Respect women’s autonomy
A court ruling that not wearing accoutrements of matrimony invalidates marriage is a step in the wrong directionUpdated: Jul 02, 2020 13:46 IST
The Gauhati high court’s ruling, granting a man a divorce on the grounds that his wife refused to wear a shaka (conch shell bangle) and sindoor as per Hindu custom amounted to her refusal to accept the marriage, is a huge step backwards for women’s rights.
By wearing these accoutrements of matrimony, a woman is expected to show her devotion to her husband while nothing of this sort is expected from the man. In fact, the sindoor takes on a significant role in a marriage that neither a single woman nor a widow can wear it. It is seen as a mark of respectability.
In the Gauhati case, the court went further and ruled that the woman in question was guilty of cruelty under the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007, as she did not want to live with her in-laws, and, hence, tried to prevent her husband from looking after his aged mother. The ruling suggests an inbuilt bias in the judiciary, particularly at the lower levels. It deprives the woman of her freedom of choice as to whether she wishes to wear symbols of marriage.
This sort of misogyny is insidious as it tends to appropriate and control the woman’s wishes. The ruling – like many others in the past – deny the woman autonomy, and makes her subservient to a pre-defined patriarchal notion of what a “good” wife ought to be like. At a time when more women are entering the workforce and becoming economically independent, it seems misplaced to constrain their behaviour, whether it is within a marriage or otherwise.
Unfortunately, many of India’s popular television serials and films also glorify the importance of marriage symbols such as sindoor and bangles. A marriage is a union of equals and should not be contingent on one partner being viewed as being subservient to the other. Equality under the law should be upheld in letter and spirit and the Gauhati ruling seems to go against this.
But this is not the first instance of judicial bias against women and their right to autonomy and choice. On June 22, the Karnataka high court ruling on bail in a rape case made an odd comment on the behaviour of the woman. In Rakesh B vs State of Karnataka, the judge said that the fact that victim fell asleep after the crime was unbecoming of an Indian woman, adding that this was not the way our women react when “ravished”. The allusion was that the woman had willingly had drinks with the man in question. No adverse remarks were made about the man’s conduct. Of course, this invited a furious flurry of opposition from civil rights groups and concerned individuals lamenting the deeply entrenched patriarchy at all levels of society including the judiciary.
The notion that a married woman is the property of her husband or that a rape victim’s honour is besmirched, rather than the fact that her personal autonomy is violated, has guided several court rulings. The misogyny seen in the judiciary often makes it incumbent on the victim to explain her conduct. For example, why she doesn’t want to wear sindoor; why she was dressed in a particular way; or, where she was when she was assaulted. The absence of injuries on the victim, whether in domestic violence or sexual assault, is often cited as a reason to disbelieve the woman.
The law does not discriminate against a woman making choices in a marriage, nor does it lay down any code of conduct for women through which they can protect themselves from sexual violence. The interpretations made by some judicial functionaries are unnecessary when the law itself is clear.
The views expressed are personal