It’s time for courts to review legitimacy of women exploitation laws derived by force and at women’s expense

Our courts have introduced commendable changes by amending some laws and derecognizing a few colonial ones, but it’s high time the issue of sexual exploitation of women is reflected upon in earnest

Representative Photo
Representative Photo

Mrinal Pande

“If you want to know more about femininity, enquire from your own experience of life, or turn to people, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information.”

Freud’s ends his essay on Femininity with these lines. They are a somewhat testy but frank acknowledgment of the limitations of even his own vast research on the subject. Today we could do with some of that humility.

In the decades since Freud wrote this, a whole new world order has risen and mutated. During the 1960s and 1970s, when this writer was living in the USA, feminism was all about consciousness raising. That meant various women collectives getting together regularly outside of family circles, and sharing stories about their lives like members of the Alcoholics Anonymous.

At these meetings, women, after some hesitation, came out of denial and swapped intimate stories about relationships, work, life goals, and sexuality. Tears flew unashamedly as they articulated the pain they felt, about the lack of protective nets they needed as young confused girls, the broken trust resulting in deep dilemmas they faced as daughters, wives, mothers.

It was through these first hand narrations that women realized their individual failures were not personal failures but stemmed from their gender being perceived as rooted in sex where men defined themselves in law and life as aggressive and powerful and women as the receptacle for their sexual urges and producers of their legitimate offspring.

By now, digital media has acquired a life of its own and become a public space that allows all kinds of marginalized groups to share their hitherto unpublicised insights about the power structures and hierarchies that exclude them but act as their authorized spokespersons.

Of course, riding the great tidal wave of an open ended show-and-tell has both a good and a bad side. But it is because of this free space that for the first time in India, working women are getting to tell the world what it has actually been like to be at the receiving end of all those sexist jokes, misogyny, porn and rapes or near rapes. It is entirely understandable that most of the first bunch of stories come from the media.

Given the sheer mass of women in our media today and their rise in the ladders of power therein, it figures that women reporters should feel comfortable enough to blow the whistle, some after more than a decade, and discuss their harassment with clinical precision replete with date, timing and place where they were victimised. Their tales are universal and reveal that the real problem is not that many Indian men treat women badly (although they often do), but that at the workplace it remains a male prerogative to decide who to treat badly, how and how often and what should be a suitable ‘punishment’ meted out to those who deny them sexual favors.

The late Justice Leila Seth, who was on the committee that gave us the revised law against sexual harassment and rape, observed shrewdly: “The approach generally taken with gender equality is that women are different from men because they are weaker and more subordinate and consequently need protection...the protectionist approach actually reinforces the difference and perpetuates it.” (Talking of Justice) .

Law is a society’s text, its rational soul. Our courts recently introduced commendable changes by amending some laws and derecognizing a few colonial ones. Should they now really wish to reflect upon the issue of sexual exploitation of women, they must acknowledge that how much the legitimacy of much of our law has been derived by force and at women’s expense.

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