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  • “A Working Woman is a Housewife First”

    A WORKING woman is a ‘housewife first’, said a recent judgement from the High Court (HC) of Karnataka. The HC was approached by a woman petitioner after her passport application was rejected by the Passport Office on the grounds that she had not disclosed her employment with SBI in the application form. The Court ruled that there is no instance of suppression of facts, as a woman is a housewife first, implying that she may or may not choose to disclose her other occupations.

    While this ruling might have provided the petitioner with much relief and saved her the bother of re-applying for her passport, such a statement from a HC is fraught with danger for the Indian woman. On the one hand, it recognizes that housework is an occupation in itself but on the other, it presumes that a married woman is primarily a housewife, rendering her other occupations as secondary. Does this then suggest that men’s domestic roles are irrelevant? And what of unmarried women who run households? As housework itself is not really valued, a statement like this unwittingly demeans women. Such presumption is indeed beyond the realm of law and comes from deeply held values which permeate the process of adjudication so subtly, that it leaves us pondering where facts end and judicial perceptions and affinities begin.

    After all, it is the very same argument about a woman’s domestic role that has been used to deny her education, income, property, dignity and freedom of mobility for generations. It is the same line of “reasoning” that has been used to justify dowry which in turn has led to much mental cruelty, domestic violence and female foeticide. Therefore, it is not a statement that can be taken lightly, in any context.

    In an even more disconcerting judgment this week, a HC judge ruled that “a husband advising his wife to be more compatible with the family and take more interest in domestic chores” cannot be considered an act of cruelty. This, in a case where the woman committed suicide as she could not endure the “chiding”. Her suicide itself has been referred to by the court as “ a careless and unmotherly attitude”!

    That such perceptions of women emerge in judicial decision-making is particularly disturbing, especially as they recur time and again, suggesting a institutionalized pattern. A nationwide study by Sakshi conducted a decade ago revealed that judges carry leanings, sensitivities, as well as prejudice and bias about women’s identities and roles. Through interviews of judges, lawyers, litigants and witnesses, as well as rigorous analysis of the texts of several judgments from five states (including Karnataka) the extent of judicial gender blindness came to light.

    Husbands emerged as protectors and bread winners and wives as home makers in judges’ world views, with 79% of judges attributing this to Indian culture. With regard to domestic violence as well as sexual assault, 64% of judges felt that women must share the blame for violence committed against them with 27% of judges attributing domestic violence to a wife’s provocation (husbands never provoke wives!) and 40% of judges attributing it to alcohol. Only 27% of judges were able to see domestic violence as a result of unequal power relations in the family and 51% of judges felt that a slap to his wife by a husband on one occasion in the course of their marriage, does NOT amount to cruelty.

    Such patriarchal values are not unique to the Indian justice system. Justice systems in Canada, Australia, the US , UK and South Africa have made (and still make!) tremendous efforts to help judges address issues of gender, ethnicity and race that are deeply embedded in justice systems. The contributions of feminist legal theory, critical race theory, social movements, methodological advances in judicial behaviour research and training were substantial in all these efforts. Today, there is documented evidence from various parts of the world to show how rigorous training has helped justice systems revisit courtroom language, procedures, sentencing, adjudication and judgments.

    Back home, the Sakshi study led to a series of workshops for judges in collaboration with Judicial Academies and Legal Experts from Canada and the UK. Judges from these countries shared how research and training have helped foreground the hidden forms of racism and sexism within justice systems itself, uncovering how “victims” of social attitudes are doubly penalized while accessing the courts. As a result of these joint deliberations, judges from South Asia slowly began to concede the need for such interventions here as well.

    We have come a long way since then. Gender training for judicial officers is no longer a shocking matter. After the setting up of Judicial Academies in various states, the scope and potential for such training in India has increased manifold. Social movements working with women, dalits, the displaced, sexual minorities, victims of genocide etc., have all engaged with the judiciary in diverse ways. Judges too have ventured into judicial activism, championing causes from environmental protection to sexual harassment to the public distribution system to “questioning” of the legislature on constitutional matters.

    Yet, judgments like these about a women’s identity or woman’s “unmotherly” suicide, are grim reminders that there is a long way to go. The cruel irony is that judges “know” what women endure and 63% of judges have even said that if they could imagine one more life, they would choose to be born men, not women. Dealing with values that operate insidiously is never easy and tackling such issues in an institution like the judiciary seems a forbidding task. But that can hardly be a deterrent, when the lives and dignity of half our populace is at stake.

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    17 Responses

    1. […] Anita Ratnam writes on the new feminist blog, Ultra Violet, about the recent Karnataka High Court judgement Yet, judgments like these about a women’s identity or woman’s “unmotherly” suicide, are grim reminders that there is a long way to go. The cruel irony is that judges “know” what women endure and 63% of judges have even said that if they could imagine one more life, they would choose to be born men, not women. Dealing with values that operate insidiously is never easy and tackling such issues in an institution like the judiciary seems a forbidding task. But that can hardly be a deterrent, when the lives and dignity of half our populace is at stake. Linked by Krish. Join Blogbharti facebook group. Do you know you can follow Blogbharti in Facebook? […]

    2. […] out meaningful discussions on issues concerning women and feminism. One of the first posts is on how judges perceive gender roles in our society. In an even more disconcerting judgment this week, a HC judge ruled that “a husband advising his […]

    3. There is an easy solution to end domestic violence and this book describes the solution that is 180 degrees from the current bandaid being applied. This is the right and proper solution that must be started as soon as possible to curtail the long lasting effects that are being passed on from generation to generation. What is now being done will never end the violence and that is why new ideas must be considered.

      This book is written by a victim and survivor of domestic abuse. Family Terror boldly discusses and suggests innovative new approaches for solutions of domestic violence in a way that make this a must read for women who are victims themselves. This also will educate and help family and friends of a victim to understand the plight and inspire their hope and an avenue of escape from the abusive situation. People need to influence the “destructive training” of our children today to ever stop domestic violence in the future.

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    4. I was wondering if you could footnote the exact judgement (names etc) in both the cases you’ve cited at the beigging of your post? I know this is not an academic essay, but knowing names might help one in recognising more news about the issue when it happens.

      Thanks.

    5. […] Ultra Violet on a recent court judgment that rules that a working woman is a “housewife first”. Share This […]

    6. […] ألترا فايولت حول حكم قضائي يقضي بأن المرأة العاملة ربة منزل […]

    7. AAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!
      One step forward… 20 steps behind.

      This whole thing would be funny, if it weren’t so scary.

    8. I had a similar experience from the passport office. they insisted that I get a no objection letter from my husband when I went to apply for my passport. That is the only identity they their ideal woman seem to be having. my argument of right as a citizen, having a pan card, paying taxes didn’t seem to be enough of a proof to be considered elegibale to own a passport.

    9. […] that Filipinas have done so well in the corporate sphere. Yet, as Anita Ratnam at Ultra Violet tells us, the prevailing mindset in India is still very much stuck at ‘a woman’s place is in […]

    10. I don’t think it is possible to obtain real social justice from the judicial system, until society at large reforms it’s way of thinking. Witness the struggle for, say, gay rights in the USA. A forward thinking judge somewhere might rule that gays have the same rights to marriage as everyone else, but the judicial establishment will promptly strike the ruling down.

      Same thing here. Judges aren’t going to understand that women have the same right to a career as men (and men have the same duties when it comes to housework and raising children, as women) until society at large shifts to this view.

    11. The other day, I met this Indian guy and we were talking bout our culture and all that…and then he asked me if I would settle in the US or India…and I was like why does a girl have to settle down, why does she HAVE to get married and have kids..? I said I might settle down but without a marriege..lol…and he was taken aback..and he has a weird opinion of me now…its really sad how people of even our generation continue to hide themselves behind the veil of traditions and refuse to come out in the open and accept the reality and be themselves…

    12. Ya Anisha, you said it right that people are hiding. Even if people have boyfriends/girlfriends, WHY do they conceal this from their families instead of coming out?! I understand it may cause problems but if people just had a bit more courage a lot could change… It’s like having a critical mass of people who were honest about having relationships–once they do it and other people see etc then it will become more acceptable.

    13. “I had a similar experience from the passport office. they insisted that I get a no objection letter from my husband when I went to apply for my passport. That is the only identity they their ideal woman seem to be having. my argument of right as a citizen, having a pan card, paying taxes didn’t seem to be enough of a proof to be considered elegibale to own a passport.”

      What the heck is this all about? In India the clerk at a passport office has the right to decide who does or does not get a passport? That is ridiculous! As long as all required documents and proof of citizenship are there…. who are they to do anything but issue the damn passport?!?!

    14. ah..this happens always..Dn’t make me surprised that the Judge made such a comment.Our cultue is struck halfway somewhere between 21st and 19th.We are “modern”.But the ‘what and how’ of being modern is still alien to a major part of society.

      To amny,when I say,I want to live a modern life,it is being interpretted as “oh yeah,so why dn’t you go walk naked in the street you bitch”..Uh!!Life,to most,is all about extremes..Either you go with it or you leave it for ever..

      Between,im a software engginerr,Got married while doing MBA(i had 16th rank in all india entrance) and now i am a housewife..Nothing more,nothing less..I dn’t know ‘how n why’ it happened.

      Nobody except a woman can be a mother ,a wife,a daughter and so..But why is it that she is just being confined to these roles,for a major part of society.I’ld blame it on women thmselves,bcoz we have to fight for us and unless we accumlate the strenght to stand up for ourselves,we’ll live this way still again for generations to come.

    15. Nimmy, there are many avenues now that help women break out of ‘these roles’. The internet provides an avenue for women to become full voices in the world – not just on ‘issues of women’ – but to apply our unique perspectives and insights to the local and global problems that face us. (i’ll point out that women tend to leave other crucial things, like politics and economics and environment and all ‘non-women’s issues’, as if there were such a thing – to men!)

      Someone who has your education and insight is in a great position to contribute your expertise to the world in a clear fashion. I’m working on a project to bring women’s voices into the mainstream to comment on inform these larger issues. The idea is to harness all the creativity and intelligence of women that is not being used in a formal way.. out of curiosity (as you would be someone i would love to get involved!) – would you be open to this? In your case it could be discussing technology and society or internet neutrality or how open source is changing the world – or anything else!

      Does it seem time for women to be contributing our ideas to a foundering world primarily shaped by men? the world needs us!!

    16. Domestic servitude must be a way of life for men. Men are designed as good at labour while women make excellent administraters/rulers.

      Before marriage, every girl should confirm from his husband that he would carry out most of the household chores.

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