Official double-speak keeps Indian women down

WOMEN AND FAMILY LAW REFORM IN INDIA Archana Parashar Publisher: Sage Publications, New Delhi Price: Rs 295

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE CENTRAL concern of this book is how in a country whose Constitution declares void all laws violative of Article 13 (Fundamental Rights), women continue to be subjected to gender-discriminatory, personal laws. Indian women have been discriminated against on several grounds beside the legal. This is cold comfort to women, who routinely miss out on inheriting paternal property, maintenance, custody of male children and conjugal rights, because their religious identity segregates them from the civil laws that govern women of the majority community.

Confronted by strident demands for a uniform civil code, the Indian state has been stirred from time to time into reviewing the retention of religion-based personal laws. But, generally, this has been a futile exercise. Why?

This is an important question because the issue of personal laws is one wherein questions of means and ends automatically join and so it becomes important that the right deed is not done for the wrong reason.
Civil laws In the early chapters, the author discusses the status of Indian women, personal laws, Hindu and minority religious law reforms and the struggle for a uniform civil code. She concludes that if the Indian state is to fully honour the Constitution, the political significance of religion must be lessened and civil laws dissociated from religion.

Legal reforms in the social sphere have been largely on a piecemeal basis and those affecting Parsis, Christians and Muslims have scarcely been touched, ostensibly because the minority communities are supposedly touchy. But these laws have been changed successfully in other countries to suit changing times.

In India, however, despite the government's supposedly pro-women stance, their voices have been systematically ignored in matters of personal law reform. The Shah Bano case is salient proof of official double-speak, because the state first encouraged support for women's cause, but backed out later, caving in to religious leaders.

The author asserts India's Constitution is secular and does not permit segregation of communities in the name of religion. The state has to recognise that religion in India may be a formidable and powerful system, but if women's basic democratic rights are to be protected, some aspects of social behaviour that results in bias against females must be regulated though these may relate to a religion. Legal equality for women would be the natural outcome of such a drive.

Mrinal Pande is editor of Saptahik Hindustan.

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