The question of relationship between women’s movement and legal activism is a much debated issue. Most of us tend to see the question of women’s ‘empowerment’ in terms of instituting adequate laws to ‘protect’ women; however the experience of women’s movement has shown that this relationship is by no means as simple as it appears. […]

The question of relationship between women’s movement and legal activism is a much debated issue. Most of us tend to see the question of women’s ‘empowerment’ in terms of instituting adequate laws to ‘protect’ women; however the experience of women’s movement has shown that this relationship is by no means as simple as it appears. Not all the laws passed for the ‘welfare’ of women necessarily translate into empowerment of women, moreover women cannot be seen as a monolithic category facing similar problems and hence bearing the same set of interests. This piece through the analysis of a few representative aspects of legal route to emancipation of women tries to bring to light the problems and possibilities related to the demand for adequate laws as a form of activism.

Women’s Movement And The Demand For Death Penalty

In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident at Delhi, understandably there was a popular outcry and concern about the safety of women. Simultaneously there was an intense public debate regarding the steps that may be taken to ensure that such gruesome incidents do not take place again. One popular demand coming mainly from the middle class sections was that these attackers should be hanged. This demand however was vociferously opposed by left-wing activists as reactionary, the argument being that if the punishment for both murder and such brutal attacks on women becomes the same, i.e. death penalty, then every such incident would most likely also become murder. Knowing that he is going to be hanged anyway, the attacker might feel inclined to murder the victim as well to erase evidence. The fact that the quantum of punishment for murder is greater acts as a deterrent for the attacker to murder the victim. In the opinion of the left wing activists, in such cases, priority should be to save the victim from death. Most of those who differ and insist upon death penalty for such attackes on women are in fact guided by the spirit of revenge/vengeance. Seeking vengeance for does not by any means empower women, on the contrary such sentiments fan male dominance in the society by sending across the message that women ought to carry the burden of society’s honor and hence any breach of their ‘modesty’ must evoke maximum punishment. The fact that many men and women feel that rape is a fate worse than death is guided by the same male centric sentiments which consider women as very precious objects over whom male egos may play out.

The Demand For Laws To Ensure Payment For Women’s Domestic Labor

Most of the women, particularly those who are employed outside their homes, engage in backbreaking domestic labor. Despite its undeniable significance, domestic labor is a thankless job that is considered to be of a lower grade and in some cases declared by men to be no job at all. A number of women rights activist groups have been lobbying with the government to pass adequate laws to ensure that domestic labor carried out by women is recognized as proper work. Due to the widespread feeling that the household labor of women is appropriated by society without being paid for, a number of women’s rights group have begun to demand that the state should recompense women by paying them wages for domestic work. Though there are innumerable problems regarding this stance, one obvious issue that stands out regarding this law is that it treats women as monolithic category without taking into account the wide cleavages within them on the basis of economic status. This demand does not take into account the fact that it is the working class women who bear the brunt of household work the most, forced to work outside, rear children, cook, clean and wash all by themselves. Whereas more affluent sections of women are able to divest themselves of a number of similar responsibilities by buying services like crèche for their children while they are out for work, a number of home appliances like the washing machine, microwave etc which liberate them of several backbreaking chores and the most affluent of women are in fact able liberate themselves of domestic labor altogether by hiring domestic helps. In a recent editorial article for the Hindu, it was pointed by Maya John, a leading activist based in Delhi, that the irony of the demand for wages for household labor is the fact that this wage itself might be used by the more affluent for women to hire women from the working class as domestic helps. Women’s movement, while demanding laws can ill afford to neglect the fact that the emancipation of a section of women might be based upon increased burden for the rest of women. Instead Maya John’s organization demands public funded crèche for children to facilitate the entry of mothers in the job market, public laundries, community kitchen etc as the solution to the emancipation from drudgery from household labor for all women without running into the danger of facilitating emancipation of some women at the cost of the rest.

Laws Regarding Protection From Sexual Harassment At The Workplace

A major demand of several women’s rights groups to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace has been the implementation of the Vishakha Judgement issued by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 that makes it mandatory for all employers to form anti sexual harassment committees in their offices. Celebration of this judgment as a significant victory towards the realization of a safe and conducive work environment for the working women has however led the adherents to turn a blind eye towards certain very grave objections raised by those activists who are more skeptical of it. It has been argued that the implementation of this judgment amounts to little else than privatization of the trial of cases of sexual harassment. Instead of dragging the sexual harassers to the court, the victims are now required to submit to a committee constituted by the employer. Recent case studies have revealed that this has resulted in gross procedural irregularities, ranging from attempts to placate and reconcile the complainants to their utter victimization.  The withdrawal of the state from the right to ensure justice has not resulted in increased efficiency in dispensation of justice, though it certainly has created immense difficulties in the regulation of malpractices.

In Summary

These few case studies are by no means a denunciation of legal activism as an important tool in the hands of women’s movement. In many cases claims made upon the state can play an important role in the fulfillment of the intermediate demands of the women’s struggle for emancipation. However we certainly need to take into account the fact that legal activism ought to be placed in the wider context and judged in each particular instance to ensure that it translates into a step forward.

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