Saturday, November 18, 2006

Emancipation of women in the sub-continent ?

This week, Pakistan moved closer to removing some of the biases in its legal system that were introduced by General Zia in 1979. Under the terms of the Hudood Ordinance, women effectively were deemed to be of a lower status than women. The best example of this is the despicable cases of rape. Under these laws, for a rape case to be proven, the testimony of 4 males is required, and if the accused is a Muslim, the 4 witnesses need to be Muslims as well. The testimony of any female (including the victim) is of no value.
The measure which made this particulary horrible was that cases of adultery / pre-marital sex (deemed a crime) needed less stringent proof. So one has the gruesome spectacle of a victim reporting a rape, unable to get the 4 male witnesses, then being accused of adultery and being convicted of that. One would expect that this would lead to a reduction in the reporting of rapes, and there seem to be a number of cases where something like this happened.
In addition, we have other cases of biases against women being depicted in incidents such as honour killings, forced marriages, marriages at small ages, low education levels, and other such tendencies that a strongly patriarchal system imposes. Now, with the changes in the Hudood Ordinance having been passed by one house of parliament, there is a stronger chance that atleast some of the biases can be reduced. I would think that this is a long process, and there will be numerous times when religion will be used to justify these biases.
But, one should certainly not be happy about the condition of women in India. There are equally strong tendencies in India to equally depict women of the house as some sort of chattel, in effect being possessions of their husbands. There are equally vile going-ons over here; dowry and dowry related harassement is something that has become part of the fabric of society, so much that we cheer when somebody raises their voice against this practise; honour punishments / killings do happen; education levels for women are much lower than for males; husbands in many cases think nothing of physically or verbally harassing their wives (something that I have had the tragedy of seeing happen to people, although from a distance); and so and so forth.
In India, we have anti-dowry laws, and we have laws to punish assault on women. Some of these laws are very stringent. So much so that if a lady wishes to misuse these laws (and I am sure that there are quite a few cases of such misuse happening), the affected parties will be in serious trouble for some time atleast. However, I believe that society has accepted harassement of women in households to such an extent that stringent laws will provide affected women with a way to get some relief. If you read some of the horror stories that are inflicted on women in their marital households, these stories will make your skin crawl and you will not be able to believe as to how 'normal' people can sink to these levels of barbarity. Just one link to portray the extent of domestic violence as a statistic. The reader can do a bit of Googling and find numerous examples (especially if one does not want to believe the previous United Nations report).
Let's take the issue of misuse of these laws head-on. There have been numerous reports of misuse, and I am sure that some of these are true. The solution for these is not to turn off these laws (I fear that the problem that they are trying to tackle is too severe for such turnarounds). Studies show that the incidence of misuse is a very small fraction; people fighting against such misuse would be better focused to fight to get safeguards / review mechanisms built into the law rather than claiming that the law is defective. Using the courts system against this law and/or contacting their political structure is one effective method of pushing one's case. More highlighting of such cases and getting statistics will move this process forward.
I have been reading quite a bit of literature on mis-use of these laws (especially 498a and the recently passes Domestic Violence act). There is a lot of opinion that these laws effect the stability of marriages; that feminist movements will provoke wives to use these laws against their in-laws and husband; and most of all, that the normal law of nature is that the man provides and the wife remains in the house. It is very difficult to argue with a person who believes in such things. How can I think that a wife, who has come into a new home with a partner for a life-long bond will file cases against her new family seeking to punish them unless something has happened to provoke such a reaction. Typically in such cases, even if physical violence has not been used, there is a lot of verbal harassement and means of creating stress.
The other notion that feminist movements start turning wives against their husbands is equally horrendous. From what I understand of what actually happens, there is counselling involved with the first objective being to try to get the relationship resolved. But from what I suspect readers already know, there is a significant proportion of the male community that believe that they have the right to do whatever to their wives, and it is very difficult to counsel such people until some sort of threat is used.
As to the argument that such acts destroy marriages, I believe that in this era of publicity to women achievers, to TV serials/movies showing successful and talented females, it is going to be more difficult to keep a lady quiet in a stressful marriage. Earlier, it used to be easier as there was much more pressure on the lady to keep the marriage going, if necessary to accept punishment and harassement. That is going to be less and less likely. Now with women working more and having the ability to take care of themselves, I predict that unless the Indian male gives up some of his heavy biases (again, not all males have such biases), we are going to see more marriages collapse.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:48 PM