June 18, 2013

The courts must be crazy

Since leaving the legal profession, I’ve found myself defending Indian judgments more than ever before. Sometimes it is much needed; legal orders are easily misinterpreted and misquoted by the media, leading an average person to think all judges are crazy. Other times, the average person is spot on- the judgment put forth is as close to crazy as can be. Today, I find myself wishing I could call the latest spate of supposedly women-friendly judgments passed by the Delhi High Court, and most recently the Madras High Court, crazy. I really, really wish I could. Crazy would be better than insidious.

In case you haven’t read, last week the Delhi High Court ruled (albeit in a matter of anticipatory bail) that promising a woman marriage to obtain sex is tantamount to rape- an archaic sentiment that was reasonably overturned by the Supreme Court this year. Today, the Hindu carries news of a Madras High Court order stating that pre-marital sex is all one needs to establish the relationship of marriage. Even if these observations are obiter dicta, some lawyer, some lower court is going to bring this up again, for sure. For a brief moment, let's put aside the legal implications of these judgments - those are mind-numbing, to say the least.

On the face of it one might think that these judgments have been passed to protect a woman but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? In two fell swoops, the court has made its message quite clear: “Women need protection from licentious men, and women only have sex in order to get married to the man.” To follow the thought to its logical conclusion, women are so desperate to get married that they are being easily duped by men into having sex with them on the basis of just a promise. Follow it a bit further; a sexually active woman who doesn’t want or expect marriage is a bad woman, a loose woman, a woman who is asking for it.

Both judgments are examples of a type of sexism: Benevolent sexism; particularly difficult to counter purely because, as the name suggests, it appears to be so affable.

The term was coined in 1996 by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske. In 2012, the University of Florida conducted an in-depth study into the theory, and found that both men and women are equally prone to benevolent sexism. The idea was summed up perfectly by Dr. Kathleen Connelly, PhD the lead author of this study, as the perception that "women are wonderful, but weak" It’s inbuilt into social norms that feminists have long fought against, without much help from (even) other women.

When faced with top level judges enforcing this idea by insisting that women need protection from men who make false promises; by insinuating that sex between two people is anything more than that because it automatically leads to the women assuming there’s a deeper, long-lasting commitment, what are we to think?

Connelly states that “several studies have shown that when women read benevolently sexist comments, for example, they tend to perform more poorly on cognitive tests, express feelings of incompetence and weakness, and even experience greater dissatisfaction with their physical appearance. Not to mention, it might even perpetuate current inequalities—disparities in pay, for instance—that women still experience.”

An excellent example of the hazard of this kind of sexism was given in the Scientific American blog. It’s such a good example that I’m quoting it verbatim below:
For a very recent example of how benevolent sexism might play out in our everyday lives, take a look at this satirical piece, which jokingly re-writes Albert Einstein’s obituary.

To quote: He made sure he shopped for groceries every night on the way home from work, took the garbage out, and hand washed the antimacassars. But to his step daughters he was just Dad. ”He was always there for us,” said his step daughter and first cousin once removed Margo.

Albert Einstein, who died on Tuesday, had another life at work, where he sometimes slipped away to peck at projects like showing that atoms really exist. His discovery of something called the photoelectric effect won him a coveted Nobel Prize.

Looks weird, right? Kind of like something you would never actually see in print?

Yet the author of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s obituary didn’t hesitate before writing the following about her last week: She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

Sometimes, I wish I was making this shit up.

Recently upon joining a new work-place, I was told by someone to reign in my enthusiasm, to be a quieter, more subtle version of myself. “Don’t talk so much, don’t be so loud-mouthed with your opinions,” is what I was told. The example of a much quieter woman was given to me as the epitome of how a female should behave in an office. Never mind that the example/ epitome and I are totally different people. I’m not a quiet person, I am opinionated. I know a lot of men who are quite similar, and receive no criticism about it. In fact the person telling me so was pretty much, even if he didn’t realize it, foisting his opinion of what is correct behavior unto me- making him not very different from what he was telling me not to be. Had his mother told him to behave like an entirely different person, she’d be smothering; but when a man says these kinds of things to me, he’s being protective, he’s offering advice- never mind that I didn’t ask for any advice from him.

The sad truth behind this kind of benign sexism is that it’s not just the men that exercise it, but women as well. Think about the last time a friend of yours bemoaned that she earns more than her spouse, or Carrie Bradshaw cried over the lack of chivalry in this world without so much as a thought to how this so-called chivalry came about? What is the point of me lifting weights in a gym if I can’t even open the door for myself? Why am I working to make money, if the man is supposed to pay for my dinner?

To be honest, I’m plain ol’ riled up. I did wonder briefly if I would have been less irritated had these same courts stood up for the Verma Committee suggestions, and not buckled under pressure like they did. It might have been easier to stomach some of this, if India wasn't one of the only countries where marital rape isn't a crime. If the court didn't have the authority to rule on intimate matters between people then, I can't believe they think they do now. I certainly don’t need Justice Easwar to protect my hurt feelings or pride from every guy out there who lies. To put a rest to this line of thinking, let me be honest, women lie too. Oh, yes we do; and we lie to get sex too. Take a breath Judge- People, in general, sometimes lie to get what they want; the world is not a fair place, pretending that it is will only help prolong a stereotype that’s both insulting and condescending.


  1. Atta girl proud of you Dear Avantika

  2. Why us? A question we all have been fighting for.