The parliament’s proposed changes to the marriage law, to give a divorced woman a share in her husband’s property, have truly set the cat among the pigeons. Only this time there is an unlikely protestor: the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD). Apparently, worried that women might misuse the law, members of the WCD ministry have put their weight behind blocking this law, such that the government has had to refer it to a group of ministers who will come back with their recommendations quickly so that a decision can be taken one way or another.
Ministers are busy and they are mostly men. We’ll have to wait and see what they recommend. If they’ve read even a fraction of the Justice Verma committee’s report (something they should have in its entirety, since they needed to be informed before voting on the law on sexual assault in Parliament), we can only hope that the ministers in question will have learned something. But it’s difficult to say whether ministers are at all concerned about what happens to women. A few weeks ago, two friends, both feminist activists, came out of the Lok Sabha debate on the rape law, shaking. What hit them hard was the blatant misogyny they saw, with most of the men — and many of the women — asking ‘what’s a little chedchad anyway?’ and claiming that many women misuse the law.
This business about misuse, the fear of which is what made the WCD ministry oppose the changes, is a real canard and raises its ugly head somehow only where laws related to women are concerned. No one talks about the ‘misuse’ of the law on homicide: hundreds of false cases are registered but that’s just par for the course. Nor is there much talk of the State’s misuse of the law, which is rampant; you have only to take the case of Soni Sori to see how this was done with impunity in arresting her. It’s another matter that it’s the sheer incompetence of the police that has, in the end, helped acquit her of most of the charges. But imagine a scenario where such incompetence did not exist, what recourse would an innocent woman have?
So should a woman have a right to a part of her husband’s property post-div – orce or not? Personally, I see no real problem with this. There’s so little recognition of the years of unpaid labour women put in as housewives and as working women-cum-housewives that this is something that is only fair. What surprises me, though, is the venomous and vituperative comments on this issue that have followed in media reports of the changes suggested by the law ministry. Many of these are angry, resentful (some are almost violent) and all the anger is directed not at the lawmakers but at women, as if to say that women have somehow engineered this development. If only we had so much power! More importantly, and it’s necessary to get some perspective on this, how many men in India are even propertied? How many marriages end in divorce? Most of the time women are deserted, abandoned, beaten and left to survive or die. Claiming property is a far cry for them.
Every new piece of legislation has its pros and cons. And a serious and engaged debate on these is both necessary and important. It also gives us the opportunity to raise questions and seek answers. After all, most of us do not come to these crucial issues with our views formed and ready. I am reminded of the debate on the necessity or otherwise of the death penalty in cases of rape. This was a demand that was loudly expressed by many people and prominent among those who opposed it were feminists. When the law was finalised, the death penalty found a place there. Yet feminists did not start spewing venom about this, nor did they attack those who’d demanded it. Instead they went back to the drawing board to think how they could carry on their campaign for the removal of the death penalty, hoping that they’d make a bigger dent the next time around.
There’s a lesson to be learnt here. All of us have a choice to oppose or support the proposed changes. If we exercise this choice democratically and in the spirit of fair-mindedness, there will be no need to turn our weapons on the very people this legislation is trying to help. For there are no two ways about one thing: India needs many more pro-women legislation than we currently have, if we are to get anywhere close to achieving that elusive thing called equality.