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A different sort of ‘f’ word

HT’s story about proposed amendments to India’s marriage laws elicits visceral reactions from many men

india Updated: Apr 15, 2012 01:39 IST

Biased… Hopeless article, a radical feminist’s story… Abysmal quality of journalism… Published on 1 April, the article makes the world a fool… Skewed presentation… Anti-male article… Fraud… Worst logic put forward by greedy feminists… Desperate attempt to justify equal property rights for women… Misandry…

These are some excerpts from letters that readers — mostly men — wrote in response to the article ‘The End Game’ (April 1, page 9), about the cabinet approving amendments to the country’s marriage laws. The article did get some praise, but the vast majority of letters attacked it for being one-sided. The article evaluated whether proposed amendments to the country’s marriage laws were progressive towards women.

The article is available online, so I’ll give readers just a brief background. The key change is the introduction of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ as a valid justification for divorce. According to existing laws, if the divorce is not by mutual consent, one has to prove that the partner is at fault. The new clause will allow a person to file for divorce without having to prove the partner is at fault, in the absence of mutual consent. The person has only to show that the marriage has broken down.

The country’s law commission first proposed this amendment to clear the huge backlog of cases. A parliamentary committee further studied the proposal, made suggestions and finally the cabinet cleared a draft bill last month.

Since I commissioned and supervised the story as the Mumbai weekend editor, I will have to provide the rationale for

the story myself. But I cannotthen also play the role of arbiter that I normally do as Readers’ Editor. So I will leave it to readers to evaluate my explanation.

First, I took a deliberate decision to look at the proposal from a woman’s point of view. In other words, I decided from the very outset that this perpective would be what journalists call the “angle” of the feature article. While undertaking feature articles, deciding on an “angle” is not an exception; it is the norm. The logic is that if you don’t throw a fence around one part of the story, the part you find the most compelling or interesting, you will end up flitting from issue to issue, ultimately not saying anything.

Certainly, one can ask why I chose this angle, and this is a perfectly valid question. The simple reason is that women face huge structural disadvantages in India, socially and economically. This has been revealed in successive studies: India’s gender inequality index, as defined by the UNDP, worsened between 2008 and 2011, giving the country a rank of 129 out of 146 countries, better only than Afghanistan in south Asia; India ranked last in Asia for women’s presence in the workplace, according to an AC Nielsen survey released last year; and of all countries, India had the largest proportion of women, 87%, who felt ‘stressed out’. Given this, I felt it was a reasonable angle to take.

As a result, all three case studies that we featured were of women who had undergone or were undergoing a divorce. I asked the reporter, Aarefa Johari, who also helped shape the story and determine its angle, what she felt about the responses. “The story certainly could have had the opinion of one or two men who had been through a divorce,” she said. “But it’s a well-known fact that women are more disadvantaged in this country.”

Many of the letters point to how women can and have abused the law to harass men. One has to certainly look carefully at the loopholes and provide as watertight a law as possible, but one cannot completely eliminate abuses. Ultimately, one has to see what the percentage of such abuse is.

Indeed, what bothered me about the bulk of the responses was that they did not provide data, choosing instead to use labels such as “feminist” to denounce the article, a label that doesn’t say very much.

Yes, the article was pro-woman, but since when has that become an ‘f’ word?

First Published: Apr 15, 2012 01:38 IST