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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Liberating Hindu Women

-- Flavia Agnes

The recent revival of the discussion on enacting a Uniform Civil Code, which its proponents believe will give all women equal rights, overlooks the reality of the discrimination that Hindu women continue to face despite amendments in Hindu personal laws, including on issues of maintenance and inheritance. Rather than uniformity in law, women need an accessible and affordable justice system.
Flavia Agnes (flaviaagnes@gmail.com) is a women’s rights lawyer and director of Majlis, which runs a rape victim support programme in Mumbai.
An influential, senior criminal lawyer of the Bombay High Court, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, on his own admission, a close associate of the Prime Minister, spelt out the agenda of his party to enact the Uniform Civil Code at a recent lecture. He made it sound so simple: just abolish polygamy and triple talaq, and he added as an afterthought that Christians should be granted the right to divorce by mutual consent (they had already secured this right in 2001 by amending their own personal law). A moment later he added that Parsi matrimonial courts should be abolished. And then, he said, India would be able to enter the comity of nations that follow a uniform secular and civil law, a symbol of modernity, progress and development and finally shed the colonial baggage of dividing people along religious identities. He claimed that this would promote communal harmony and bring about national integration. The task of the judiciary would become simple: one law for all. Then he looked at me, his co-panellist, and commented, “Ms Agnes, you should welcome this move, after all you stand for gender justice.”
He went on to say that “we” had abolished sati, female infanticide, polygamy, child marriage, and dowry and liberated “our” women. Now we need to do the same for other women, liberate them from their oppressive laws. If only it was that simple — to liberate women, irrespective of whether they are Hindus, Muslims or others! Perhaps the lawyer needs to be excused for his ignorance about the complex mosaic of personal laws in our country. After all, this was not his area of legal expertise. He was only articulating his party’s position.
As I heard him, my concern was less for minority women, and more for Hindus, who are under the erroneous belief that they are governed by a “modern, uniform, secular and gender just law.” Since this popular fiction gets constantly projected in the media in defence of enacting a Uniform Civil Code, it needs to be examined against ground realities.