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Updated: October 11, 2013 02:22 IST

In search of the ordinary woman

Prabha Sridevan
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Contrary to the perception that she is vengeful and abuses the law, all she wants is a life of dignity

Is there an Ordinary Woman? We need an image of her, if we have to negotiate a space of equality and dignity for the woman. The judges have created an image of the Reasonable Man. We have no image of the Reasonable Woman or Ordinary Woman in our judicial pronouncements.

In Dothard v. Rawlinson, the question was whether the regulation which barred women from being employed in all-male prisons violated the right to equality. The U.S. Supreme Court by a majority upheld the regulation. Justice Marshall dissented and said: “It appears that the real disqualifying factor in the Court’s view is “[t]he employee's very womanhood. […] With all respect, this rationale regrettably perpetuates one of the most insidious of the old myths about women — that women, wittingly or not, are seductive sexual objects.” The judgment itself was a construct of what a woman is, physically less capable of protecting herself, inherently a sexual object, and incapable of inspiring order and discipline.

‘Feminist perspective’

We must remember that the lived experience of the Ordinary Woman and the Ordinary Man is different. This is clear from the speech by Lady Hale, the only woman in the U.K. Supreme Court. “More objective evidence for difference lies in Feminist Judgments, a recent experiment in re-writing a variety of well-known judgments from a feminist perspective and seeing what a difference that can make. […] Women judges may think that some of the results are only common sense — which just shows how gendered a concept like common sense can be.” It clearly argues the case for inclusiveness and diversity on the Bench.

This is an extract from the Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia: “Is there such a thing, then, as a gendered telling of Partition? I learnt to recognise this in the way women located, almost immediately, this major event in the minor keys of their lives. From the women I learned about the minutiae of their lives, while for the most part men spoke of the relations between communities, the broad political realities.” We have been told that discriminating markers like poverty are gendered, it seems even common sense and memory are gendered.

That the law which is facially equal kicks in injustice when it is put in action is something we recognise too late. Justice Verma report says: “This brings us to the vexed question that unless and until the state pursues a policy of avowed determination to be able to correct a historical imbalance in consciousness against women, it will not be possible for men and indeed women themselves, to view women differently and through the prism of equality.”

A case of sexual harassment once came before the Madras High Court. The Enquiry Officer found the delinquent officer guilty. The High Court exonerated him. The judgment makes certain observations which indicate how the Ordinary Man is constructed differently from the Ordinary Woman. “... The delinquent is leading a happy married life and there was no necessity for him to solicit sexual favours from anyone, much less the complainant ... The complainant lodged the said criminal complaint […] only to create documentary evidence in her favour so as to be used in the departmental proceedings which shows her motivated intention of achieving her illegal goal of throwing the delinquent officer from his official position.” Going by the judgment, the Ordinary Man is ordinarily faithful. The Ordinary Woman is ordinarily vengeful. Judicial decisions are not immune from the prism through which ordinary people are viewed.

Then we have the concept of consent. Unless she kicked, scratched and tore, or (as we have recently heard) called out to her attackers as “brothers” and pleaded with them to “leave me alone,” she has consented. This is another profile of the Ordinary Woman.

The Ordinary Woman is perceived to abuse the law. She is bent on wrecking the home with a false case and recklessly sends to prison innocent members of her family including aged mothers-in-law and pregnant sisters-in-law. These are the spectacles through which this Ordinary Woman is seen. An impression has been created that women who have no reason to be aggrieved are abusing the law.

The truth is otherwise. No woman who is happily married will invoke this provision. Most women suffer adverse consequences when they no longer have a spouse, because of death, divorce or desertion. For this reason, the majority of women in India suffer in silence within an abusive marriage, even a severely abusive one.

Section 498A

Those who attack Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code — which punishes a husband or his relative who subjects a woman to cruelty — use two arguments: it destroys the family; innocent bystanders are dragged in. Let us examine the first argument. What is a family? It is a fundamental social unit and each member of the unit has the right to be safe from injury being inflicted by the other. If one parent/ spouse systematically inflicts cruelty on the other, to the point there is danger to life or limb of that member of the family, then the family has set off on its path of self-destruction. The destruction did not commence with the perpetrator, usually the male, being taken into custody but well before that. The offence itself is structured on a destroyed or an about-to-be destroyed family. So the statement that the family is destroyed if a complaint is lodged by the woman under Section 498A is an offence to her dignity and to her right to live.

A study on 498A in Tamil Nadu was conducted by EKTA, a resource centre for women. It showed that even if all the cases under Section 498A, Dowry Prohibition Act and Section 304B are brought together, each All Women Police Station investigated not more than two cases per month. Where, then, is the widespread abuse of Section 498A?

The abused woman will find it difficult to secure the necessary evidence, because the scene of occurrence is within the “four walls” of the matrimonial home. So if a case fails, it is not because the case is false, but because there are inherent difficulties in the case going through the whole trial, not least of which is social pressure. The report showed that for offences under Section 498 A, arrest of senior citizens was 3.95 per cent. So the parents-in-law were not roped in in all the cases. Almost all the judicial officers who were interviewed said that the accusation that women are using Section 498A to extract money is not justified. So the image of the Ordinary Woman with a false case is incorrect.

Let us visualise the Ordinary Woman. The Ordinary Woman gets up early and cooks for the family. She packs food for the children and her husband. If she works at home, her strenuous chores begin thereafter. If she works outside she goes by public transport and does not want to be touched or mauled or leered at on the way. At work she wants to be treated with dignity, and does not walk about in a state of perpetual consent. She comes home all tired but generally the Ordinary Woman’s husband does not share the house work. So she begins the chores at home till she is ready to drop asleep. She wants to be treated with respect by her husband and does not want to be hit. She wishes to be cordial and friendly with others without being suspected of adultery. She is not a compulsive liar. She does not readily go to court. If she does, it is only because she is aggrieved. She does not complain about her marriage or her husband unless pushed to it. She knows that she will be a burden on her natal family if she returns. She also knows that if she comes out of the marriage she will suffer economic disadvantage. So she puts up with a lot of suffering being aware of her life’s reality. She does not consent to rape. She does not “ask for it.” She does not want to be abused. She deserves to be safe at home and outside. She deserves to be treated with dignity. She deserves a full life. Is that too much to ask?

(Prabha Sridevan is a former judge of the Madras High Court. The article is excerpted from her keynote address on August 11, 2013 at a conference organised by the Majlis Legal Centre, a forum for women’s rights discourse and legal initiatives)

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This is the most biased article I have ever read. The author has very narrow view
about the current status of dowry law. Section 498a is one of the most misused law in India and this has even acknowledged by our supreme court. I wish the author open her Eye wide and see the actual number of convictions that’s happening in such cases and not just justify that such crime happens within 4 walls etc. She has to be aware that it is going to equally difficult for the so-called accused to disprove their allegations, which has happened within the four walls. She being a former judge has to be unbiased and try to see both the side of the coin before writing an article.

from:  Dr Siva
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 23:39 IST

"No woman who is happily married will invoke this provision" -
Astonished to see this from a legal expert! An unhappy marriage does not
by itself make the spouse a criminal. This is precisely the misuse: if a
woman is unhappy in her marriage she sends her husband to jail even
though he might not be criminally guilty.
May I ask, what a man who is unhappily married supposed to do?
Can/should he send his ordinary wife to jail for his unhappiness?

from:  abhishek
Posted on: Oct 13, 2013 at 20:56 IST

This piece of writing from the author appears more like a collgiate debate on 'Common man
and Common woman' where the topic is more for the sake of the contestants capacity to
bring out most number of points forcefully in his/her point of view.There will be as many
points in favour of the other side or even more and in such debates, the points of view of
either side cannot be generalized. In each of the cases of gender based issues, the merits of the case matters. The fact remains that histirically, the women were victimized in general because of economic insecurity mostly; however instances of women wrecking families were also not uncommon.The women and men are equally endowed with qualities good and bad with equal probability of exhibiting either of the two. Citing lack of evidence of victimzation because of the confines of the 'four walls' is equally applicable to both. So trying to find virtue in one is not valid. The perception that the laws are gender based is only an illusion

from:  M.R.Sampath
Posted on: Oct 12, 2013 at 17:41 IST

This is a thought provoking article.The author is attempting to start a conversation
about what constitutes 'an ordinary woman and and ordinary man'.She does not
take sides and presents a view point.One must however remember that women
and have been victimized in this country and it is true that many women prefer
abusive marriages because of societal pressures etc. While the assumption is that
the average man and average woman do not go to these extreme, who are we to define average?The flurry of responses that this has evoked stand for themselves.I
see prejudice against women and I also see support for women and their roles.All
in All a well written artice.It could be a little shorter though!

from:  pkrishnan
Posted on: Oct 12, 2013 at 05:54 IST

That Sharia law gives 'highest respect to women', seems a bit
contrary to the its tenets wherein the rights of women are almost
half of that of men in terms of power (eg. testimony, inheritance).
Maybe it's about time that we pay lesser attention to praising/loathing religions for the present state of affairs and gradually veered away from their constricted mindsets towards more humane and scientific outlook in respecting women as equals.

from:  Govind
Posted on: Oct 12, 2013 at 02:52 IST

What a brilliant article! Kudos to the author!
However, what appalls and shocks me are the comments posted here by
fellow-readers. From their 'declared names', I can make out that most of
them are male. And I am not surprised!
I see retorts of all shades in defense of the asymmetrical gender relations: paeans to religion, culture, justification of traditional role of women, slogans of 'we are victims too', maligning women who 'wear flashy dresses and soliciting make-up' and what not!
But seriously, 'soliciting make-up'..really?
All this only goes on to prove that misogyny is all pervasive in our society-- in different forms and to different degrees.

from:  Ruchika
Posted on: Oct 12, 2013 at 00:12 IST

The author makes some good points, but it would be better to recognize that
stereotyping is not restricted to women. For example, the judiciary routinely assumes women are better at caring for children than men -- Is this not a social construct? Is every woman a better parent than every man? Too often, it is hard for judges to remain objective. For example, if the judge is a middle aged or elderly man and he is not used to doing household chores, he assumes the same to be true for every man. Likewise, if the women in his household (or in his expectations) play a submissive role, he assumes that is the natural role for every women. Lady judges are not >entirely free from similar prejudices either. It is very important that our view of society as a whole is not used to prejudge individuals, and that no law be interpreted in ways that run counter to logic and reason, the only tools that human beings have to discriminate between right and wrong.

from:  Ram Krishnamurthy
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 23:13 IST

@ Mohamed
Are you saying women had a chance in our traditional to even learn to earn a living for a family?
What if it is an opinion.. are you giving arguments against it?

from:  Karthik
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 21:37 IST

Am not sure whatelse the Outsourcing(IT/BPO) industry has changed for good or bad but it did surely made a positive influence in the men-women equality both at work & home in the younger minds.

from:  balaji krishna
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 20:56 IST

Very well written! Every sentence rings true! I am appalled by the
biased comments by some of the readers. I am a medical doctor and
everyday in my practice, I come across scores of women who have been
abused in every imaginable way. Many of them do not go to police or
court. This includes even the financially independent and educated
ones. There is a lot of stigma attached to these issues even at
present times. And then many women have children especially girls and
"they do not want the future of their girls to be affected in any
Granted, there are instances of cruelty by women towards men as well.
But these are far outnumbered by the instances of cruelty by men
towards their women.There has to be a change in the collective
consciousness for both men and women to be treated as human beings
first. What is required is for everyone, regardless of their gender to
be treated with respect and dignity and preferably, reverence.

Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 20:25 IST

Couldn't agree more. For me, that last para says it all. The ordinary woman is just trying to lead her ordinary life. Why do we (as in society at large) make it so difficult for her?

from:  Hari
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 20:14 IST

Undoubtedly a scholarly article. The retired judge ignores the following obstructing factors when they tend to attenuate her eloquence:(1) Denial of education. (a) Toilets for girls are unavailable in many schools for adolescent girl children, who are also vulnerable to molestation on the way to school and back. (b) Many parents suspects that their daughters' ability for self protection, as they refuse to let their young daughters study in foreign countries or universities in another state of India. (2) Husbands turn abusive and children start behaving nastily when they lose their jobs. Freedom for the employer to hire and fire is sacrosanct. Starvation or getting out for a maid servant's job at the cost of neglect of familial chores does not constitute a problem.

from:  Dr. Ajoy Bhattacharjya
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 20:07 IST

Here, is section of society, which has been exploited since long. Still majority of women face this old-time trauma, which is quite evident from the sex ratio. If in their natal families they face a sense of apprehension, then how can we expect the absence of this apprehension in their laws.
Further, as writer is correctly pointed out it is almost next to impossible to prove the violence occurred to women, especially the mentally one, there is need to be a law where burden of proof should lie to the accused.
However, there is no denying fact that in some cases woman uses it as a tool for vengeance and harassment . And mediators themselves uses this as a tool to extract money from the respondent and also in many case are not sensitive to victim, may be because of mind-set or implementation gap.
These gaps in law and implementation are needed to be addressed so that law is more effective and should be deterrent in true sense.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 19:50 IST

"Sharia law gives the highest respect to women and it is time we thought of borrowing some tenets from it so as to make our legal systems more gender sensitive. "
Really? Where a woman cannot divorce a man by saying "talaq" three times? Or that you need 2 women to give evidence for the evidence of one man? Which world are you living in? Request the Hindu to verify facts before publishing comments that seem to have no logical basis.

from:  Nitya
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 18:55 IST

Shocked at the ludicrous comments posted by People of my gender. It only
reinforces the author`s point that indeed women deserve to be respected
and treated equally. Kudos!

from:  Jatin Panchhi
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 18:52 IST

Good article. Gives an insight into "Ordinary Woman". Normally, an 'ordinary man', interprets otherwise innocent gestures like a smile from a colleague or a see-through / skimpy dress of a co-paggender as an 'invitation' (if we can use that word at all), this is usually rationalized as "asking for it". The mistake is not entirely with the man alone, the social context is also important. Take the example of the movie where the skimpily clad woman was indeed asking for it, the actresses, the models, the advertisements are indeed crying for your attention with as much obsene it can get under the law! Compared with 100 years ago, the ordinary man is certainly more stimulated, and that too at an unwanted time - in the day time, walking on the street, listening to FM on mobile, watching women co-paggenegers a co-workers in tight fitting T-shirts, etc. A senior cop once told me he is a student of sociology and not psychology, there lies the gap?!

from:  Seetaramaiah
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 17:56 IST

I agree with most of what is said in the article, I am yet not sure
why we need to have an image of 'ordinary woman.' The idea of
reasonable man is often a yardstick against which a guilt of a culprit
is assessed. But the focus of this article is victims, not culprits.
Why then do we need to have the image of an ordinary woman? If one
does not fit in with the description of 'ordinary', cannot she be
still a victim? By creating this image in this well-written fashion,
are we not further endorsing the entrenched stereotypes? Irrespective
of the goodness of our intentions and the strength of the points that
we make, oughtn't we be careful about the images that we use? I could
quote the last paragraph alone elsewhere & lead you to be
misinterpreted like you or I never wanted you to be. We must create
space in our thinking AND in writing for a woman to be different,
eccentric, selfish or even vulgar, and yet claim her legal rights just
as a man can. Even your 'ordinary woman' would want it.

from:  Surya
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 17:54 IST

Opinions do not make facts. This article is full of opinions and nothing more. And if women can get protection, why should men be denied the protection which women are getting? Why only women should get the benefit of doubt in every case and why are men presumed guilty? Is there any case where the woman is presumed guilty? The man may not share in the cooking, but that is only when the woman does not share in the expenses. If the woman shares in the expenses, there are enough and more men who share in the cooking.

from:  Mohamed
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 15:21 IST

ordinary men and ordinary women both are same in most of the cases, but when it
comes about power distribution in ordinary life, it is most of the time favours men.
though ordinary men would be there on the road or in the office or even in the home or any ordinary place but when a ordinary women will enter in that space the
ordinary men is no more a ordinary, he turn to a powerful (status wise or physically) male only, who want to control the ordinary women.
now all of the ordinary women may not be friends, because they know that by
supporting the ordinary powerful men they can also gain some power over the other ordinary women (in case of in-laws relationships). This is like this only, because women as a community are not together, there is lack of the community/class
consciousness among women, at present they are class in it self but the day they will become class for themselves they will really become a ordinary women present at
everywhere. I believe that the day will come!

from:  nutan
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 15:09 IST

Absolutely shocked by some of the bigoted comments from the readers.
Only goes on to reinforce the author's point about entrenched gender
prejudice. As a social worker I have come across several cases where
women were mentally and even physically tortured by their husband and
in-laws for reasons like giving birth to female offspring. In most cases
the victims are financially dependent and need adequate protection from
the law. It is outrageous that so many people chose to be apathetic to
the plight of such women.

from:  Leena
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 14:09 IST

Scholarly article. The problem actually lies with the schools of jurisprudence and unfortunately both English law and indigenous Hindu law codes (Dharamshastras) have not given women due respect and importance. Sharia law gives the highest respect to women and it is time we thought of borrowing some tenets from it so as to make our legal systems more gender sensitive.

from:  Rasul Sheik Muhammad
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 13:27 IST

Treating an Indian woman as a second or even third class citizen was
depicted in our two epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The
authors of these two epics clearly showed that a woman could be used
as an object of a wager (Draupadi), she could be sent off to the
jungle to prove her fidelity (Sita), or she could have her nose
chopped off (Surpanakha.) Subsequently, we encouraged the horrific
practice of Sati where a woman was burnt alive on her husband's
funeral pyre. This type of depraved attitude towards women has
continued over the ages. Our politicians have not lifted a finger to
take proper steps due to vote bank concerns.

from:  JK Dutt
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 12:30 IST

[What a tedious article to read!]

And yet you read it, and took the trouble to leave a nasty comment. I think the word you may have been looking for, rather than tedious, is "enraging". You and the other ranting misogynists on this page. Look inward.

from:  Ashu
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 11:23 IST

What a tedious article to read!

from:  Shreeraj
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 09:00 IST

You say 'No woman who is happily married will invoke this provision' and yet do not give the same benefit of the doubt to a happily married man when he is accused of sexual harassment towards a colleague. Don't you think you are maybe a little biased against men?

from:  Sai easwar
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 08:20 IST

The women comprising of mothers, relatives, neighbours, friends,
classmates, colleagues in work places, mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law
are not helpful to another woman. First let the entire women become
helpful and mutually cooperate and share the love and friendship among
their own kind. The males also suffer the more due to the hatred,
jealousy, ill will of the women among themselves.

from:  chandrasekaran
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 07:59 IST

The last paragraph says it all. But there can be no black and white description of Ordinary
Woman or Ordinary Man. It differs from country to country, culture to culture. The relationship
evolves due to natural and man-made laws. Laws alone could not correct these social
imbalances. Often,they get distorted due to subjective court judgements.(After all, judges are
also humans, and have their own individual value-systems). In the wake of Independence,
our law-makers were set to correct these social imbalances, by laws, thus creating more
inequalities and inequities. These result in tensions of a different variety to the man-woman
relationship. Added to these, are also the changes life-styles due to the passage of Time and
Technology-laden advantages. Cocooned modern families in flats/apartments today suffers
more due to divorces, break-ups and loss of humane virtues in society. Ms. Praha Sridevan
portrays well, from the legal angle. But that can not be obviously be complete.

from:  G. Narayanaswamy
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 07:28 IST

Good read, written by a learned person.

from:  kharat
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 06:31 IST

The virtuous woman described in the final para is not at all abused but duly respected by the
family. There may be a few eccentric cases for cinema/TV consumption. Generalization, on
the basis of some cases, is what ails the judgement. Punish the guilty severely to set a
deterrent for the future. Is there an explanation why some women force their husbands to
earn illegally or some women who wear flashy dresses and soliciting makeup?

What about a woman who loved and lived with a man as a live-in partner for seven long
years and finally makes a rape complaint against the man as she does not get the cinema
heroine chance as promised by the man?

from:  Arkota
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 05:35 IST

the writer rightly ask the question at the end. watever has been asked
is not too much. we should always respect women not only because she
should be respected but she deserves respect.
but i have seen many cases where women claim to be an ordinary women but
actually they are not.what if she hardly knows any traits to be an
ordinary woman.

from:  sushant
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 04:45 IST

If I go by your logic, most men also don't torment their wives for money, so there is no need for 498A anyway. The writer fails to notice that the law is not for the common people, its for the extraordinary situations.

from:  Debasish Ray Chawdhuri
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 04:25 IST

So, if a woman is aggrieved, she should file section 498a? That is nonsense. There is an entire IPC available. Section 498a is only meant for severe cruelty which make make a woman commit suicide. A woman whose marriage is not working due to any reason on her part or her husband's part can claim to be aggrieved. Our society treats woman as infants and believes her life is ruined if her marriage breaks. That is were the vengeance part comes in. The women rock their marriages and then put the whole blame on their husbands. How the hell a sister-in-law living 500km away is responsible for torturing her? Yet, they rope her in in false cases. So far as judicial officials and CAW cells are concerned, they themselves are part of extortion game in the name of mediation. They tell the guy to pay up huge sum of money or face harassment in courts or in false cases.

from:  Sumanth
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 02:58 IST

These so called Feminists (for eg. the author of this story), do nothing good except divide people on the basis of BIRTH, just like some selfish politicians divide people on the basis of caste, religion,etc for their own benefits. Why does always WOMEN COMPLAIN about MEN. Why dont they for a minute introspect and talk in a manner that everyone can live in harmony..the authour talks about teh who work that a 'ORDINARY WOMAN' does, does she mean that 'ORDINARY MAN' doesnt work at all??? Its the MAN who shares the most of the family burden just because some one some where did something wrong, doesnt mean that everyone is the same..If women are so hardworking , selfless species why do they need reservations at every level... the list can just go on...One last thing, if possible try to comeup with stories/articles which can build the relations, NOT break them.

from:  Sridhar
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 02:07 IST

It is wrong to say that " The judges have created the image of a Reasonable Man ".What the judges have always meant was a reasonable person with no specific gender identification.It is like the premise " Man is rational" in the old textbooks on logic.It did not mean women were irrational.

from:  Khagaraj Sommu
Posted on: Oct 11, 2013 at 01:53 IST
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