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

The Internet: Helping Us Dream Up a Better World for Women: Guest Post by Vani Vishwanathan

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About our guest contributor: Vani Viswanathan is a student of M.A. in Development Studies in Mumbai. She is especially passionate about women’s issues, and her M.A. dissertation explores the influence of Tamil cinema in college students’ perceptions of sexual harassment. She is also an avid writer, and co-edits an online literary magazine Spark (www.sparkthemagazine.com). She can be contacted at vani.viswanathan@gmail.com.

When was the last time you clicked ‘Like’ on a Facebook post by a page whose cause you associated with? Or shared an article whose content you agreed or disagreed with? Or signed a petition for a cause you wholeheartedly support?

Welcome to the world of online activism. The internet has been such a big leap forward for many of us in terms of helping us know more and connect with often unknown people on shared ideas, thoughts, passions and – as this blog does – shared forms of oppression. It has especially been powerful in giving the oppressed, often silenced communities a voice. The sheer volume of information from across the world exposes our minds to things we might never have thought of before.

I personally consider the internet as having given shape to my nascent feminist ideas. I strongly believe online activism is very much a force to reckon with. I think it has especially given a boost to the Indian women’s movement, taking it to a different level by letting passionate individuals – in addition to organisations – lead causes of their own. Take, for instance, the Blank Noise project, started by Jasmeen Patheja in 2003 as a college final year project, or the Pink Chaddi campaign, started by Nisha Susan, a freelance editor/writer. While the Pink Chaddi campaign raised a lot of attention during its short life, the Blank Noise project has today grown into a national-level movement raising awareness on street sexual harassment – and all this was possible because of the internet. Additionally, it has helped spread the bases further – into the hinterlands, for causes in the hinterlands. Finally, a very positive development is that the internet has helped extend the cause to cover all aspects of gender, not just women – it now embraces the transgenders, intersex too.

One such movement that especially intrigued me was SlutWalk in Kolkata. Led by an enthusiastic group of college-going students, they survived nation-level dissent against the SlutWalk movement in general, targeting its relevance in a place like India, where arguing for the ‘right to walk dressed any way they wanted’ belied the ‘more basic’ issues of dowry deaths, female foeticide, etc. and was irrelevant in rural areas. Others argued that the word ‘slut’ was hardly used among the larger Indian populace, and therefore the movement was restricting itself to the small upper/upper-middle class aware of the word. A few wondered why Indian women, who have earlier fought against objectification, now want to be ‘called sluts.’

These concerns are beside the point: sexual harassment is as much as an urban problem as it is rural; it has nothing to do with the clothing the harassed survivor wore, and SlutWalk movements across the world have given participants the freedom to dress the way they liked, not only as ‘sluts.’ Finally, using the name ‘slut’ was a reflection of the patriarchal ascriptions to a woman’s behaviour: that she dress a particular way, behave a particular way, be out only at particular times – any transgression made her a bad woman, a ‘slut.’ One of the organisers, Shreya Sen, said that ‘slut’ pretty much captures the essence of victim-blaming, for it almost justifies sexual assault on someone. The Kolkata movement therefore wished to retain the name ‘SlutWalk,’ giving the movement a shock value, and a possibility of reclaiming the word for a positive use, such as was done with the word ‘queer’ and ‘gay.’ Indeed, the movement also had queer and transgender participants.

To me, this movement exemplifies the changing nature of the Indian women’s movement, and the way the internet is supporting it. The SlutWalk Kolkata movement was pretty much led online, with their Facebook group being the medium that helped form the organising team, the vehicle to mobilise participants, the primary information resource, but most importantly, the platform for discussion. Hundreds of discussion threads on a diverse range of topics around dressing, Indian ‘culture,’ sexual harassment, saw many, many participants, and hundreds of comments (sometimes going up to 700!), which continues to this day. While posters were pasted in college campuses across the city, and pamphlets distributed at busy junctions, the Facebook page essentially mobilised and helped conducted the actual walk, held in May 2012.

One may wonder just how much the internet is useful in raising awareness in a country like India, where barely 10% of the population is online. Statistics show that over 50% of the online population goes online using their mobile phones; with mobile connectivity growing in India by the day, it’s not simplistic to say that the number of internet users will increase, and will come from the hinterlands too. Additionally, organiser Sen says that urban users are just as important a target for such movements because equipped with communication and technological skills, it is very easy for them to spread their misogynistic views further. Some very disturbing comments on the Facebook page come from urban, well-educated users – why should they be any less of an important target in tackling sexual assault?

Julie Zeilinger, a popular feminist blogger in her early 20s, argues that the web has allowed feminists across the world to unite, see what ‘sisters’ in other countries are doing and support them, give access to real stories from people going through situations one has only heard of. I can’t help but agree. Thanks to the internet, we are opened up to a world of possibilities and a host of ideas from distant geographies, which make us question the status quo. Online activism may not change the world, but it enables us to dream of a society that respects individuals for who they are, and try to move towards such a society.

Campaigning Like it’s 1969: Thoughts on the American Election Season

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A few months ago, I was at a bookstore and a conversation started between myself and another woman who was probably in her 60s.  Discussion turned to the already divisive political scene, especially with regard to women’s issues.  “I marched for the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] and there were a lot of people who did not agree with me, but I have never felt as under-attack as a women as I do right now.”

Listening to politicians discuss rape, abortion, and equal pay in the months since that conversation has given me sad insight to what it must have been like for women over forty years ago.    An all too real joke has been going around this weekend with our time change: “Remember on Sunday to set your clocks back one hour.  On Tuesday, be careful you don’t set the country back 50 years.”

Locally, I have been doing my part for the past three months giving much of my free time campaigning for a female Democrat candidate for State Representative here in Michigan.  She is running on Campaign Reform- so no special interest or PAC money helping her out.  In other words, she is a long shot.  What saddens me even more than seeing a principled female fighting so hard for every vote is knowing her opponent has not been held accountable for his chauvinistic behavior.

In Michigan, where the Legislative branch and Governor are Republican, a lot of legislation has been fast tracked with little or no debate.  Back in June, the House was doing just that with a set of bills which would have made it virtually impossible for any abortion clinic in the state to stay open.   Democrats in the House spoke up and forced a debate on the issue.  At one point during discussion on the floor, Brown commented, “I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina, but no means no.”

Representative Lisa Brown and her colleague, Representative  Barb Byrum, were censured and told they would not be recognized on the House floor the next day for throwing “a temper tantrum”.

When asked about the incident on a radio show that week, Representative Wayne Schmidt said, on more than one occasion, “It’s like giving a kid a timeout for a day.”  That’s right, my Representative in the Michigan House referred to his two female colleagues as one would refer to children.

Of course, anyone following the U.S. elections even passively has surely heard one of any number of candidates’ rants about women and rape.  Todd Akin opened up this absurd and completely unscientific dialogue when he claimed abortion was not really an issue because victims of “legitimate rape” rarely became pregnant.  A week ago, Indiana candidate Richard Mourdock said he does not support abortion for victims of rape because the resulting pregnancies are “something God intended.”  Just this week, Washington Republican candidate John Koster was quoted as referring the the criminal act as “the rape thing”.  When asked whether he would support abortion for rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life, he replied allowances should be made for a mother’s life, but “…on the rape thing, it’s like, how does putting more violence onto a woman’s body and taking the life of an innocent child that’s a consequence of this crime, how does that make it better?”

The truth is Akin, Mourdock, and Koster are not nearly as frightening to me as the other Republican candidates running for national office who believe in the same no exceptions rules for rape.  The three in the press sound absurd, these others are not even being scrutinized for their extreme views.

Yet, it really comes as no surprise considering the example being set at the national level.  Governor Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. Many Americans have either forgotten or never knew Paul Ryan supported a bill in the US House that would redefine rape as “forcible” or not.  In other words, if a woman wanted an abortion, she would have to prove the rape was forced.  An unconscious woman, for whatever reason, would not qualify as a rape victim under the proposed new rules.  The bill failed, but Ryan’s belief rape is only acceptable if the mother’s life is in danger lives on.

There is also a movement in some states here–Arizona and Colorado so far– to allow employers to deny women birth control coverage if said employer does not believe a woman should take The Pill.  Women would have to present their case for birth control to their employer, not their doctor, reversing forty years of medical practice. Politicians are putting themselves between women and their doctors in the most personal decisions a woman can make.  At the same time, many politicians are propose to trim budgets by de-funding Planned Parenthood, an organization which provides birth control, STD testing, and cancer screenings (among other medical care) for the poor and uninsured.  More and more women are feeling cornered when it comes to their health care in some of these areas.

But it is not just about reproductive rights. Much has also been made of Mitt Romney’s “binders of women”.  Romney’s response to a question during the second Presidential debate about whether he supports equal pay prompted his story about wanting to hire a woman for an open position and calling for his staff (presumably men) to bring him viable women candidates.  They brought him binders of qualified women and he selected one.

The reality is, women are the majority of breadwinners in America now.  If we are not paid fairly, this entire nation now suffers.  President Obama answered this question by pointing to the fact he signed into law the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (a bill which allowed women to sue for discrepancy in wages when it was discovered, not in a limited time period as before) and his attempts to get the Fair Pay Act passed in Congress.  Governor Romney’s response to the question of equal pay was to say he hired a couple women while in office and he wants to create more jobs in America, some of which will go to women.  While the binders of women comment has become a punchline in many circles, the harsh reality of his answer has become lost.

I am in my early 30s and have been politically active (though on different sides of the aisle at times) since a fairly young age, but I find myself thinking more about my gender over the past couple years than I ever have before.  In my life, women have been able to march forward towards equality.  As I write this, we are hours away from our elections here in the U.S.  I hope my nation is with me and we continue to go forward.

Toilets are a women’s rights question too!

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The ability to find and use a clean toilet with water supply, safely and when one needs, is an underrated human security issue. The threat of sexual violence, the health complications that come from controlling one’s need to urinate or defecate, the ability to clean oneself with privacy and dignity, and to be able to do so at home and work–are fundamental to anything we seek by way of women’s rights and gender equity.

Aastha Atray Banan, Why women should not hold on, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 29, Dated July 24, 2010.

In the news: “Married or not, be a woman of ‘substance’”

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An article about Indian women’s right to inheritance: Shobhan Saxena, “Married or not, be a woman of ‘substance’”, The Times of India, dated June 6, 2010.

Excerpts:

“Why does much of India still regard property as very much a male domain? Why are women expected to be content with the ancient practice of streedhan, ie the dowry and gifts given to her at the time of marriage? Both questions — and answers — are closely linked, particularly when it comes to a woman’s right to family property after she is married.

“Till 2005, when the Hindu Succession Act was amended to give daughters an equal share of ancestral property, Indian women were viewed as an economic liability. In practice, the amended law does not guarantee anything to a woman. Her claim to property may depend on her status — married, unmarried, deserted, wife, widow, mother. With the divorce rate rising and many urban women deciding not to marry at all, surely it makes little sense to deny a share of the family property to half the country’s population?

“It has often been suggested that women should be made joint-owners of property alongside their husbands. But as noted feminist Madhu Kishwar wrote when Maharashtra unveiled new policy for women a few years ago, “The idea of joint matrimonial property would make sense only if women brought their share of inheritance from their parental home at the time of marriage, merging their own property into that of their husbands’. The couple could then become co-owners of their genuinely ‘joint’ property”. India’s Muslim and Christian women are equally badly off when it comes to property rights.

“The truth is that Indian society is so conservative that it is not easy to implement property laws for women. This is admitted by Justice Sujata V Manohar of the Supreme Court no less when she said: “It is not easy to eradicate deep-seated cultural values or to alter traditions that perpetuate discrimination.” It is this attitude that has kept the evil of dowry alive. As Kishwar argues “that dowry exists only among those communities where families are not willing to treat daughters as co-inheritors with sons”.

“The 2005 Amendment was undoubtedly significant. The point is that when the 21st century Indian woman marries, she must be conscious of her rights to all that is hers. She must reject the notion that after the wedding, she belongs to the husband’s family. If the marriage breaks down, she can now return to her parents’ home by right, not on the sufferance of relatives.”