Indian women break the silence. Attitudes are slowly changing in a country that reveres tradition

A MOSAIC of papers, posters, and files clutters the small office furnished simply with one table and some well-worn mattresses. In one corner, a slender young woman, Sangita, speaks solemnly, smoothing the folds of her sari while her eyes well up with tears. ``My marriage was settled by my father. He promised my in-laws 5,000 rupees [$485], among other things. When I went to live in my husband's home after the wedding, my in-laws began to hassle me, demanding more things. They shut me up in a room and beat me and told me I was ugly and that my husband could have gotten a better wife. They forced me to write my parents asking for a scooter for my husband and a television set. When my father came by, they wouldn't let me see him. They told him I was ill....

``My father finally got me out of their house by saying I had to attend a relative's wedding. I haven't gone back since. Now my husband has filed for a divorce saying I've run away - I'm not doing my duties as a wife. I know he's pressured by his family. I'm willing to go back to him, but not my in-laws' house.''

Kamala Subramanian, a lawyer volunteering at one of the two Marriage and Counseling Centers in New Delhi, open since early May last year, listens quietly. Sangita's case is one of 10 she will hear in the next two hours. Along with 10 other lawyers and a dozen social workers, she volunteers two to three times a week at this center.

``We already have 40-50 cases a day,'' Ms. Subramanian said. ``Some come as far as Lucknow [seven hours away by train]. We generally meet with the man and woman separately and work towards reconciliation. But so far only about 1 percent of the cases gets resolved out of court.''

The establishment of these counseling centers (one now exists in every state) is part of an all-out effort spearheaded by P.N. Bhagwati, chief justice of the Supreme Court, to provide free legal aid for ``the poor and downtrodden segments'' of Indian society, including women.

Formal legal aid came to India in 1980 when the government established a body known as the Central Implementators of Legal Aid Schemes, which determined that the Legal Aid Advisory Committee should be attached to every court from the Supreme Court level to the local panchayat (small rural area) level, and that these committees should give free legal aid to all women, scheduled castes, and those earning less than 6,000 rupees [$580] annually.

At present, about 15 percent of the cases heard in these committees deal with discrimination against women, and with the increasing outcry over bride-burning cases (in which women are reportedly killed by in-laws or husbands for not bringing enough dowry, the death being passed off as a stove explosion or suicide) and the ongoing controversy over the passage of the Muslim Woman's Bill (denying maintenance for a divorced Muslim woman, thereby giving weight to Muslim personal law rather than the Indian Civil Code), the number of women seeking legal aid is expected to grow steadily. According to Supreme Court justice Mr. R.M. Mishra, who has worked on legal aid issues, ``In the last year the number has gone up by a third, and I'm sure it will double in the next year or so.''

Aside from the legal aid committees, the government has also ensured that the police have commissioned officers dealing solely with women's cases. ``We don't have any jurisdiction to solve cases as such,'' explains Yamin Hazarika, assistant commissioner of police in Delhi, ``but we try to help people resolve their diffferences. We advise them how to apply to the courts if necessary, but we don't encourage it.''

``We used to have only dowry cases,'' he adds, ``but now we've broadened our scope. Most cases are just maladjustments.... For instance, the woman doesn't want to live with the joint family, but custom dictates she must. If she acts too liberated, he'll just throw her out and get another wife. Because of the taboo divorced women have, we know it will almost be impossible for her to remarry. So we tell her to try to stick it out.''

Likewise, the Lok Adalats, the people's courts, which hear public grievances cases, emphasize reconciliation. Justice Mishra sees these courts as extremely effective. ``In Rajasthan, 80,000 cases were heard last year in the Lok Adalats and resolved,'' he said. ``Many of these involved women. Once these courts motivate people, they become reconciled. They help keep our families and therefore our culture together.''

This same reasoning prompted the passage of the Family Courts Act of 1984, calling for the ``establishment of Family Courts with a view to promote reconciliation in and secure speedy settlement of disputes relating to marriage and family affairs.'' They differ from the Lok Adalats because no lawyers are involved. They are held in camera, and once an agreement is reached between the two parties, no appeal is heard. So far, four family courts exist nationwide, all started in March of last year.

Some women activists have been extremely critical of these courts. ``In theory, the family courts were established to expedite cases, give fair hearings, and lower costs,'' says Prabeen Grewal, a volunteer at Saheli, an independent women's organization established in 1981 that gives free legal aid to women. ``But you get these old retired judges and all they want to do is preserve the family structure. They think the spirituality of the family is dead, so it's best to send the wives back to their husbands.''

This emphasis on reconciliation, which characterizes most of the government-sponsored legal aid groups, is one of the main reasons why private women's organizations like Saheli started to provide legal aid.

``The legal aid committees, the marriage counseling centers, the Lok Adalts - all those - simply reinforce the patriarchal system,'' says Nandita Haksar, a lawyer who has worked with independent legal aid groups and who recently wrote ``Demystification of Law for Women,'' a book that explains judicial bias against Indian women step by step. ``They see the breakup of the family as the greatest possible evil and care more about reconciliation than whether or not the woman is being treated fairly and equally.... We can't allow that to happen.''

As Kalpana Mehta, a volunteer at Saheli, explains, ``We want women to realize their rights - being equal as human beings. We don't want to just gloss over the situation. Many women withdraw their petitions from court saying they have `reconciled' the situation. In fact, they've only succumbed to family pressure, pressure from their in-laws and husbands. Often they end up coming back to us after about six months.''

Two politically-oriented groups also give legal aid to women: the National Federation of Women associated with the Communist Party of India and the Janwadi Mahila Samita attached to the Communist Party-Marxist They too believe that reconciliation is not always the answer, but they consider their general perspective to be quite different from the independent women's organizations.

``Discrimination against women is not just a women's problem, it's a human race problem,'' says a National Federation of Women volunteer who wished to remain unnamed. ``You don't achieve equality by separating women from men.''

According to most people involved in all these efforts, attitudes will still take a long time to change.

Lotika Sarkar, a former professor of law at Delhi University who now works at the Women's Development Studies Center, suggests that the greatest obstacle facing women is the importance placed on the family structure in India.

``The problem is the family is such an integral part of Indian society,'' she says. ``It's not that the family is inherently bad in itself, but if the family unit is supposed to be so strong, why doesn't it stand by these poor women who are alienated both from their families-in-law and from their own families when she has problems? That is the test for the family. Everyone is concerned about the honor of the family and what society dictates rather than what the individual feels. Unfortunately, the family structure is something that won't transform overnight.''

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