There was a time when every woman was revered as a goddess. She was considered to be a personification of goodness and divinity. Married women enjoyed their autonomy as well as their status of ardhangini (better half) and sahadharmini (equal partner). The Rig Veda went as far as declaring the feminine energy as the centre of the universe and as the creator of all matter and consciousness. With her power and virtues, a woman could destroy all evils. With the passage of time, however, bones and blood gave way to clay and stone.
She is still a goddess but only as statue
Way back in the 18th century, the statute of manu–the manusmriti–did much to relegate women to the position of a chattel meant to serve men. In its earlier verse, the manusmriti declared that women “must be honoured and adorned” and that “where women are revered, gods rejoice”
However, its later verses were full of prejudice, hatred and discrimination against women. The statute made such provisions that women began to be treated at par with slaves. They were denied their basic freedoms including the right to education. Male dominance and a staunchly patriarchal society became the order of the day. Crimes against women became rampant and were perhaps not even treated as crimes.
Most of the laws today favour women
From those times till now, much has changed in terms of Indian law. Be it laws of inheritance, property laws, matrimonial law, maintenance laws, adoption laws, laws for crimes against women and so forth, all of these tilt heavily in favour of women. The only exceptions are few personal laws which fall under the religious or customary contexts. The question, however, remains — are these laws effective? More importantly, are they doing good to society as a whole?
Most women in India, on account of their lack of education and less exposure to the world in general, are unaware of, if not oblivious of the fact that such rights and laws do exist. So, if they do not even know that it is wrong and illegal to demand dowry or to become the second wife of a man, how can any law that articulates the provision to protect them, be of any use to them? How do they seek recourse to it? The sad reality is that it does not matter to them that there are laws in their favour, because they are simply ignorant about these areas of law.
A million-dollar question
Let us assume for a moment that women were to get wind of such information. They become aware about their rights and privileges from the anganwadi system or from social or mass media. How many of them do you think would actually come forward and take that step against the offender? What if the perpetrators were from her own family? Worse still, her husband’s family? Would she initiate a proceeding against him and the family? What would happen to her and her children? Where would she go? Could she continue to live in the matrimonial house? if not, could she go back to her parents or her brothers? Would they accept her back? More importantly, who would support her financially?
Such questions come to haunt women and play a major role in them choosing to maintain silence.
There are, of course, women who have raised their voice, taken legal recourse and received justice too. The figures are unfortunately very low. The fact is that even if the socio-legal system has provisions for it, most women do not resort to taking legal recourse. They fear ostracism, greater violence, helplessness and lack of support – financial or otherwise. Are these laws then an effective shield to protect women?
Misuse of the laws for one’s own gain
Much as the law serves to safeguard personal liberties, there is a curious twist. If used for the right reason against the right person, these laws will yield the desired effect on society. Brooding over the birth of a girl child, resorting to illegal abortions, dowry deaths and other such evils can become a thing of the past. Women will be celebrities of sorts!
What is happening instead is that many women who are aware of such laws and legislations are wielding it like a sword to promote their own interests and agendas. A case in point would be Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code which was introduced in 1983. Its intention was to counter dowry system evils which had led many women to attempt or commit suicide.
The law was aimed at protecting a married woman from being subjected to physical or mental “cruelty” by her husband or his relatives. This could include physical or mental harassment with a view to coerce her or her relatives to meet an unlawful demand. However, this law has been grossly misused by many women and drawn the attention of human rights bodies. The key word ‘cruelty’ has been stretched to unimaginable limits, leading to many jurisprudential experts terming the law as draconian.
The law must be exercised fairly
The ‘harassment of women at workplace’ laws, has drawn more flak than appreciation. It was enacted for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment. But even women associations have spoken up against it because it is liable to be openly misused by adventurous and daring females. Many false cases have been filed and pursued against innocent males, so much so that they have been seeking remedies against gender discrimination. The ‘me too’ movement is only one such example.
It is not for us to conclude that these laws for women are futile. We need to understand that they will be inconsequential if not used at all or worse still, if they are misused. The need of the hour is for the law maker and the law enforcer to act in a fair manner and exercise its judiciousness prior to announcing a verdict.