In India, feminists face opprobrium as a bunch of family-breaking, irresponsible man-haters. Demands for egalitarian status, women-friendly laws and claim to public space are treated with apathy. The general fear that women-friendly laws in cases of rape, workplace harassment and domestic violence may be abused by women does not spring from any rational premise or statistical proof. Instead, it evokes apprehension that women may misuse this weapon to spoil careers, damage reputations and disrupt normal lives of the accused men.
In a society premised on heterosexual and patriarchal norms such as India’s, the prime concern of gender-neutral rape laws may not be a desire for gender neutrality. Feminist lawyers like Flavia Agnes have categorically opposed the demand on the grounds that in a society where there is no gender parity, the demand may only result in abuse, inflicting further trauma on the victim. In fact, she argues, it may result in defeating the very purpose of legal reforms.
Reviewing the trauma that rape victims undergo during trial, it is evident that the state machinery and the legal system are highly patriarchal and prejudiced against women. In such a system, the demand for gender-neutral laws to deal with rape and domestic violence may turn the victim into the accused.
The legal mechanism may be tangential to the dominant culture but is also constrained by it. Rape, domestic violence, and other forms of abuse are widely prevalent in Indian society, each of these categories tied to notions of culture and honour. Therefore, women, as safeguards of a community’s honour, become easy targets for all forms of violations. Any reform without addressing this basic reality will not fundamentally alter the prevailing situation.
The history of law reforms in India and the demand for better laws supporting women has been there since the beginning of the feminist movement. Simultaneously, there have been demands for protecting male rights. It is intriguing that while feminists want violence against women to be countered with more gender-sensitive practices and awareness programmes, the socalled men’s rights movements have only turned defensive in terms of law and have never attempted in any manner to join the awareness campaigns. It is as if their concern is only about laws and gender sensitivity has never been an issue.
While one of the arguments that come up against gender neutrality in law is the question of homosexuality, it will be a premature conclusion to arrive at, because most of the male rights organisations are highly antagonistic to homosexuality. Instead, they base their worldview on concepts like Indian heritage and family values. These men do not even think of accommodating homosexuality in the premise of their discourse.
For instance, one of the groups that claim the rights of men against women’s misuse of Section 498A and the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 is tellingly named the Save Indian Family Foundation (siff). This and many other men’s rights forums focus on these laws as exploitative platforms where vicious women break the foundation of Indian family values. Neither are they friendly to the cause of sexual minorities, nor the question of sexual violence. They presume women are the property of men, a highly patriarchal concept, and are based on apprehensions of men losing control over women’s bodies.
If women are abusing the Domestic Violence Act or sexual assault law, where are those cases? An insignificant number of extortion and blackmail attempts spring from elite and middle-class sections of society. Interestingly, compared to lower middle class and marginalised sections of India, violence cases are seldom filed by women from the upper segments of Indian society.