Women’s History Roundtable: June 2018 Bader Sayeed on “Gender Justice and Personal Law”


Bader Sayeed is an eminent lawyer who practices at the Madras High Court. She is also the founder of the NGO Roshni.

Ms. Sayeed spoke about some recent developments in Muslim Personal Law, devoting considerable time to the question of the abolition of the triple talaq. However, she made it very clear that legislation (however progressive) could only be effective with thoughtful implementation as well as a focus on changing societal mindsets. At a time when people in power can make inflammatory statements about religion and gender (including rape threats), legislation is but the first step.

Ms. Sayeed, in fact, was of the opinion that the Indian constitution was an excellent one, and emphasised equality and secularism. However, in reality, the spirit of the constitution is being betrayed everyday by the arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions imposed by those in positions of power (for example, the ban on beef). Noting the treatment meted out to Dalits in particular, Ms. Sayeed wondered where the principle of liberty and dignity of the individual had been lost since the writing of the Constitution.

Being an experienced lawyer, Ms. Sayeed also admitted the difficulty of fighting injustice in India – even in the courts. For example, while she obtained an injunction overturning the validity of certificated of divorced issued by Qazis, she was distressed to note that these certificates still continued to be considered valid in various communities. In this way, Ms. Sayeed drove home the point that legislation can only go so far in improving the rights and status of women and minorities in India.

Ms. Sayeed concluded by noting that while Indian legislation contains adequate protection for women and minorities, it is necessary for society (especially those in power) to change their mindset and espouse a more secular attitude towards our countrymen and women. In addition, Ms. Sayeed believed that the Constitution of India is still sound, and there is no need for additional legislation to improve upon in. What is necessary is for more Indians to read and understand the Constitution of India.


This report was compiled by Prajnya’s interns, Athmika and Varsha


The Madras Neo-Malthusian League


While writing a term paper on debates about contraception in Madras State, I came across an organization called the Madras Neo-Malthusian League. The following article is an excerpt from the paper I wrote. 


The Madras Neo-Malthusian League (MNML) was formed in 1928 in Madras. Its membership was mostly confined to elite, upper class Brahmin men. The MNML leadership made no real effort to collaborate or form links with nationalist organizations in the Presidency, but focused on establishing international connections with leaders of birth control movements in other countries, notably Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes and Edith How-Martyn.The MNML’s ideology had its roots in the Malthusian theory of overpopulation, but where Malthus advocated only abstinence[1] and celibacy as methods of population control; the MNML saw the propagation of contraceptives as a natural extension of the Malthusian world-view.[2] The MNML also sought to “entrench the systematic regulation of human reproduction in order to bring about a desired demographic change”[3], in order to build a ‘stronger nation’. In this way, their agenda can be characterized as eugenic.[4] However, while the focus of eugenics in the west was heredity, Indian eugenicists focused on caste-based marriages as a site to bring about demographic change,[5] thus centering marriage as a site in which “the task of revitalizing the nation as a whole” was undertaken.[6] As Sarah Hodges succinctly says, “eugenics in India fed into, and was supported by, late colonial debates on national progress, scientific modernity… and marriage reform”.[7]

In order to carry out their agenda of ‘revitalizing the nation’ through demographic change, the MNML saw the lower classes and castes as the appropriate targets for birth control advocacy. As MNML leader P S Sivaswami Iyer put it, birth control was seen as being “essentially for the benefit of the masses”[8], in order to control the “profligate breeding of the urban poor” and “alleviate” their burdens.[9]

A few significant points should be noted regarding the nature of the policy and activities of the MNML. Firstly, as I stated earlier, the members of the League were primarily Brahmin, upper class men. Their meetings were conducted in English, and they were more concerned with opening international dialogue than national conversations about birth control. Many scholars have suggested that the MNML’s agenda was to use contraception as a means to justify Brahminnical control of society and its reproduction, as well as control of women and lower castes. As Anandhi points out, MNML members such as Krishanmurthi Ayyer alluded to Hinduism’s “natural” and “unconscious” propagation of birth control within its sacred texts, thus creating a caste privilege and using this to justify the legitimacy of celibate widows and vegetarianism (which was perceived as reducing fertility!), all of which were upper caste practices.[10] Thus, “in privileging this Brahminnical Hindu construction of ideal bodies as reproductive, the bodies of lower classes/castes were represented by the neo-Malthusian as invested with uncontrolled sexuality requiring outside intervention”[11] by Brahmin men, who were innately “sexually responsible”[12]. Sanjam Ahluwalia describes this as “eugenic patriotism”, a position adopted by MNML leaders who “valued certain reproductive functions over others, yet presented their specific class, caste and gender interests as universally beneficial to an emerging nation”.[13]Secondly, it was not only non-Brahmin sexuality that was perceived as requiring the control of Brahmin men, but also female sexuality. The MNML did not believe that women knew, or should know, anything about contraception. In fact, when Margaret Sanger requested the President of the MNML, Sir Vepa Ramasesan, to arrange a woman speaker at a birth control rally, he replied, “we are not aware of any organization of Indian women interested in considering the problems that would be raised in a Birth Control Conference”.[14] Sir Vepa Ramasesan added that no medical woman in India had any knowledge of birth control, or the desire to advocate its benefits. Incidentally, this was untrue. While medical stalwart Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was not in favor of contraception, Dr Devadesan was a passionate advocate of birth control in Madras.[15]

The MNML chose to disperse information about contraception via informal “man-to-man” conversations. Wives were informed (by their husbands, of course) on a “need-to-know” basis only,[16] thus maintaining their “sexual innocence” and allowing their husbands to “exercise sexual control over them”.[17] Malthus himself might have agreed with this, in fact, as Chandrasekhar observes, “one can read the Essay (An Essay on the Principle of Population) from cover to cover without encountering a passage that indicates Malthus ever thought women had anything to do with population”.[18] Anandhi views this agreement of views as a motivating factor for the formation of a neo-Malthusian League, as it increased “the ease with which the upper class agenda of Malthus and the Brahminnical Hindu agenda of upper caste Indian men could come together and reduce women to reproductive bodies requiring male control”.[19] Thus, though the views of the League clashed with the views of nationalist leaders on the subject of contraception, both perspectives “converged in privileging reproductive sexuality and inferiorizing other forms of female sexuality”.[20]Finally, the League’s championship of contraception can be seen as a way in which its leaders deployed their larger agenda to defend social and sexual practices such as child marriage, which were increasingly coming under attack. In order to mask their defense of these practices, MNML leaders sought to present early motherhood rather than early marriage as being the root of a ‘weak nation’.[21]

It should be noted that the League was widely discredited for being ineffectual and hypocritical (one League member had thirteen children!).[22] The members of the League seemed to address their speeches to each other rather than the ‘masses’ they claimed to be speaking to. No practical steps were taken by them, though contraceptives were distributed by some leaders, these activities were on a very small scale.

Hodges, however, sees some merit in the MNML as a voluntary association “outside the formal political realm”.[23] She does not dismiss it as simply another facet of patriarchy. I find this conclusion less convincing than Anandhi’s assertion that in spite of the fact that all proponents and opponents of birth control involved in the dialogue spoke in terms of reproductive control (i.e. the concern of a man and a woman engaging in intercourse), “it was mediated by concerns of maintaining class, caste and other boundaries through regulating women’s body and sexuality”.[24]

[1] In “A Dirty, Filthy Book”, S Chandrasekhar asserts that Malthus “never advocated contraception; on the contrary he indirectly condemned it” (p 11)

[2] Susanne Klausen and Alison Bashford, “Fertility Control: Eugenics, Neo-Malthusians and Feminism” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 99

[3] ibid. p 98

[4] It should be noted that not all eugenicists were supporters of contraception. Critics of birth control felt that rather than performing the eugenic role of creating “docile” workers’ bodies, and gradually breeding out the poor, it might actually produce a landscape of “moral licentiousness in the form of sexual excesses” (Hodges, 2008 p 44)

[5] Sarah Hodges, “South Asia’s Eugenic Past” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press: 2010) p 231

[6] ibid. p 228

[7] Sarah Hodges, “Indian Eugenics in an Age of Reform” in Reproductive Health In India ed Sarah Hodges (London: Orient Blackswan, 2006) p 116

[8] Sarah Hodges, Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India 1920-1940 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008) p 53

[9] ibid. p 56-64

[10] S Anandhi, “Reproductive Bodies and Regulated Sexuality: Birth Control Debates in Early 20th century Tamil Nadu” in A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India ed Mary E John and Janaki Nair (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998) p 143

[11] ibid. p 144

[12] Sanjam Ahluwalia, Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) p 42

[13] ibid. p 18

[14] op. cit.  Ramusack (2006) p 64.

[15] ibid.

[16] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 82

[17] op. cit. Ahluwalia (2008) p 48

[18] op. cit. Chandrasekhar, p 12

[19] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 145

[20] ibid. p 145

[21] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 74-75

[22] ibid. p 49

[23] ibid. p 50

[24] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 140

16 Days Campaign/ Women’s History Roundtable: 8-12-12: Sheila Jayaprakash on law, gender violence and society




Law, Gender based violence and Indian Society

This month’s Round Table seminar was a special one. In keeping with the theme of Prajnya’s 16-Day campaign against gender violence, Madras High Court lawyer Sheila Jayaprakash spoke about the laws relating to gender violence.

From statistics, we can see that crime a

gainst women is on the rise in spite of an increasing number of legal remedies and deterrents which exist today. Ms Jayaprakash divided crimes against women into two categories: those committed within the home, and those c

ommitted outside the home. The former fall under the ambit of civil law; while the latter are subject to criminal law proceedings.

Ms Jayaprakash raised questio

ns about the effectiveness of laws relating to crime against women. Have they actually been helpful, or do they j

ust look good on paper? She took us through the various laws which are intended t

Even those legislations that are intended to protect women are based on extremely unequal assumptions. For example, in a case of adultery, only the “other man” can be prosecuted if a married woman is having an affair. Implicit in this system is the assumption that the man is at fault, even though the woman is a willing participant. In effect, this system of prosecution controls the sexuality of a woman. Therefore, these so-called protective measures actually handicap rather than empower women.o empower women in India, starting with the Constitution, which affirms that all citizens (regardless of sex) have a right to equality. There is a qualifier which comes with this: the Constitution states that special laws can be enacted for the protection of women and children (historically marginalized and oppressed groups). Additionally, the Constitution states that customs that are derogatory to women should be dismantled. However, in a contradictory move, India has failed to ratify the section in CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), which calls for the dismantling of such cultural customs! The explanation given by the heads of state for this failure is that it would be insensitive to impose this on religious minorities, and their customs should be respected. Thus, Ms Jayaprakash concluded that while there is formal equality for women, it remains just that: formal.

Ms Jayaprakash believes that the way forward lies in positive equality rather than formal equality or protective equality. For example, in a workplace, the onus should be on the employer to ensure the safety on women. Thus, while formal equality is all very well, there need to be ways for women to access this equality.

With reference to crimes outside the home, there have always been laws relating to them. However outdated the terminology of these laws is (a prime example being “outrage to modesty”), the fact remains that there are ways to seek legal redress for those crimes which are euphemistically referred to as “eve-teasing” as well as rape. We learned that the Social Welfare Board has a policy of offering monetary compensation to rape victims. Ms Jayaprakash pointed out that it isn’t compensation or even enhancement of punishment (from imprisonment to death) that will help eliminate the incidence of rape. What is likely to work better is the surety of conviction and also a time-bound investigation. The latter is particularly important, as Ms Jayaprakash illustrated with a story of a rapist who was convicted 17 years after his crime, and escaped punishment because the Judge said that he was too old and frail to be a menace to society anymore!

One of the major problems while prosecuting a case involving rape is the slow processing of physical evidence such as sample analysis, which can take upto 3 years! Additionally, much of the physical evidence is destroyed because most women are simply not aware that their clothing and their bodies and the only tangible evidence of rape.

Ms Jayaprakash also spoke about the importance of sensitizing the police force. When a woman comes to report a rape, it is important that the officer recording the report does so in a sensitive manner. It is important that policemen recognize that the victim is in a state of emotional distress. Ms Jayaprakash has held many workshops in police stations to sensitize policemen.

Law relating to crimes against women within the home starts and ends with the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961.

The way the law perceives cases of dowry death or rape by an individual in a position of power (e.g. in a hospital or a mental asylum) is very different from the way a criminal offence is perceived. In the case of the former, the accused is seen as guilty until proven innocent. However, judges often have trouble adjusting to this mindset when they are used to looking at a case the other way around i.e., innocent until proven guilty.

Civil laws dealing with domestic violence all relate to remedies within the home, namely, divorce. However, there are multiple problems associated with this. The concept of equal division of assets is nearly unknown in Indian courts, and the woman often leaves the marriage with nothing. As a result, most women prefer not to recourse to divorce.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act addresses the all-important issue of Right to Shelter. This requires a drastic change in the mindset of judges, because it implies that the abuser (usually the husband) has to leave the marital home. This goes against the grain for many judges, and is especially confusing in the case of a joint family.

The definition of abuse has also been expanded to include economic abuse as well as sexual abuse. Economic abuse includes not allowing the wife to seek employment outside the home, or have her own funds. The inclusion of sexual abuse in the category of domestic violence is an important step forward as it implies that marital rape is a punishable offense. However, in practice, this section is not used frequently as reporting marital rape or sexual deviance usually carries a significant amount of psychological trauma with it.

Thus, domestic violence is a crossover between civil and criminal law – while it comes under the ambit of civil law, it is punishable under the Criminal Code.

The discussion which followed Ms Jayaprakash’s presentation was prolonged and covered many aspects of the law and domestic violence.

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Madras Week 2012: The Roads Project: Some Concluding Thoughts


First off, I’d like to thank everyone who read the Roads Project, and for their AMAZING responses and questions! It was really heartening and exciting to see that so many people – many of them not from Chennai! – were interested in the women who created history, for Madras and elsewhere.

Doing the roads project with Kanchana Venkatesh, one of Prajnya’s summer interns, was like going on a sort of Discovery of Madras tour – with a twist. We’ve spent many days wandering around the city, arguing over which road sign looked most picturesque, and who gets to take the final photo!

Initially we planned to do thirty-one roads, and have enough posts for the entire month of August. However, this was before we took a closer look at not only how many roads are named after women, but also how much information is available about these women.

Getting information about some of these women was impossible. For example, the only thing I was able to ascertain about Jayammal (of Jayammal road, Teynampet) was that she was the mother of dancer Balasaraswati. Other women who have roads named after them didn’t even figure in books and web searches (Kamalabai street, T Nagar; Muktharunissa Street, Triplicane; and Navaneethammal Street – to name a few). Even a public figure like Rani Annadurai was mentioned only a couple of times in any biography of C N Annadurai.

Who were these women, and if they were deemed important enough to have roads named after them; then why isn’t any information about them available? If any of you have any idea who they were, please write in and tell us!

This brings us to another issue: if these women weren’t public figures, do they merit having roads named after them? For example, if Rani Annadurai was not an activist, why is there a road named after her? Annai Nagammai, Periyar’s wife, certainly played a large role in the freedom movement; and his second wife Maniammai was part of the Dravidian movement. On the other side of the coin, though, it can be argued that Annadurai was able to rise in public life only because of the support he received at home from his wife and family. We must acknowledge the role of these largely invisible women in the lives of public men. Do you think Annadurai would have risen so quickly in the ranks of Tamil Nadu politics if he was bogged down in domestic duties? Who knows?

One question that came up in the comments and responses was this: when we’d stated in the introductory post that we’re not planning to include roads named after goddesses, why did we include a mythical figure like Kannagi? The same question went for Avvaiyyar and St. Mary.

I’ll be the first one to admit that no project is perfect. The reason I didn’t want to include goddesses in the Roads Project was simple: it would never end! I also feel that Avvaiyyar is still relevant in today’s education system, where children study her teachings. Kannagi has been used as a symbol in the Dravidian movement in the days since Periyar originally disowned her as an ideal woman; saying that chastity is a sexist concept and should not be applied only to women. Since then, attitudes towards Kannagi have changed with the change in government. No discussion of the Dravidian movement is complete without a mention of her significance. With regard to St Mary, while the miracles around her may or may not be true, the fact that Jesus (an important historical figure) was her son makes her a “real” person.

When we first started this project, I hadn’t really imagined a situation in which we’d need a concluding post. However, your responses and your questions made it necessary! Also, when we were actually in the thick of doing the research and finding out about these women, there were so many things we wanted to say about the process and the paucity of information that we decided to go ahead and write this conclusion.

Once again, I’d like to thank all of you for following this series everyday – I hope you had an enjoyable and enlightening three weeks!

Madras Week 2012: The Roads Project: Day 21 : Lady Madhavan Road



Where is Lady Madhavan Road?

 Lady Madhavan Road is in Mahalingapuram, near the Aiyyappan Koil. It is perpendicular to both Madhavan Nair road and Sarojini Road (covered on Day 13).

Who was Lady Madhavan Nair?

Lady Madhavan Nair was born K Parvathi Ammal of Karumathil. Her father was C Shankaran Nair, who eventually became a member of the Viceroy’s council. She was eldest of five daughters, and had one older brother.

Parvathi Ammal was not a very diligent student. She took every opportunity to miss class. She studied in a convent in Madras. Once, when her parents were away in England, they received a letter from the school complaining that their two eldest daughters had “bunked” classes and were cycling all over the city!

She was an accomplished violinist and enjoyed singing. She was enthusiastic about amateur theatricals, and roped her sisters into putting up many plays, including Bluebeard.

When she was about ten years old, she had a private tutor, along with her sister Kalyani. They were mischievous students, and would not pass up an opportunity to tease the tutor; even having a laugh at his expense right in front of him!

Parvathi Ammal married Madhavan Nair in Ottapalam, in April 1911. He was her cousin. Madhavan Nair was also an eminent freedom fighter, journalist and writer. He was the founder-editor of the Mathubhoomi daily. He was later a part of the Privy Council, and was knighted.

They lived at Lynwood estate, which is now Mahalingapuram. They owned a large property, which Lady Madhavan Nair later donated to the Aiyyappan temple, which is constructed on land that formerly belonged to her.

Lady Madhavan Nair also got her father’s autobiography published in 1966, almost thirty years after he passes away in her house.


Menon, S. Light of Other Days. Bharathi Vidya Bhavan (Bombay, 1984)

Madras Week 2012: The Roads Project : Day 20 : Rani Annadurai Street



Where is Rani Annadurai Street?

Rani Annadurai Street is a left turn leading off from RK Mutt Road just before the Mandevalli signal. It is parallel to Annai Nagammai street (covered on Day 9 of the Roads Project).

Who was Rani Annadurai?


(Note: Photo source–linked–is an article in Outlook magazine, and the inset is from that source.)

It’s incredible that in a movement that is extensively documented (the Dravidian movement), we know everything about its male leaders, but almost nothing about the women in their lives.

Rani Annadurai was married to C N Annadurai, founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. They were married while Annadurai was a student in Pachaiyappa’s College, Chennai. Their marriage was an arranged one, the bride and groom hadn’t even met before the ceremony. In spite of Annadurai’s atheist beliefs, the marriage was conducted in a traditional Hindu style, with the attendant rituals.

Rani and Annadurai had no children of their own, and adopted Annadurai’s elder sister’s children. His sister, Rajamani Ammal, is said to have raised him. She subsequently moved in with Anadurai and Rani, and looked after their household. Rajamani Ammal had four sons, and Annadurai adopted all of them.

Rani was very supportive of Annadurai’s work and political career. She notes that she would never disturb him while he was studying late at night, since she realized that his work was in the service of the nation. She visited him frequently when he was imprisoned for his role in he anti-Hindi agitation.

Annadurai was a very austere man, who never sought to gain any assets from his position as Chief Minister. This seems to have grated on Rani’s nerves – she tells a story about how he wouldn’t even allow her to take a sofa intended for office use and put it in their home. At this time, his office was in his home!

Kannan, R. Anna: The Life and Times of C N Annadurai. Penguin Books India (New Delhi, 2010).

Madras Week 2012: The Roads Project : Day 19 : J J Street



Where is J J Street?

J J Street cuts across Kasturi Rangan Road in Alwarpet. There are many other streets in Chennai named after J Jayalalitha, as well as a J J Nagar.

Who is J Jayalalitha?


Jayalalitha was an actor and is a politician (currently the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu). She was born in Mysore in 1948 to Jeyram and Sandhya. She studied in Bishop Cottons Girls’ High School in Bangalore, and Presentation Convent, Church Park, in Chennai.

Jayalalitha made her acting debut in a Kannada film, and rose quickly in the industry. She did 28 films with the superstar of the age, M G Ramachandran.

Influenced by her contact with MGR, she joined the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in 1982 as propaganda secretary. Very soon, she took a seat in the Rajya Sabha.

After MGR’s death, the party split into two factions, headed by MGR’s wife Janaki, and Jayalalitha respectively. Jayalalitha went on the become Leader of the Opposition in 1989.

Her first stint as Chief Minister came in 1991, when she was election to form a coalition government. She has the distinction of being the first elected woman Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. She lost in the 1996 elections, but returned to power in 2002. After a loss in the subsequent 2006 elections, she won again in 2011 and is currently in office.

As with many politicians, her career has been coloured with controversy. Her most significant contributions to social welfare are the Cradle Baby Scheme and the introduction of All-Women Police Stations.

Jayalalitha is an accomplished dancer, Carnatic singer as well as a proficient linguist. She is fluent in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi and English. She is an avid reader and has an immense library. An erudite individual, Jayalalitha has been awarded many honorary degrees.


Editor. (September 13, 2010). J Jayalalitha: Profile, Biography, Information. In SouthDreams. Retrieved August 26, 2012, from http://www.southdreamz.com/portfolio/dr-j-jayalalitha/.

. (May 14, 2011). Short Biography of Jalalitha Jayram. In Politics to Fashion. Retrieved August 26, 2012, from http://realityviews.blogspot.in/2011/05/short-biography-of-jayalalithaa-jayaram.html.