Asmita Basu

| @ | March 8,2019

I think, as I prepare my notes to mark International Women’s Day—why do we need to celebrate this day? Aren’t we in a post-feminism age? Then my attention turns to a rather revealing exchange between the Attorney General and Senior Advocate, Ms. Jaising. Long story short, after over five decades of being ‘a very good lawyer’, Ms. Jaising was compelled to point out that she is an individual in her own right and will not be defined by her marital status.

As lawyers say res ipsa loquitar – the facts speak for themselves. It may be (more) invisible and manifestly different, but the truth is that patriarchy is alive and kicking. There have been significant wins, forged on battles fought by women who resisted. However, the battle ahead remains long and hard. One can’t ignore that patriarchy was built tenaciously over centuries. Dismantling this system is a gargantuan task.

That someone of Ms. Jaising’s stature needed to affirm her position, then how much more difficult must making a demand for equality be for those far less privileged. What gives me incredible hope is that despite considerable odds, women have not given up, whether it is Indira Jaising in the Supreme Court, Sudha Bharadwaj, Soni Sori and Pavitri Manjhi in Chhatisgarh, Salima Memcha in Manipur, women are not bowing out.

 

Goals and strategies

 

This is the reason why we celebrate women’s day — to acknowledge the bravery of these heroes and many others whose fight laid the foundation for equality for all. It is a reprieve, a chance to replenish, to re-affirm commitments, to count gains made and look squarely at challenges that lie ahead. It is a day to come together to introspect and to strategise. What does it mean to be a woman in today’s age? Are the goals of the women’s movement still relevant? How does the movement strategise to meet challenges in a technologically driven world? Have solidarities been effectively built with other movements? How diverse is the movement?

 

 

This day affirms that the fight is against the patriarchal system, not individuals. Women internalise gender stereotypes, even though they are disadvantaged by it. Men can be feminists or victims of patriarchy. After nearly two decades of working on violence against women, I was deeply moved by a 2012 Satyamev Jayate episode, where the redoubtable Kamla Bhasin addressed an entirely male audience on challenging gender stereotypes. She argued, with her usual feistiness, that the alternative to patriarchy is not matriarchy but equality.

The choice of the audience was interesting. Typically, mostly women attend shows and events on women’s rights. This begs the question whether the realisation of gender rights is the sole responsibility of women? This also means a confrontation with individuals and not the system. What Kamla Bhasin’s audience challenges us to do is to think differently—by demonstrating that changing mindsets is needed for all, irrespective of gender or sex. This approach accommodates engagement, a revolutionary act, in and of itself, since it needs to be executed within a system that benefits from segregation.

 

Critical Consciousness

 

Feminist practice, with its rich tradition of case work, has evolved over time, to put practice Paolo Friere’s participatory methods to create critical consciousness. There have been, particularly in the past decade, engagements with men and boys to make them active participants in breaking gender norms. These private, and often small-scale initiatives hold the potential for countering toxic masculinities, thriving under the rise of conservative forces. While the confrontation with the system must continue unabated, a simultaneous engagement with individuals must also be explored.

 

The Lawyers Collective and the Domestic Violence Act

 

I think back a decade ago, when I was part of the Lawyers Collective. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act had just been enforced, when we were invited to address a collective of men’s groups on their concerns on the use of laws to address domestic violence, particularly the experience of applying Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. We had, prior to that, in the Lawyers Collective, been the target of much hate by these groups. But I had never come face to face with any of them.

 

 

This meeting was overwhelming in many ways. First, the narrative utterly disavowed that domestic violence happens against women. Second, there was a resolute demand that Section 498A be scrapped as it was being ‘misused’. Third, there were harrowing tales of police harassment and incarceration following a criminal complaint. All these issues are complicated. In my experience, registering an FIR in cases of domestic violence are fraught and result in an NCR at most. A reading of NFHS and NCRB data confirms that most cases of domestic violence remain unreported. What does ‘misuse’ even mean? There is no need for a judicial process if all allegations were true. Hence, while all complaints must be investigated, it is the judicial process that must be the arbitrator. If a complaint is un-proven, it shall be dismissed. How then is there any scope for ‘misuse’?

 

A Fine Balance

 

A point that must be acknowledged here is that involvement in judicial processes in our country is the punishment. Protracted proceedings, inadequate investigations, lack of evidence do not guarantee the certainty of justice. It is here that I see partial solidarity with those men accused of domestic violence, on the other side. However, this foregrounds the demand for a more efficient criminal justice system, not for the striking down of gender sensitive laws. A confrontation with the system must balance the demand for recognition with the need for redistribution and accommodating intersecting marginalities.

 

 

Power in an unequal world is neither a monolith nor static. To take on a power system requires an honest assessment of an individual’s privilege in terms of economic, political and social capital.  An engagement allows us to express our doubts towards building solidarities based on compassion and empathy. And it is in this spirit, that I ask the respected Attorney General if he would have asked a man to identify as a husband?

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