Ask Linda 1 — India and Women’s Rights, and the Law
Beatrice Linda Louis is a long-time friend and colleague. She is an Indian and a trained lawyer who is the Business Editor for Uncommon Ground Media Ltd. and an activist against sexual violence and exploitation. Louis can be found on Twitter with the caption quote by Mariane Wright Edelman, “If you don’t like the way the world is, you can change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.”
Here we talk about women’s rights and India, and the law, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How does the history of women’s rights around the world and, in particular, in India give hope or optimism for the possibility of progress for the knowledge about and subsequent implementation of women’s rights in India, especially where the rights become the most consequential on a girl’s and a woman’s life with education and reproductive health rights?
Beatrice Linda Louis: Is there hope for optimism? Yes, despite the waves of news currently being covered by the media, women still are making gains. We are making slow progress. What is cause for optimism, in the private sector in terms of the workplace, entering the workforce, those things are certainly on the upswing. That is one of the major achievements the women’s movement everywhere can rely on.
More women are being educated. They are doing better. The confidence in women’s education is rising. Resistance is going down. So, both education and economic empowerment, the veritable upswing in that, is cause for hope. In India, it is even truer. Because women have entered the workforce more. There is still a gap to cover. I believe the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has recorded the level of unpaid labour for Indian women and what that means for them — and for economic loss faced by women, and the economy.
The fact is participation is also increasing overall. I would say that is cause for optimism. As for the implementation of rights, it is a different kettle of fish from giving them rights or changing laws. The changing of laws requires activism, political pressure, and political mobilization. Implementation requires systemic change, systems to work, public sector to be improved, and for mindsets to change.
In that sense, you can see a rollback of women’s status all over the world. One should not be surprised. When women’s movements began in the 1950s and 1960s and earlier, the inequality of women was blatant. They did not have the right to vote, work, or study. It could be easily pointed to and noted as “these things are unequal, and we have to fix them.” In that time, men were in favour of equality because it was simply so logical.
However, what you are seeing now is extreme resistance because having accomplished rights on paper, women are now pushing for substantive equality, where all the gazillion trivial things that facilitate equality are being challenged and men do not like it. Now, it is not so obviously illogical. So, they prefer to support equality when it did not affect their interests. Now that it is, women are not only racing neck-and-neck, but point out flaws in companies and society.
There is considerable resistance to that now. That is the challenge. Society needs more introspection. We see a lot of resistance to that. In terms of implementing women’s rights, it is the biggest thing. This resentment and pushback to what they see as overreach, when it is women simply getting substantive equality rather than formal equality.
In India, you can see the microcosm of the anger seen at the global level. There is considerable anger against women. There is a considerable backlash. I would say that that does pose a threat to the implementation of women’s rights. Apart from that, the larger obstacle to women’s rights lies in systems. In this sense, public services are corrupt. It is a toss of a coin with a police officer. If bad, you might as well say, “Goodbye,” to justice. There is a hampered police force. There is an ineffective bureaucracy. There are funds that never get dispersed. These are the main obstacles to the implementation of women’s rights.
These are not for women. These are systemic problems. The delivery of public services and government officials in developing countries. These will not be solved; unless, we solve the bigger issues.
Jacobsen: What are the firm legal victories for women’s rights in India?
Louis: One of the most recent victories women had was the Supreme Court upheld the right of women to enter a temple in the Southern Indian state of Kerala called Sabarimala. They were not allowed before. Now, they are allowed. So, that is a substantial victory. Apart from that, there were colonial laws in place, which made adultery out to be a crime.
Except, it was extremely badly phrased. It made the adulterer, or the man, a criminal, but only because the woman was viewed as chattel, basically. They viewed the man as the owner of the woman’s body and responsible for adultery. So, it was a crime and not grounds for divorce. In a way, it is a win for women.
By removing this as a crime, it is a social aberration and social crime. It no longer treats women as chattel or animals. It treats both parties in a marriage as equal partners. Another such victory was when the courts, recently, held that if old parents had a daughter; the daughter could be held responsible for the maintenance of the old parents.
It does not sound like a victory. But it is. Prevailing laws held that only sons could be made responsible for their old parents or expected to take care of old parents. Whereas, women were considered as minors. Once they were married, they were not considered as economic agents. They were not considered responsible adults. That has been rolled back.
More women are being recognized as economic agents. That is a good thing. Another thing, this has not come to fruition. The opposition to triple talaq. The option of male Muslim divorce by simply pronouncing the word divorce three times. Muslim women have been fighting against this option for quite a long time.
But because of partisan politics and male-dominated religious bodies, it has been a long fight. However, there is a case in court. So far, the signs look good. I would say, those are the more significant victories in the last few days and months. If we go back further, we have good laws on sexual harassment
Or a good law, which was descriptive. For the first time, it included unorganized workers or domestic workers. Those who were not given any labour rights because you could not see them as being part of a larger employed group. They were house cleaners and cooks, and not exactly factory workers.
But the law against sexual harassment in the workplace did include unorganized workers as well. [Laughing] it is revolutionary because many of the laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, even in more developed countries, do not adequately deal with unorganized workers, e.g., nannies, house cleaners, and so on. Yes, it is a legal victory.
Jacobsen: What is the current battleground? How can activists mobilize to combat against the self-identified foes of women’s rights in these modern domains?
Louis: The current battleground has been and will be for many years to come violence against women, e.g., sexual violence against women in India. It is harder to say if it is increasing. But there are, certainly, more gruesome attacks. The number of gang rapes is rising. The number of rapes of children is rising. Is this gender malaise in society? Yes. What can activists do now? They can stop looking at only the legal system as a solution.
They can start more top-down efforts to change mindsets. The government must be taking the lead and funding, not even educational programs, but, rather, cultural programs that challenge masculine ideas, masculine mindsets, and actively undo the damage of a patriarchal society.
Because violence is rising. It is not going down. That is profoundly scary. Of course, another factor is pornography. Which, I am sure if I say this or write this down; people will say, “There is no proof that porn increases sexual violence.” In fact, yes, there is, especially when it is given untrammelled access to — as it is currently with even violence debasing porn.
There are events of young boys attacking young girls, even children, literally after consuming a porn video [Laughing]. Porn, in India, has caused damage. Nobody is willing to admit it. The elite has subscribed to the overall theory or studies done in the West and in limited sample sizes about pornography not causing sexual violence.
Most are highly fraught. But that is a different topic. The problem is, in India, a poor, repressed population. They have little in terms of sexual outlets. The culture does not allow you to grow into your sexuality in a responsible way. Pornography has worsened things. Eventually, activists will have to confront this and find ways of combatting the damage.
Because the laws at this point are good. There are not detailed laws in place to prosecute and punish people accused of rape. However, again, this goes down to systems. If we do not want to pick up the piece after its done, but, rather, prevent it, we will have to look at social initiatives and not the legal system.
The legal system only comes in after the damage is done. That is not going to be enough. That would be the current battleground.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Linda.