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Feminist movements in India have, both pre- and post-Independence, seen the family and home as the nexus of organizing women’s lives. By the early 1980s, attempts to analyse this nexus had led to examining the codification of women’s rights in marriage and property. It is in this vein that this essay considers the history of the 1985 Shah Bano case and the feminist debates on personal law that it gave rise to.
The call for a common civil code that emerged from the case was extensively critiqued by feminists, liberals and secularists, as well as Muslim religious leaders. The essay traces how the sociopolitical context led to the quick descent of the issue into communal agitation, with a demand that Muslims be exempt from Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code that had been cited in granting Shah Bano maintenance from her husband. It describes how Hindu communalism had been acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of the state, and the contribution of this factor to the national fervour surrounding Shah Bano’s case.
Kumar then traces the opposition by various women’s groups to the 1986 Bill, which was introduced in parliament with an aim to exclude divorced Muslim women from the purview of the hotly debated Section 125. She explores the ‘bitter lessons’ that Indian feminists learnt from the public and state responses to Shah Bano’s case, which then posed certain questions that would become increasingly important to feminists in the years to follow. She concludes with questions of secularism–its definition and its practice–and of representation, both of which are brought to the forefront by Shah Bano’s case.
Uma Chakravarti’s introduction to Fault Lines of History: The India Papers 2 uses a brief history of protest in the north-eastern states of India to illustrate the contract between the state, the army and the rule of law. Detailing the spread of AFSPA as a result and a feature of this contract, Chakravarti points to particular building blocks in the story of resistance in the area — the case of Manorama, Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike, the naked protest by imas in Manipur among others — and castigates mainstream state theorists’ neglect of AFSPA’s existence and growing application as a tool of oppressive state-building. She explains how the postcolonial state’s painting of AFSPA and militarisation, and the accompanying conflicts, as ‘states of exception’ is key to the contract, which is characterised by the tension between the rule of law and the state’s avowal of sovereign emergency.
The chapter provides a valuable cross-section of the volume, summarising each author’s argument while drawing connections between them and larger themes of impunity, militarisation, conflict, revolution, state (un)accountability, ‘security’ and feminist scholarship. She interweaves material on militarised regions in the north-east of India, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh with work on caste-based structures of violence built on and around Dalit bodies, as well as on stripping and parading of women’s bodies as ritual humiliation, to highlight the implications of an aberrant state wielding its impunity as a precise and wide-ranging weapon.
Samita Sen’s essay traces the history of the Indian Women’s Movement from the 1920s to the present day. The chronological as well as thematic logic of the essay follows three primary heads: a historical background, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) controversy, and the political implications of the reservation for women in legislatures.
The historical background highlights four critical issues: the tensions and fractures within the women’s movement, how these fractures were related to the mediated relationship between women and the conception of their ownership by the nation-state, how the differences amongst women could be managed or transcended to create a political community to which women will want to belong, as opposed to being shunted into it, and finally, the issue of women’s agency in politics.
The discussion on the UCC becomes an example of how the community and communal politics are deeply implicated in the politicization of personal laws, and how the rise of nationalism and the politicization of the ‘private’ familial domain placed personal laws at the centre of the colonial-nationalist conflict. The initial consensus amongst the women’s movement for reforming the gender discrimination in personal laws broke down by the time the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced. This also marked a shift in focus from demanding legislation from the state to a greater participation of women in state affairs.
For Sen, a new feminist politics has to address struggles of class, caste, community, religion et al, without displacing gender as the central concern, making this essay one of crucial importance for understanding the origins of the issues facing feminist politics today.
Two prominent protests in Manipur by women in recent years, one an individual one and the other a collective one, have brought to national attention the brutalities committed by the armed forces on ordinary citizens under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
This essay highlights what those protests mean for peace in Manipur, and how women have played a critical role in exposing the impunity with which human rights are violated under the exceptional circumstances created by the AFSPA. It also questions the unethical nature of militarization and the patriarchal nature of the State.
Broadly containing two segments, it gives a background to Irom Sharmila’s protests and her reasons for choosing hunger strike as her method of protest. The discourse of conscience and Satyagraha that Sharmila evokes is brought out through interviews. This is followed by an analysis of the 2004 public disrobing by the Meira Paibis, in protest against the rape and murder of a young woman by the personnel of the Assam Rifles.
The essay shows the inversions brought about by both protests via a comparison between Irom Sharmila’s prolonged hunger strike against an exceptionally violent law, and the Indian Army Rape Us protests by the Meira Paibis. Both challenge the division between the public and the private, holding the state publicly accountable for atrocities committed in private. Food and clothing, one a biological necessity and the other an important social norm, are given up by the protestors. According to Mehrotra, this shows the power of the human body generally, and the female body particularly, to formulate and transmit subversive messages. She finds that underlying the protests is a common thread of rebuilding Manipur out of all the chaos.
A qualitative as well as quantitative ethnography of 500 Dalit women who had been subjected to verbal, sexual and physical violence by men of the dominant castes, this essay starts as a narrative of individual Dalit women and moves towards an analysis of the reasons for the kinds of responses these women received when they tried to seek justice.
The essence of the essay’s argument is that despite the existence of adequate legal measures, Dalit women still face insurmountable obstacles while getting those measures implemented, assuming of course that they know that what has been perpetrated against them is legally actionable.
Typically, the responses to such violence include the women not seeking legal remedies in the first place; women getting blocked at the community level (by perpetrators, by the dominant caste community, by dominant caste Panchayats, by their own families, or by Dalit panchayats) from accessing legal remedies; women receiving some informal, inadequate form of justice by NGOs or panchayats; and women getting blocked by the police from accessing legal remedies.
The author finds that state impunity, dominant caste impunity and the collusion between the two is the central reason for Dalit women not being able to receive the formal redress that they ought to. To that effect, the author suggests that challenging this impunity will be the primary task of organizations seeking Dalit women’s empowerment.
Chakravarti’s essay counters the claim that in the pre-colonial period, a ‘fixed’ Hindu law didn’t exist because of multiple caste laws, by arguing instead that even those separate caste laws were bound by a broader rational framework, enforced as such by the Peshwai.
Chakravarti analyses the three legal issues of widow remarriage, conjugality and the age of consent to explore how the colonial laws affected women; the relationship between the caste panchayat and the larger legal culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whether the textual law was more or less repressive than customary law.
Women came under the purview of the colonial law because of a weakening of the caste panchayats, and the new British administration gave men a choice of forum through which to enforce patriarchy.
They were also brought under the colonial state through criminal cases against them, such as those for prostitution and abortion. The colonial state was able to do this effectively because the patriarchal Indian community also had the same goals. Despite the inherently patriarchal nature of colonial laws, women also sought the system out for cases of adoption and rights over their parents’ property.
The essay also points to how cultural nationalism unified ‘Hindus’, placing a Brahmanical patriarchal notion of womanhood instead of caste and regional differences, raising important questions about the relationship among the colonial state, law, family, caste panchayats and gender in the nineteenth century.
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