Saturday, 16 March 2013

Being Indian: Gender Biased Laws

I’ve been disturbed lately. I am obviously angry but this time at an issue that I am yet to wholly understand. Even so, I’m furious. I have never really been a fan of marriage, arranged or love. But as I cross the threshold of the marry-able age and see that everyone I know is getting engaged and married, the horror stories I’ve heard are now drawing closer. Though each of these stories are of only one or two people, a little research leaves one amazed and how common these experiences actually are.

There are monster-in-laws, mama’s boys, gold diggers, hasty decisions and more – all hidden behind the pretty candid albums of engagements and weddings. From parents struggling to pay off wedding loans to parents spending a few nights in jail, I’ve heard them all. I want to start with the one thing that has been bothering me the most. It makes me feel disgusted and helpless and more so, because I’m a woman.

Our country has been fighting a social evil, one that we’ve learnt in school as part of our nation’s history; one that has been in practise for many years and is now being fought with a highly gender biased law – Dowry. There are two sides to this coin; on one, women are being doused with kerosene. The other side is dangerously creating male versions of feminazis, after tormenting and extorting them.

A friend of mine went off the radar for almost a year. Before he went underground, I remembered talking to him a few weeks before he was about to get married. The next time I saw him he looked deeply disturbed. And then he told me the story of his short marriage and ugly divorce. He had an arranged marriage and was married to this girl for three months, during which he made several efforts to give her space and comfort. Three months after they married, she moved back to her parents’ house. And about two months later, the girl’s family filed both a divorce and a complaint against him and his family under the 498a act.

The 498a act of our constitution, one of the dowry prohibition laws, reads as following:

498A. Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty.

Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation-For the purpose of this section, "cruelty" means-

(a) Any willful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health whether mental or physical) of the woman; or

(b) Harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her meet such demand.[7]

The complaint cited my friend as a sex-maniac and stated that he even indulged in wife swapping. It said that he had invited his friends to spend nights with his wife. It also cited that he offered his wife to his father. Apart from this they were also accused of constantly harassing the girl’s family for dowry in the form of money and other expensive gifts. And for all of this there was no evidence apart from the girl and her family’s testimony. My friend and his mother were arrested and spent three nights in jail. He agreed to give her the divorce, but the demands were exorbitant and continued to grow. As the entire thing got uglier day by day, the girl’s family offered to settle the entire thing out of court for about 40 lakhs. And the sum of this out-of-court settlement has been rising at every step.

This friend of mine is not one case. I personally know two others like him and there are even NGOs and groups dedicated to helping victims of the misuse of the 498a act. But how often do you hear about this in the news? A lot of media these days is focusing on the safety of the woman, the status of the Indian woman and how India does not respect its women. And every time I watch one of these advertisements or debates on the news channels, I remember these guys who have been working towards this unjust law for the past 8 years and have received little or no media coverage. I have wondered and discussed with friends as to why when gender equality is in the focus on the media at this time, there has been no talk of the misuse of the 498a act and most responses lead to

“Well, there is always collateral damage.”

No. There isn’t. There shouldn’t be. If you google misuse of 498a, you will be exposed to a world where the Indian constitution has been incredibly unfair to men and their families. There are numerous cases where men are being extorted as victims of the misuse of this act or where men are being threatened to either pay up or be victimised. When it comes to gender biased laws, this is just one act. There are others too including the domestic violence act and the various maintenance laws.

Sadly, the way NGOs are dealing with this issue is the same way women deal with issues that affect women. The activists slander women. Their websites have the Indian woman painted as an evil money hungry succubus just like in recent media, the Indian male has been described as the sole reason for sexual violence in India, the sex hungry animal who disrespects women and treats them like dirt. These activists call themselves masculinists, which brings me to feminism.

I learnt the word Feminism to mean equality of men and women, respect for everybody regardless of gender. I used to identify myself as a feminist, with pride and felt that I was a part of a fair and beautiful movement. But this relentless focus on women’s rights is not gender equality. I know that dowry in the past has contributed to the harassment and death of countless women, and I do NOT deny that to date there are many women who continue to suffer several atrocities due to dowry. But if the prohibition law is being unfair to men, then it needs to be changed and for us to reach equality, both genders need to have a fair chance at dignity of life. I want to see a day when men and women come together to fight the battles of gender inequality. I want to see just as many women picketing on the streets against these gender biased laws as men protesting against sexual violence. Change only happens with inclusion. 

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