Teaching SC judges a thing or two about gender sensitivity

Teaching SC judges a thing or two about gender sensitivity

Flavia Agnes, women’s rights lawyer, who has also written extensively on issues of domestic violence, feminist jurisprudence and minority rights, terms the Supreme Court ruling, as “blatantly unfair and unjust”. She hopes it will be reviewed.

Shocked by the word “keep”, she declares that it “smacks of arrogance”. “What happens to all the thousands of women who are conned into relationships by men who are already married? Such men have affairs, produce kids and abandon the women; how does a woman know that the man is already married? What are the means available to her to find out if he has lied?” she asks.

Flavia, who is fighting for the rights of women, argues for statutory recognition of such relationships. “Why is there no liability on the man? How can he go scot free?”
Clarifying that she is not referring to “one-night stands”, she wonders if only “urban, fancy alliances” are to be described as “live-in relationships” and wants to know what recourse women in rural India have to safeguard their rights.

“The ruling should not harm what Section 125 of CrPC has built over the years. It also undermines whatever the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act is trying to do. That is why it is so disturbing,” she says.

But, Madhu Kishwar, academic and founder editor of Manushi, a journal about women and society published since 1979, welcomes the SC ruling.

Describing the ruling as “absolutely fair”, she says: “To me, it is so self-evident that you cannot put a live-in relationship on par with marriage; if you do it amounts to legalising polygamy. If you are putting both relationships at par, then abolish marriage, abolish the idea of monogamy, accept polgamy and give everyone equal rights.”

To her, the substance and the sentiment of the ruling are both “very sound”. “Those who do not wish to enter into the obligations of marriage should not ask for the rights of marriage. Why do you want the advantages when you do not want the responsibilities? Rights and duties go together. Just because you are woman you cannot make any allegation you please and expect to have it accepted as God’s very own truth,” she remarks.

Glad that the bench is going into the minute details of the issue, she cites the instance of the Anti-Dowry Law, which has become such a “monster law” because the nitty-gritty was not discussed.

“It (the Dowry law) was left open to abuse. What the bench is now doing is to set guidelines to define marriage,” she says. But she is quick to add that she “ is not comfortable with the wording of the ruling”. Words like “keep” and “servant” are insensitive to gender and class issues, she observes.

Prof U R Ananthamurthy, Jnanpith awardee, contemporary writer and critic in the Kannada language, says he is “shocked” and “appalled” by the word “keep”. “That’s a terrible word. How can be a woman be described in such crude terms?” he asks.

“Look at the Muslim law. In the ancient world, Islam was more thoughtful of women than many of us are today. It was accepted that marriages are contracts; they are not made in heaven. Islam permits a man to take many wives but there are rules binding on the man. The two worlds of religious bigots and modern secularists conspire to take away this radical element built into Islamic jurisprudence. Among other communities, men take many women but give them no rights,” he says.

He believes that it is very difficult to legislate on issues where human emotions are involved. “The world of literature is full of such tales and they show us that we should not take a simplistic view of such relationships,” he adds.

Dr Sudha Seetharam, sociologist and lecturer in a City college, says:  “The SC ruling is like adding insult to injury. When women are being used in power relationships, are we saying that there can there be no legal binding on the man? In our society, nobody even wants to give a house on rent to such a woman, and with a ruling like this, life is sure to becomes nightmarish for the woman in such a relationship. The choice of words is also totally unacceptable. How can a court of law use or repeat words like “keep?” It is like harking back to horrific medieval times.”

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