August 23rd, 2017

An important week for India’s women

We are living in interesting times in India.

Well actually, & let’s be honest here, India is always interesting.

India is also – let it be said – oftentimes frustrating, irritating, sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening.

But never dull and routine.

Oh no.

India categorically does not do dull.

And now, in the space of a couple of days, there have been two very interesting events here.

Over the past few days, 2 judgements have taken place that – theoretically at least – will forever change the future for millions of women in this country.

Yesterday’s judgment by the Supreme Court, declaring unconstitutional the Islamic triple talaq, whereby a man just had to say “I divorce you” 3 times to divorce his wife, is a huge step forward.  There are enough horrific stories out there of women being divorced over the phone, or via speed post.

5 women led the fight, and to each of these women, brusquely divorced by their husbands, millions of Muslim women owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Here, this is a link to the tragic but stirring story of Shayara Bano, the first petitioner in the case.

You cannot change society overnight, and actually not one of you even needs me to say such a clichéd thing.

We all know that change takes generations, and huge amounts of education, and when said change involves religion, it is even more difficult.

But yesterday’s ruling is reason to cheer.

Sometimes India does things so totally right, and yesterday’s ruling was one of those moments.

5 judges (all men…) each from a different religion – a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Parsi and a Christian.

Brilliant, brilliant, India.

But how I wish that it had been a unanimous decision (it was by a 3:2 majority) as I wish there had been at least one female judge, but nevertheless, this is a job well done.


I am not going to get into the polemics of Muslim personal law vs the Constitution, and I’m not trying to duck out of a debate here, believe me.  It’s just that I have no intellectual locus standi.

I am not knowledgable enough about either the Indian Constitution or Muslim law, to be able to shed any useful light on the ruling, but what I can say, and will say, is that I am delighted, and applaud the statement in the majority judgement that “merely because a practice has continued for long, that by itself cannot make it valid.”  Hooray!

The fact that the Supreme Court decided (and I quote the Times of India) “that this arbitrary and whimsical mode of ending marriage violated Muslim women’s fundamental right to equality” gives me cheer.

And the second reason Indian women can cheer today is an extraordinary little story of a young woman being granted a divorce because her husband did not build her a toilet.

If you are slightly squeamish, or if it’s still very early in the morning when you are reading this, I apologise, but facts are facts.  And the unpleasant fact is that open defecation is still very much the norm for millions of Indians.

For those of us who live “normal” lives here – i.e. we have a loo – it is inconceivable that people should actually prefer to defecate in the open.  We’re not talking poverty here, but a choice.

A sudden call of nature is one thing, but choosing to use your fields or your neighbour’s fields day in day out…it is a repugnant thought.

For women, the practice is also very dangerous, because of the all too prevalent risk of sexual attack.

Many women, therefore, wait until night, to head out to the fields. God alone knows what that is doing to their health, never mind their dignity.

In Rajasthan, a family court has granted a 24 year old woman a divorce from her husband on the grounds of cruelty “for not constructing a toilet at home, in what is perhaps the first such case in the country.”

(I’m again quoting from the Times of India, by the way)

Married in 2011 – so she would still have been a teenager – the young woman moved the court in 2015 “saying that despite repeated requests, her husband didn’t construct a toilet or bathroom at home, forcing her to defecate and bathe in the open.  She also had to wait until dusk to go out to the fields to relieve herself, which she felt undermined her dignity.

But her husband said he found his wife’s demand for a toilet unusual because most women in his village defecated in the open.”

There’s a man with a progressive outlook, then.

So when the court granted her a divorce because there wasn’t a toilet in her marital home, it was a welcome first step in what one hopes will be a change in attitude.

Listen to what the court said in its judgement:
“We spend money on on buying tobacco, liquor…but are unwilling to construct toilets to protect the dignity of our family.  In villages, women have to wait until sunset to answer nature’s call.  This is not only physical cruelty but also outraging the modesty of a woman.”

That people are too dirt poor to be able to afford to build a toilet is one thing.

That they choose not to, is quite another.

Money for a mobile, for cigarettes, for booze but not enough to build a toilet?

I cannot even begin to fathom the logic behind this kind of personal behaviour and personal choice, and so I won’t speculate as to why you would want to foul your environment and put your women folk at risk to boot…but anyway, one small step has been taken, and I applaud this young woman for having the guts to divorce her husband.  It must have taken huge courage.

As I said we live in interesting times.

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4 comments to An important week for India’s women

  • Masum h kamjor nahi!
    Sakti ka naam h nari!!
    Shayara Bano…

  • Jane

    Well done those lawyers – and strong women

  • Funny that the court relates the lack of a toilet to dignity, physical cruelty, and the outraging of a woman’s modesty.
    I guess the science & health implications of poor sanitation still hasn’t caught on even with ‘educated’ Indians like judges?
    Not to mention the dangers of dropping your drawers outdoors after dark in India? Aren’t you asking to be raped by baring your behind outside at night?
    Stepping on a snake while looking for a place to relieve oneself in the in the dark is a common way to get bit.
    Never a dull moment, eh?

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