An intelligent, confident and pretty client has left Flavia Agnes, 61, baffled. The young woman comes from a family of privileged means, is well-educated, runs her own business and has supportive parents. Yet, she has silently endured an unconsummated and violent marriage for eight years, and only laid bare the details to her mother two months ago. “Why did she get into and stay in such a marriage for eight years? Why doesn’t she know her rights?” asks Agnes, women’s rights activist and feminist scholar, as she recounts this story at our meeting at the suburban Mumbai headquarters of Majlis, the organization she set up in 1990 to champion the rights of women.
Inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru:He gave a new, modern perspective for the development of the country. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Leather-bound volumes of the All India Reporter series of Supreme Court cases cover one section, while the opposite wall, painted a startling lime green, enlivens the otherwise drab room. Too often the room is occupied by modern, educated and independent women who come to consult Agnes about their rights in a marriage or relationship. One of the biggest problems facing Indian women, Agnes says, is their lack of knowledge of their basic rights. “There’s something fundamentally wrong in the way social conditioning happens. Indian women have no survival instincts. Inside or outside a marriage, they don’t know their basic rights and how to survive with dignity,” she says. “These girls have all the gloss—they go out to nightclubs, and think they are confident and can handle their lives, but they can’t,” she says.
At some level it seems Agnes is disappointed in them. It is a well-documented fact that she was married at 20 and spent 13 years in a violent marriage. She says she understands why women of her generation—many often married young and were not highly educated—suffered such problems. “Back then no one would believe me and thought something was wrong with me. You would think that the next generation wouldn’t have similar problems, but they do.”
Agnes talks in soft tones but rapidly, without many pauses, allowing a cup of coffee to cool by her side. Her black hair is streaked with white and kohl is smudged around her eyes, as if she rubs them constantly.
Agnes grew up with her aunt in Mangalore. After she finished schooling she joined her parents, who lived abroad. Her father and aunt died soon after, so she returned to India, got married, moved to Mumbai, and has been there since. Thirteen years and three children into her marriage, Agnes had had enough of her abusive husband and filed for judicial separation because “back then Christian women could not get divorced on the grounds of cruelty” (the Bombay high court struck down that section of the Indian Divorce Act in 1997, in a ruling in favour of one of Agnes’ clients). She then enrolled at the SNDT Open University and graduated in 1980, following that up with a master of law (LLM) degree in 1992 from Bombay University and an MPhil in family law from the National Law School, Bangalore.
Over the years, Agnes has handled cases about marital disputes and violence, brutality and sexual abuse of women and minors. She has authored and edited books on women’s rights and has been involved in high-profile cases such as the ban on Mumbai’s bar dancers in 2005. Some of her big victories have remained unpublicized to maintain client confidentiality, but her biggest contribution in the debate for women’s rights has been her opposition to the proposed Uniform Civil Code (UCC). “A few years ago, the view among women’s groups and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) right wing was that Muslims are fundamentalists and women have no rights under their laws, so there should be a UCC. I argued that you don’t need the UCC to give rights. Even Hindu women don’t have rights in some issues. That was just a way to deny communities their separate cultural identities. I wanted to give dignity to the community and community practices,” she says. The campaign for a UCC has now been dropped by rights activists and the BJP.
Despite the violence she has faced personally and the kind she comes across every day in her professional life, Agnes does not give the impression that she has allowed her experiences to harden or desensitize her.
If anything, it seems she feels too much for each of her cases. “I don’t go to court for individual cases any more. I began suffering from a burnout after being in these do-or-die situations for so many years.” Her time is now taken up by her academic pursuits, such as A Reader on Law, Justice and Gender, a comprehensive textbook for students and teachers, to be released in a few months. Agnes is writing this book to combat the misinformation about women’s rights that often stems from media and TV shows.
Majlis has dealt with clients who think that working women are not granted custody of children and illegitimate children are not entitled to maintenance—information they have gathered from soaps or serious shows such as ex-cop Kiran Bedi’s Aap Ki Kachehri. Majlis, in association with two-time National Award-winning film-maker Madhusree Dutta, tries to get correct messages across in the form of films, plays and cultural festivals.
Agnes believes she is different from other activists because “I own up to all my experiences”. She sees the world not from her position in society, but from the viewpoint of those who are most downtrodden. “The ban on bar dancers was put into effect because men would go to dance bars, drink and come home and beat their wives. But the dancers were making a living and feeding their children,” she argues. “Is it okay for these girls to starve for the safety of middle-class wives? As an activist or as a feminist, your activism and feminism should work at the least denomination. It cannot start at the Hindu middle-class level and see the whole world from there and only be concerned if it works for them. You have to go layer by layer—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Dalit, bar dancer, trafficked woman, migrant woman, sex worker—it should work for everybody. If it doesn’t, it is not feminism at all. ”
My clearest insight into Agnes’ personality comes when at one point she asks me in perfect Bombay-Christian English, “How you know all this about me?” There’s no ego or sense of entitlement. Her concern is getting the right message out there. Today, that in itself makes her unique.