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

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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

Niharika’s Bookshelf: “AMEN: The Autobiography of a Nun”

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Penguin Books India 2009

The discretion to be made either while reading or writing about the autobiography of marginalised women is almost negligible. Most of these, coming from a relative or an absolute subaltern, are a revolt against society, institutions, systems and most of all people, who choose to carry the legacy of unjust social prejudices and meaningless subjugation, violence and oppression. After all, politics, religion, caste, class and social thought work together; they collaboratively or individually influence the other.

These autobiographies, thus, need to be judged at two levels, perhaps three: as a cathartic process for the sufferer, as a rebellion on the systems or institutions that victimise them and at the larger level: a desperate call for a renaissance.  Sister Jesme’s autobiography is an interesting read from many dimensions, given the chastity, sacredness and numerous other moralistic ideals we associate with religious life. That is the standard that unfortunately, we are conditioned to believe- renunciation is the sole path to salvation. To brand this book from an extremely commercial sense- it is scandalous, yet the honesty with which life inside the four walls that preach sanctity has been depicted, cannot be treated lightly. What we now complain as factors that are detrimental to the nation’s development and progress are strife and rampant at the less publicised religious level. Corruption, power games, homosexual relationships between nuns, class distinctions, sexual abuse by nuns and priests, mental torture – these are what Sr Jesme describes as frequent and natural happenings at the convent. At each crucial juncture of entering religious life, right from the Pre-Novitiate, Jesme has severe hurdles to overcome- those raised by her colleagues, counterparts and fellow sisters. She rises above them, despite many bruises and wounds, with faith intact. That seems to be one of the more positive aspects of this account. Irrespective of those who claim themselves to be the messengers of God and misuse that power, faith in that higher power will remain unblemished.

As far as a story line is concerned there is nothing much to look into. It is a series of incidents that exemplify the hypocrisy and the double standards of the church. The book simply achieves what it is meant to. What makes this one an important landmark is the strength to come beyond repressed silence and bare open to the world- the condescending truth. It completely demolishes our naïve idea of religious institutions and the life that comes with it. However, it does nothing to shake our belief in higher power; in fact, it reiterates the existence of one. Sister Jesme’s vision stands clear-‘I would like to give you as much freedom as you want, provided you are also that responsible. “Freedom with Responsibility” – that is my policy. I am going to open wide the portals of this college. Men and women may interact in the auditorium and the campus. You live in a society comprising both. Learn from now on how to treat the opposite sex. A lack of responsibility will lead to this freedom being curtailed. That is, please don’t misuse the freedom given to you.’

If only such an ideology that combines liberty with responsibility is nourished with an unconventional outlook, surely our notions will have a more prudent change.