. Then, he threw acid on her face. The attack left her with third-degree burns on her forehead and eyelids and second-degree deep burns on her face and right shoulder. The damage and disfigurement are permanent.

Alamin Miah is Momita’s husband.

They had married in March 2017 but within days Alamin began beating Momita for failing to bring a dowry of Rs 10,000. Five months later, he dropped her off at her father’s house. When he changed his mind some weeks later and asked her to return, she refused.

A sessions judge gave Alamin the maximum sentence under the law against acid violence: imprisonment for life and a Rs 100,000 fine payable to Momita. For violating section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, he was sentenced to another three years in jail with an additional Rs 5,000 fine.

Alamin appealed against the decision. On 20 July 2020, a two-judge bench of the Tripura High Court reduced the sentence, citing Momita’s refusal to return to her matrimonial home, the same home where she was being beaten by her husband, as a mitigating factor.

The judges found Momita’s testimony about the acid attack “cogent and consistent”. Yet, they observed, “His reluctant wife was not willing to reunite with him which might have caused a sense of frustration…we cannot overlook this mitigating circumstance.”

Alamin’s sentence was reduced from life to 10 years, the minimum under the law. The fine payable to his wife was also brought down from Rs one lakh to Rs 25,000.

Sex work in the time of Covid-19

The lockdown and social distancing measures have pushed India’s sex workers to the edge

Pic courtesy: International Women’s Health Coalition/Creative Commons

In March, Jayashree Patil learned that she had been accepted to a nine-month leadership training programme in Washington, D.C. She had every reason to be proud. It was a competitive programme and she had completed her schooling under extremely challenging circumstances.

Then coronavirus paralysed the world, and the training programme was deferred by a year.

Jayashree, the daughter of a sex worker born and raised in Mumbai’s red-light district, Kamathipura, was devastated. “I can’t wait for a year,” she told me on the phone. It would mean putting on hold her plans to complete her B.A. “Next year I’ll be in university. I won’t be able to take nine months off.’’

As alleged rapists roam free, gang-rape survivor is sent to jail

A traumatised gang-rape survivor who raised her voice in a Bihar district court and asked for two social workers–they helped her complain to police–while recording her statement was arrested along with the two social workers. With the district under lockdown, it is anybody’s guess when she will be released.

Image courtesy: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism in India

Two weeks after a Karnataka High Court judge observed that falling asleep after rape was “unbecoming of an Indian woman”, a judge at the Araria District Court in Bihar has sent a gangrape survivor to jail.

“Sending to prison a woman who has been raped will have a chilling effect on women as a class. It impedes access to justice”, Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover said. “With the arrest and imprisonment, the rape survivor’s worst fears have come true and reinforce the hesitation and apprehension that women have in approaching the criminal justice system.”  

Recording a statement made by a 22-year-old woman four days after being gang-raped by four men–none of whom have as yet been arrested–district judge Mustafa Shahi sent the rape survivor along with two social workers who had accompanied her to jail. 

The three are at present lodged at Dalsinghsarai jail in Samastipur district, some 240 km from Araria where the rape is alleged to have taken place and where the survivor lives. 

Ban ‘conversion therapy’

Demonising doctors and families who force individuals to undergo conversion therapy is the easy bit. The far harder part is the work that must go into building an affirmative society that is respectful of individual choice

Nothing to ‘cure’, the kids are alright. Pic courtesy: The Better India

K’s parents prided themselves on being educated and liberal and yet, when he told them he was gay, he remembers his mother saying: “You don’t have to flaunt it. After all we do live in society.”

K is one of the lucky ones, unlike the many who, when they come out to their families, are dragged off to psychiatrists, counselors, godmen and sundry quacks for a ‘cure’.

The suicide of a woman in Kerala has ignited conversation on this so-called ‘conversion therapy’. There is talk in some activist circles of legal options. An online petition wants mental health practitioners to pledge support to LGBTQI+ people. And four different professional organisations such as the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy, have issued statements debunking it.

Conversion therapy has ‘absolutely no scientific basis’, says Vikram Patel, psychiatrist and professor of global health at Harvard Medical School. “It has been prohibited by every major psychiatric association in the world, including India.”

Talk to boys about consent

If sex education is too loaded a term for educators and policy-makers, call it something else — value education, life skills, consent education — but we can no longer ignore how desperately we need it in India’s school curriculums

Consent: as simple as a cup of tea. Watch the video here.

In 2018, Mini Saxena, a lawyer, moved back to India from the United Kingdom (UK) and learned for the first time just how tough it was to get schools to accept the idea of consent education.

Saxena had volunteered with a consent project in middle and high schools in the UK and wanted to bring the idea to India. It would teach kids why they needed to respect boundaries, and what their protections were under the law when these were crossed.

A 2007 Government of India survey had found that 53% of children, boys as well as girls, had been abused. Surely, such a project would be welcomed.

Not quite, she says: “I approached many schools. Nobody said ‘we can’t do this’ but they kept stalling under various excuses including, ‘we need parental approval’.”

Women show the way

It cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women are doing comparatively better at battling the Covid-19 pandemic

Angela Merkel’s Germany witnessed a high infection but comparatively low death rate. Creative Commons/eugenbittner

Six days before Kerala recorded its first coronavirus case on January 30, health minister KK Shailaja made plans. She was following the news from Wuhan, China, where many students from the state were studying, and the minister knew there was no room for complacency.

The state’s international airports began screening, a control room was set up, and contact tracing and testing started. By early February, Kerala had shut down public events, movie halls, and schools. Children would get midday meals at home and community kitchens were set up in villages and municipal areas.

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Kerala had 104 confirmed cases, roughly a fifth of the 564 in India. By April 15, only 3.38% or 387 cases of 11,439 cases in India were from Kerala. There have been three deaths so far.

To give sole credit to Shailaja for the state’s containment of the virus would be an exaggeration. Kerala’s health care system and its high ranking on human development indices such as literacy and nutritional status give it an edge.

Women are bearing the brunt of the lockdown

Women are bearing a disproportionate cost of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – but there may be a silver lining yet.

Creative Commons/mgrhode1

Gauri, a lawyer in Mumbai, is grappling with a new problem — how to squeeze 25 hours into a day that already doesn’t have enough hours.

With a nationwide lockdown, her maid who helps with the housework has been unable to come to work. Her parents, who live separately, face a similar situation. And it is now Gauri’s job to juggle the two houses as she cooks, cleans, does the laundry, procures groceries, and takes care of an energetic child whose school remains shut. And, since she’s working from home, she’s also reading legal briefs on the side.

“In the last few weeks it has become increasingly difficult to run the home,” says Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. “And it is women who are taking the hit.”

SC’s judgment on women in the navy points to ingrained sexism

A two-judge Supreme Court bench orders that women officers in the navy be treated at par with men. Those who’ve suffered gender discrimination should be financially compensated.

The Indian Navy’s all-women Tarini crew circumnavigating the world/Indian Women Blog

“The battle for gender equality is about confronting the battles of the mind. History is replete with examples where women have been denied their just entitlements under law and the right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.” Justices Dhananjaya Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta, 17 March, 2020

The Supreme Court, yet again, took the wrecking ball to patriarchy with its judgment this past week that allowed women in the navy to hold permanent commissions and appointments at par with men.

The ruling shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, a two-judge bench headed by Justices D.Y. Chandrachud along with Hemant Gupta had just a month earlier brushed aside all the usual objections – it would distract women from their family responsibilities, rank and file would not obey women – to rule that excluding women from top jobs in the army is illegal.

Media celebrated the army judgment with banner headlines. By comparison, reaction to the navy judgment has been muted. Yet, the second one takes the earlier judgment a step further.

Bringing men into the conversation

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I argue that if men and women are to work as equal partners, then we need new rules of engagement that understand the centrality of mutual respect and consent.

Twenty years ago, Abhijit Das, the founder of Men Engage Alliance, attended a meeting on domestic violence. From the sidelines of the kitchen where he was working, Das noticed about 100 men had accompanied the 3,500-odd women and were listening keenly, but had no opportunity to participate. Apart from encouraging women, or accompanying them to meetings, what could these men do?

And so began a conversation with the men. They could help with the housework, take care of the children, fetch water. These were small but significant tasks that upended the idea of what is women’s work and what is her place in society.

That was the beginning of a campaign, Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko (break the silence, stop the violence) where men resolved to: One, not commit violence; two, speak up when they see violence, and three, support women who have faced violence.

A seat at the table

Women have their own perspective based on their struggles to ascension. To exclude them from crucial meetings is to shut out the voices of nearly half of our population.

Spot the women

They flank the prime minister, six on one side, five on the other, dressed in sombre suits to discuss serious matters. The photograph was taken on January 6 when the 11 — variously described as “telecom czar”, “richest Indian”, and even “patriarch” — met with Narendra Modi ahead of the budget.

No “czarinas”. No “matriarchs”. Just an all-boys-club meeting to weigh in on the economy, talk about the need to spur growth and create jobs.

You would imagine that some women might have been invited, particularly since the prime minister’s flagship mission, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, is to do with female empowerment. You would imagine that some women might have had a seat at that table. After all, it’s 2020 and women are flying fighter planes and working on missions to space. But in the photograph, even our first full-time woman finance minister is missing.

It’s not that we don’t have capable women in industry. I can think of Kiran Majumdar Shaw, Anu Agha, Suneeta Reddy and all those who sparkle in finance and banking from Zarin Daruwala to Kaku Nahate.