What women want
To not be raped. To not be subject to dowry. The right to be acknowledged as their children’s natural guardian. Meet four women who forced the law to recognize these basic rights
A protest march can sometimes tell us just how far, or how little, we have travelled. In 1972 a girl called Mathura was raped by two policemen in the compound of their police station in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district. As the case inched its way through the sessions court (she was habituated to sexual intercourse, therefore no rape) to the Supreme Court (no visible injury marks, therefore no rape), women’s groups became angrier, the protests grew louder, the slogans more strident.
“We want justice.”
“Phool nahin chingari hain, hum is desh ki naari hain (we are not flowers but burning flames, we are this nation’s women)”.
Nearly 40 years later, as students and grandmothers, professors and housewives gathered at India Gate in Delhi in December 2012, the same slogans filled the air. As national angst played out on social media and television studios, it felt like that we were witnessing the birth of a movement. Indeed, the December 2012 protests were a milestone but they were just that: another marker in a long march that had already begun many, many years ago. “The seeds of the December protest had been in the ground for decades,” says activist Kamla Bhasin, who has been involved with the women’s movement since the early 1970s.
“We want justice.”
“Phool nahin chingari hain, hum is desh ki naari hain.”
The same slogans. The same issue. Just another rape, just another name: Mathura to Nirbhaya.
Who knows if the first women’s protest march in India was even documented. Women in their saris, fists clenched, voices raised, fighting for safety, dignity, equality in a society that imposes discrimination on girls before they are born; that denies them access to healthcare, nutrition and education; that marries them off when they are still children; that denies them safety both within the house and outside it.
Behind the cold statistics lies a tale of patriarchy as it is lived and experienced. A girl will spend nearly three-fourths of an hour more than her brother on domestic work. She is fed less than her brother and is less likely to receive medical attention. While female literacy rates have risen to nearly 65%, a girl is more likely to drop out of school to attend to household work or to be married off. In six states in modern India, more than half the girls who get married are below the age of 18, reports Ashwaq Masoodi in Mint.
The fight to control women’s sexuality would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. In 21st century India, khap panchayats, made muscular by local influence and political support, deem that girls should be married off at 16 and must not be allowed to dance in public or even own mobile phones. “Honour” killings and panchayat-sanctioned gang rape are the swift retribution for those who disobey. In workplaces across India, women continue to tolerate sexual harassment from entitled male bosses. Within the assumed safety of their homes, women might face incest or beatings from the head of the family, who is almost invariably male.
A movement that has traversed the terrain of dowry, rape, sex-selective abortion, cruelty, sexual harassment, and even just the basic right to be recognized as a mother continues with unflinching single-mindedness. It has never been easy.
How many women were burned alive before the dowry law was changed?
How many women were raped before the rape laws were toughened?
How many women—wives, live-in partners, mothers, widows and sisters—were brutalized at home before the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005?
How many female foetuses were aborted, resulting in a skewed sex ratio, before the passing of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act in 2003?
And have any of these crimes stopped?
At a time when dowry deaths were coyly referred to as “bride burning” and assumed to be kitchen accidents, when rape could only be established if there were visible injury marks (and of course, if you were “habituated to sex”, well, you couldn’t have been raped), when domestic violence was strictly a “family matter”, when sexual harassment at the workplace was not even defined, let alone considered a crime, the early responders took up campaigns with a ferocity that did change the law, even if social mindsets are slower, and harder, to change.
“There have been huge changes, especially in the law,” says additional solicitor general Indira Jaising. “But the change has come from a protectionist perspective, not from a willingness to empower women. There is no commitment to equality either from politics or from the courts.”
And yet, Jaising concedes that in the over four decades since she’s travelled with the movement, there is a greater willingness to speak up. “Victims are no longer blaming themselves. They are very clear. They say, ‘It’s not our fault’.”
Not our fault, said the women who took it upon themselves to fight personal battles. Ordinary women who devoted their lives to a cause, they did not set out to be crusaders—but they just could not bear the injustice of it all.
Mutilated from an acid attack by a jilted suitor, a young girl gets the Supreme Court to order the regulation of acid sale so that no other woman should have to face her trauma. In the course of her trial she meets a young, idealistic social activist and they fall in love.
In a tiny village in Haryana, a teenage girl is gang-raped, the crime is filmed and her father commits suicide when he finds out. But the girl clears her class XII examinations, is currently doing her bachelor’s degree and wants eventually to become a lawyer so that she can fight for other girls like her.
A young woman defies family protocol and marries a man from another caste. Her incensed brothers beat up the husband and his relatives and file a slew of false criminal cases against them. The woman approaches the Supreme Court for protection. She gets it not just for herself but also for all couples who are being harassed for marrying outside their caste or religion. The court warns that it will take action against the police and administration if it fails to follow its orders.
In local-level politics, in panchayats, self-help groups and micro-credit societies, women continue marching, building block upon block. Traditional male bastions are breached: the defence forces, aviation, taxi driving, technology. Every step knocks down an old edifice and constructs a new one.
Somewhere a young girl stands up to her rapist. Somewhere a mother fights for legal status. Somewhere a woman wants justice for her daughter, burned for bringing inadequate dowry. Some names are known throughout the country, others have slipped into anonymity, and still others went unsung.
Yet it is important to summon the past. To remember that we are only a thread in an unbroken cord of humanity. No battle is fought alone. No movement can sustain itself for as long as the women’s movement has without a cumulative effort. History is made up of the collective fingerprints of these women—and men—fighting, battling, marching on.
“We want justice.”
“Phool nahin chingari hain, hum is desh ki naari hain.”
We profile four women who started revolutions on the ground and enabled changes that affect all women.
Leafing through a book on Manipur’s civil rights activist Irom Sharmila, she smiles, “These are all my daughters.” Then, from among the pages, she pulls out a photograph of a girl who recently reported rape from an adjoining village. “She can speak up because I did.”
Bhanwari Devi is a familiar name to anybody with even a passing familiarity with the women’s movement. The saathin (friend), who continues to be employed by the Women’s Development Programme (WDP) in Rajasthan, paid a price for trying to spread social awareness in her village. In 1992, when the Rajasthan government launched a campaign against child marriage, WDP employees were asked to counsel villagers. Bhanwari Devi was doing her job when she made a spirited effort to persuade the families of two young girls, one of them just nine months old, to abandon the practice.
The marriages took place anyway, but as “revenge” for trying to stop them, Bhanwari Devi and her husband Mohan Lal were ostracized, their crops destroyed and then, on 22 September, five upper-caste men beat up Mohan Lal and while three of them held Bhanwari Devi down, two raped her in his presence.
Before she could lodge a first information report (FIR) at the Bassi police station, Bhanwari Devi was sent for a medical exam to the local health centre where no woman doctor was available. From there she was sent to Jaipur, but the magistrate would not sign the order to have her examined since it was past his working hours. By the time she was eventually examined, 52 hours had passed.
More indignity was to follow. Back at the police station she was asked to deposit her skirt as evidence. With nothing else to wear, Bhanwari Devi wrapped herself in her husband’s pagri (turban) and returned home.
Unhappy with her refusal to accept financial compensation and “compromise” with her rapists, the villagers of Bhateri imposed a socio-economic boycott of Bhanwari Devi and her husband, a boycott in which her own kumhar (potter) community participated. In Bhateri, kumhars depend on the land-owning, upper-caste gurjars for employment. “Nobody would talk to us, nobody would buy our pots and within my own family, they were angry because I wouldn’t compromise,” she says.
Only Mohan Lal, now an old man unbent by age, stood by her with unwavering conviction. He says with quiet dignity, “She did nothing wrong.”
At the district and sessions court, five judges were inexplicably changed before a sixth finally delivered judgement in November 1995. “Since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place because Bhanwari was from a lower caste,” the judge ruled.
Women’s groups, already supportive of Bhanwari Devi, exploded with anger as soon as the judgement was pronounced. There were marches and protests. Bhanwari Devi was transformed into a Dalit woman icon. Film-maker Jagmohan Mundhra made a film based on her struggle, Bawandar, with Nandita Das in the lead. Bhanwari Devi was invited to speak at seminars and feted with awards. And five Rajasthan-based NGOs filed a petition under the name of Vishaka and others in the Supreme Court seeking directions on how sexual harassment of women at the workplace could be prevented through a judicial process.
Until the Vishaka guidelines, issued in 1997, there was no legislation in India relating to sexual harassment in the workplace; there was no definition even of the term. Now for the first time, the highest court was laying down the law and, in the words of lawyer Zia Mody, “redress(ing) a democratic deficit” with binding guidelines that would apply until Parliament got its act together. In April 2013, the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill finally received Presidential assent and became a law.
Back in Bhateri, dressed in a blue floral skirt with a bright yellow odhni, lines etched deep in her face, Bhanwari Devi mulls over her future. Her appeal against the acquittal of her rapists has been pending in the Rajasthan high court since February 1996. Despite representations made by various women’s groups, including the National Commission for Women, asking the court to fast-track the case, there has been just one hearing so far, says Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
“There are over 1,050 rape cases pending since 1988 in the Rajasthan high court,” says Srivastava. Two of the accused in Bhanwari Devi’s case have died. The other three continue to live in the same village.
I ask Bhanwari Devi if she regrets her refusal to compromise. She smiles and says, “It is because of me that laws have changed and women are speaking up.”
Bhateri’s citizens know Bhanwari Devi is in a position to help them and rush to her when faced with problems, whether it is access to water or getting the police to lodge a complaint. And yet, says Bhanwari Devi, she remains a social outcast. “When my father died, my family did not allow me to participate in the rituals,” she says. “Recently the mother-in-law of an anganwadi worker died. They invited people from five adjoining villages to the ritual meal. But I was not called.”
The social slights hurt. But Bhanwari Devi is aware of her role and importance in the women’s movement: “I opened the locked door. Today every woman knows that when women speak, things will change. I showed them how.”
Satya Rani Chadha
Once the face of the anti-dowry movement, Chadha rose above the personal tragedy of a daughter who died of burns just 10 months after her marriage. Through the 1980s, she raged against dowry at meetings, at seminars, at demonstrations. The sustained campaign led to stricter laws, the setting up of special police cells to monitor crimes against women, and convictions in countless cases.
Chadha was another middle-class housewife when in 1979, her daughter, six months pregnant, died, apparently when a kerosene stove burst while she was cooking. She was 21. “We rushed there and found the door locked from outside,” remembers Chadha. “If she had killed herself, as her in-laws claimed, why would the door be bolted from outside?”
A graduate from Delhi’s Lakshmibai College, Shashi Bala, Chadha’s daughter, married Subhash Chandra, a manager with shoemaker Bata India Ltd in May 1978. “I was misled because he was very handsome,” says Chadha. There was no demand for dowry, but days before the marriage the first “requests” came—for a TV and a fridge. Because Chadha didn’t want the marriage to break, she agreed, assuming there would be no further demands.
Within months, the new demand arrived, this time for a scooter. “If I had known that they were making her life hell I might have given it, or brought her back home,” says Chadha.
Under the provisions of the then Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, dowry was defined as “consideration for the marriage”. Since the demand for the scooter was made after the marriage, Chandra was off the hook on a technicality. Undeterred, Chadha approached the Supreme Court. But the earlier order was upheld.
Outside the courts, the doughty mother joined hands with Shahjahan “Apa”, whose daughter was burnt alive in 1977, eventually setting up Shaktishalini, a shelter for women. The two became the anti-dowry movement’s most poignant and vociferous faces; two mothers united by grief and anger, fighting for justice for their daughters but, equally, fighting against the social evil that had killed them. Shahjahan “Apa” was killed last year in an accident on her way to a mahila panchayat meeting.
The agitation bore fruit. Between 1983 and 1986, responding to the rash of “bride burning” cases and the growing women’s agitation, the government tightened legislation against dowry deaths. New penal sections were introduced to deal with cruelty by the husband and his kin; a married woman’s suicide after being subjected to dowry harassment was to be considered suicide abetted by the husband; dowry was redefined to include any inducement given before and after marriage; police were required to investigate all dowry complaints; the burden of proof that dowry was not exchanged was shifted to the person being prosecuted; and any unnatural death of a woman within seven years of marriage was deemed to be a ground for investigation.
“In those days, dowry deaths were treated as accidents,” says Indira Jaising, whose Lawyers Collective represented Chadha pro bono. “She was the face of the agitation,” says Sanjoy Ghose, who represented her in the Delhi high court as an advocate then with the Lawyers Collective.
Despite the changes in the law and in the social environment, Chadha did not stop her personal fight for justice for her daughter. In 1980, she filed a murder and abetment to suicide complaint against Chandra and his family. A sessions court began hearing the case, finally reaching a verdict after 20 years: Chandra was guilty of abetting his wife’s suicide. He was arrested, but two months later got bail. By the time the Delhi high court upheld Chandra’s conviction in March 2013, observing that this was a “classic case” where the investigation was “tainted”, Chandra had simply disappeared. Despite a warrant for his arrest, nobody, not Chadha, not the police, know where he is.
“The tragedy is that she’s finally won, even though it is a pyrrhic victory,” says Ghose. “She used to say that the law has changed, the country has recognized the evil of dowry, but she herself was never able to get justice for her daughter.”
On her bed, her daughter’s faded photograph in her hands, Chadha struggles to reconcile to the fact that the man who was responsible for her daughter’s death is free. “I couldn’t get justice for my own daughter,” she says. “But I helped save so many others. I fought so that no other mother would have to go through what I did.”
Shabnam Hashmi & Githa Hariharan
A Mother’s Rights
“I have always handled the finances of my family,” she says. “In any case, these were my savings and I wanted to put them aside for Rishab.”
It should have been as easy as signing a form over a cup of tea and a firm handshake. But then the bank official asked: Who is Rishab’s natural guardian?
“I am,” said Hariharan.
“She is,” declared her husband.
“Impossible,” retorted the bank.
Her husband, Mohan Rao, a medical scientist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, wrote to the bank saying he had no problem with his wife managing the funds as their son’s “natural guardian”. Still not good enough.
The bank was only following the law. Back in December 1984, when Hariharan had applied for the bonds, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, defined the father as a child’s natural guardian. The mother became the natural guardian only if the father had died, had ceased to be a Hindu, had renounced the world or was declared unfit by a court of law. There was only one exception: If the child was born out of wedlock, then the mother became the natural guardian.
It was a law that Hariharan believed was “ridiculous and shameless”.
“This is how you encounter the shock of inequity,” she says. “I was just trying to make an investment, getting along with the practical business of life, but it became impossible for me to separate practice from the principle of it.”
Determined to set right an unequal practice and to set a wrong principle right, Hariharan and her husband approached Indira Jaising to file a petition before the Supreme Court. Their plea was simple enough. The Act violated the principles of equality granted to women under the Constitution.
Elsewhere, environmentalist Vandana Shiva had separated from her husband, who was fighting for custody of their minor son. According to Shiva’s petition, her estranged husband had written to their son’s school, asserting that he was the natural guardian and that no decision should be taken without his permission, even though the son lived with Shiva and was being cared for by her.
A three-judge bench decided to club the two cases and took upon itself responsibility for answering the question: Was the law in violation of the Constitution that granted equal status to women? And could a mother be her child’s natural guardian? The answer to both was a resounding yes.
“Gender equality is one of the basic principles of our Constitution,” read the 1999 judgement. “The father by reason of a dominant personality cannot be ascribed to have a preferential right over the mother in the matter of guardianship.”
For Githa Hariharan and Mohan Rao, their “victory” in this landmark judgement came with a sobering reality check. “I should have felt some sense of triumph,” wrote Hariharan on her website soon after the judgement. “But the truth that I could not fail to look in the eye was a simple question: Are we so blind that we need the law to tell us a mother has the right to be her child’s acknowledged guardian?”
Fifteen years later, the battle for women to assert control over their own bodies is far from over. Who is a mother? How does the state legislate over a woman’s right to be a parent? There can be fewer ironies that a culture that eulogizes motherhood as some sacred, exalted state can be so reluctant to grant her legal recognition; so tardy in granting her flesh and blood status with inviolate rights. Mothers were given the responsibility of bearing, raising, nurturing children. But could not call themselves their natural guardians.
“Basically, after the age of 21, she would no longer have the right to use my name” says Hashmi of her daughter Seher, who is now 18. “How unjust can the system be? A child adopted by Hindu parents gets all the rights of a biological child. But if that same child is adopted by Muslim parents, then he or she doesn’t.”
When Hashmi filed a petition in the Supreme Court through her lawyer Colin Gonsalves, she was looking for adoption guidelines that would apply to all parents, regardless of religion, caste or creed. It was her contention that The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, under which adoptions take place, is a secular law that enables anybody, regardless of religious belief, to adopt a child.
“This was a fight for my child to be legally called my daughter,” says Hashmi, days after the Supreme Court judgement in February, which ruled that persons of any faith can adopt a child under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act. The Act will prevail till uniform civil code is achieved, and the Muslim personal law will not stand in the way of such adoption, the bench observed in its judgement. “Personal beliefs and faiths, though must be honoured, cannot dictate the operation of the provisions of an enabling statute,” ruled the judges.
The judgement could have far-reaching implications, points out Gonsalves. “It over-rules the notion that personal law can, in a sense, obstruct a secular law,” he says. This could then set a precedent for future cases against practices that discriminate against women like triple talaq, polygamy or the equality of co-parcenary rights. “This has ramifications far beyond adoption.”
But for now, in a corner in Delhi, 17 years after she was brought home, a young girl celebrates the right to be called a daughter. And a family now considers itself complete.