July 28th, 2015
If you were the Prime Minister of India, what would you do to improve the women rights situation in that country and how would you do it? | HART Prize for Human Rights
This essay, by Julie Marangé was a shortlisted entry to the HART Prize for Human Rights. The full entry with references and footnotes can be downloaded below. Read more entries here.
“Without government action, burden will remain on women to fight back against violence” states Ravi Verma in an article from the Huffington Post (2012). This accounts for the perennial threats women face and the need to take effective action in favour of women in India, the largest democracy in the world. The women rights situation in the country remains evidently critical, despite a “vibrant media, an active civil society and respected judiciary” (Human Right Watch, 2012). A suitable legal basis that recognises the significance of women in society would form the cornerstone for the expansion of their rights. Consequently, as the new Prime Minister of India, I would firstly transform the constitutional framework, and amend some specific laws in favour of individual rights, thus putting an end to the supremacy of cultural, religious or community rights. Secondly, I would take action against the patriarchal structure of society, which remains a stumbling block for the development of women’s rights in India and fosters violence in the private sphere. Last but not least, I would turn my concern for women rights into action by transforming insecurity from the grassroots, as women can only expand their rights within a safe environment.
Arguably, the constitutional framework of India fosters gender equality and women’s rights. The concepts of human rights and gender equality, although deeply rooted in Western cultures, have been incorporated into the Constitution. In the famous case of Valsamma Paul, the Court asserted that all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender violate fundamental freedoms and human rights (Vrinda, 2013, p.98). Nevertheless, universal norms of women’s rights do not apply in the private sphere, where religious and community rules, especially Muslim personal laws, dictate. As Vrinda (2013, p.104) points out, those religious laws have a substantial impact on women’s equality and their full enjoyment and exercise of human rights. An appropriate legal and constitutional framework that fosters individual’s rights at the expense of community law therefore appears to be necessary. Thus, as Prime Minister, I would use the constitutional tool to tilt the balance towards larger individual rights at the expense of religious and community rights. To achieve such a goal, I would use the idealist human rights discourse, although criticised by many for being neo-colonialist (Chomsky, 1995) or Universalist (Morgenthau, 1978), and move towards equality through the translation of human rights from a universal to a local context (Vrinda, 2013, p.92).
Nonetheless, the Constitution cannot fully control the pervasive impact of faith and religious traditions on women. India is a majority Hindu nation that is also home to the third largest community in the world and 24,000,000 Christians (Pratibah, 2005, p.201). Yet, conservative interpretations of sharia tend to subordinate women (Kelly, 2010, pp.1-2), and physical, sexual and economic abuses against women are related to their subordinate status in society (Ennaji and Sadiqi, 2011). The Devadasi system, which dedicates young girls to a life of sex work in the name of religion (Colundalur, 2011) well illustrates this point, and demonstrates the law’s inability to tackle a problem rooted in the mind. Thus, women’s rights and safety would be best protected by challenging the patriarchal system, deeply rooted in the unconscious (Mitchell, 1981) and grounded in spiritual laws. One could argue that it could be implemented through a secular education and across the media, inasmuch as those are paramount sources of socialisation (Bourdieu, 1980). However, given the religious omnipotence within the Indian society, it would be more relevant to use religion as a political tool, rather than as a truth to be understood, in order to fight the patriarchal system that nurtures violence. This could be implemented firstly by emphasising passages of the sacred texts that empower women, or by highlighting interpretations that empower them. In other words, by transforming religion into a liberating tool; Milton-Edwards (2011, p.207) supports this point by arguing that Islam can liberate women. It could also be established by fostering Islamic and Hindu feminist movements as those are “the antidote to the violence and misogyny of militant Islamism and the patriarchal authoritarianism of states” (Ennaji and Sadiqi, 2011). This strategy would tackle the problem of female subordination and women rights from its very roots. It would work on the long run, and complement the effort of the Constitution, as it cannot modify traditions fixed in the mind.
Still and all, new policies and strategies are needed to cope with the problem of women’s safety on the short term. Although violence cannot be said to be universal (Ennaji and Sadiqi, 2011), there can be no shadow of a doubt that Indian women face perpetual threats of aggression, both in the domestic and public spaces, impeding their fundamental rights. The Indian courts are overwhelmed by cases of rape; in 2013, 24,000 cases of sexual violence were pending, according to the Economist (2013). However, I don’t believe Narendra Modi’s initiative to build indoor toilets for every household in order to promote “zero tolerance” over violence against women (Burke, 2014) to be an efficient policy. To decisively change insecurity, as Prime Minister, I would take a non-conventional approach, and transform insecurity from the grassroots. The TRINSEC project, carried out by Dr Eric Herring in Somalia (2014), demonstrates how non-violent grassroots networks can transform insecurity, by developing connections with the police and by increasing networks at local and municipal level. As it prevented many terrorist attacks in Somalia, this strategy would successfully tackle issues such as sexual harassment of women in public spaces. Such programme would be established through raising awareness campaigns and an effective work of the police in building strong relationship with the population. Although the international community describes it as a lack of capacity, the benefits are huge: it would tackle the women rights agenda without spending a huge amount of money, promote the emancipation of the individuals, and fight violence against women, especially in the public sphere.
Indian women’s rights are still characterised by “the shadow of male attachment” (Harasankar, 2012, p.21), and subjected to violence. It is necessary to embark on a new approach of tackling the women’s right agenda. India has integrated human rights at the heart of its Constitution. Yet, women rights are human rights, and as Prime Minister of India, I would use this argument to fundamentally amend the Constitution in favour of women. It is essential both for the sake of women, and for the international image of India, very keen to carve itself a role of global power. Furthermore, I would cope with violence against women on the long term by challenging the patriarchal structure of society in such a way that does not question cultural and religious integrity. Finally, I would deal with aggressions against women on the short term by transforming insecurity from the grassroots, through the promotion of cooperation between various networks at all levels. Those initiatives appear to be crucial if Indian women want to recover the equal status they enjoyed in ancient times, to live in a safe environment, and to enhance their rights.
Bourdieu, P., 1980. Le Sens Pratique. Paris, Editions de Minuit.
Burke, J., 2014. Indian government vows zero tolerance over violence against women. The Guardian. (Online) Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/09/india-government-zero-tolerance-violence-women. (Accessed 16 February 2015).
Chomsky, N., 1995. The Standard Colonial Pattern. Race and Class. 37(2).
Colundalur, N., 2011. Devadasis are a cursed community. The Guardian. (Online), Available from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/21/devadasi-india-sex-work-religion. (Accessed 15 February 2015).
Ennaji, M. and Sadiqi, F., 2011. Gender and Violence in the Middle East. Abingdon: Routledge.
Harasankar, A., 2012. Leadership at the Grassroots: Positioning Women in Patriarchal Society. Review in Management. 2(3/4), pp.13-23.
Herring, E., 2014. Transforming Insecurity from the Grassroots. University of Bath Public Seminar.
Human Rights Watch., 2012. Human Rights in India. (Online) Human Rights Watch. Available from http://www.hrw.org/asia/india. (Accessed 15 February 2015).
Kelly, S., 2010. Hard-won progress and a long road ahead: Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa in S. Kelly and J. Breslin (eds.), Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Freedom House).
Milton-Edwards, B. (2011), Contemporary Politics in the Middle East (Malden: Polity Press).
Mitchell, J., 1981. Feminime Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. New-York, Norton.
Morgenthau, H, J., 1978. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Fifth Edition. New-York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Patribah, J., 2005. Balancing Minority Rights and Gender Justice: The Impact of Protecting Multiculturalism of Women’s rights in India. Berkeley Journal of International Law. 23(1) pp.201-223.
The Economist, 2013. Women in India: Ending the Shame. (Online) The Economist. Available from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21586317-india-needs-sexual-revolution-fast-ending-shame (Accessed 16 February 2015).
Verma, R., 2012. Without Government Action, Burden Will Remain on Women to Fight Back Against Violence. The Hunffington Post. (Online) Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/india-womens-rights/ (Accessed 14 February 2015).
Vrinda, N., 2013. Muslim Women’s Equality in India: Applying a Human Rights Framework. Human Rights Quarterly. 35 (1), pp.91-115.
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