Picture Courtesy: http://inba.tv/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/women_empowerment.jpg
This article was written by Ayushi Goel, a student of RGNUL, Patiala.
The essay attempts to examine the relationship between women in the society and the law that has and continues to govern women. Law: spoken and unspoken, written and practised, formal and informal. Finally, it talks about how law can better the condition of women.
“It is impossible to think about the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing.” — Swami Vivekananda The improving status of women from, ‘NaariNarakasyaDwaram’: AdiShankaracharya, and ‘Your women are your fields, so go into your fields whichever way you like’ : The Quran, Sura 2:223 (1.) to, “Honor your daughters. They are honorable. ” ―MalalaYousafzai , forms part of the changing social order. And, role of legislation in bringing about any kind of social change is undisputed.
From ancient times, women in our society have been subjected to various injustices and inequalities at every stage of life; Law has always come to their rescue. Although, legislation alone is insufficient to better women’s condition, changes to the law, from time to time, have enabled women to, among other things, gain the right to education, win property rights, achieve political representation, and ensure access to contraceptives and abortion. Things, which were once unthinkable, such as a married woman divorcing her husband for adultery or, a to-be bride dragging her would-be in laws to court over dowry-demands, are now safeguarded by law. Legislation has provided women a platform to fight for their rights. Since 1997 women have been able to take an employer or a coworker to court over sexual harassment at workplace under the Vishakha Guidelines(subsequently superseded by the 2013 Act) (2.)(3.); since 1977, the Hindu married female has been made entitled to maintenance from her husband’s property(4.). Turning a few pages in history, the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856 ( subsequently overridden by other acts of same social character) allowed the Hindu females the legal right to contract a second valid marriage; the Sharda Act of 1929 raised the lower marital age limit for girls to 18. Such has been our legislative legacy.
Law in a Negative role :
Case of Pakistan
The gender-discriminatoryZinaHudood Ordinance of 1979, which formed part of President Zia-ul-haq’sShariazisation served as a great weapon of women subjugation in the hands of the regressive patriarchal society.
Under the ordinance, women could now be flogged for adultery. For the absurd want of 4 adult, male witnesses which the court considered as “ persons of integrity” to testify to the act of “forceful penetration”, most instances were often misconstrued as that of adultery. The law of evidence was another instance of blatant inequality as it considered the testimony of women to be equal to that of one man. Laws such as these have only facilitated oppression of and, violence against women.
Case law :A premier case outlining the loopholes and injustice in the above law is that of SafiaBibi, a domestic help, aged 20 years and suffering from acute myopia was raped in turns by her employer and his son. In a shocking verdict based on the Zinahudoodordinance ,by the Sessions court, the two accused were allowed to go scot-free, Safia was held liable for fornication and sentenced to 15 lashes, a rupee hundred fine and 3 years’ imprisonment. The judgement was met with a number of protests and finally Safia was granted her freedom after six months.
Case of the west
The proposed and existing anti-abortion laws of a number of countries of the west showcase the mentality of the society that views women only as a vessel of reproduction. The “ pro-life” brigade tends to very conveniently overlook the health and life of the pregnant woman. Legislations disallowing abortion after twelfth week of pregnancy even in the case of health complications tend to push the entire abortion thing behind the curtains. This further puts the life of the greatest stakeholders in this in grave danger as they have to seek illegal recourse which leaves them without any scope of legal remedy in case they suffer. Also, they often have to incur huge costs to undergo abortion abroad.
Women in Contemporary law :
The Indian Union Cabinet recently passed The New Surrogacy(regulation) bill which bans commercial surrogacy and allows surrogacy only when done with a relative. The bill is receiving both appreciation and sharp criticism from different sections of the society. SushmaSwaraj says, “ We have many examples of celebrities who had children and yet went for a child through surrogacy. The procedure that started as a necessity has become a hobby.”
A surrogate mother expressed concern that such a law would force Surrogacy to go underground, thereby, furthermore compromising on the health and the rights ofsurrogates.
One would have expected a greater involvement of women stakeholders in making of this draft bill, for it is their body, their womb, being decided for.
To ensure greater access to justice for women and girls, concerted efforts are to be made to ensure proper participation of women in decision and policy-making. Not just that, well-functioning legal systems with laws guaranteeing gender equality and protecting women and girls from all forms of discrimination should also be put in place. To quote none other than Rani Jethmalani,a champion of women’s rights, “It is futile to empower women by giving them decisive voices in decision making bodies where those voices are feeble and unequal without at the same time changing the laws”
- MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004
- Vishakha and Others Vs. State of Rajasthan and Others (JT 1997 (7) SC 384)
- Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prohibition, Prevention &Redressal Act, 2013 (14 of 2013)
- VaddeboyinaTulasamma v. VaddeboyinaSheshaReddi, 1977 SCR (3) 261
- Lau, Martin, Twenty-Five Years of Hudood Ordinances, Oxford UP, 2007