Bridging a yawning gap

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A critical evaluation of feminist interventions for legal reform with a culturally sensitive approach

ZEALOUS REFORMERS, DEADLY LAWS — Battling Stereotypes: Madhu Purnima Kishwar; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 495.

One of the many pleasures of reading Madhu Purnima Kishwar is the element of surprise. She is one of the rare breed of Indian writers (Ashish Nandy is another) who is unafraid to think through issues on her own terms, without the comfort or reassurance of a settled framework or the deadening weight of a received ideology.

This has resulted in Kishwar being routinely attacked by ‘fellow’ feminists, criticism that is sometimes mundane and predictable, not much more than a heated reiteration of a set of doctrines. While it is impossible to agree with her on everything, it is hard to deny the remarkable ability of this activist-scholar to forcefully challenge authoritatively settled dogmas, bring a fresh perspective to an issue, and provoke the reader into rethinking his or her prejudices.


Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws is a compilation of essays written over a very long period, many of which deal with laws relating to women. Drawing attention to what she calls the “dangerous gap between laws and social practice”, Kishwar’s critiques the approach that focuses of securing the legal rights of women at the cost of attempting to build a new social order that gives them their social due. She suggests that a narrow legal approach is not only be counter-productive but also dangerous in a country where the biggest threat to women’s lives and well being comes not so much from the hold of patriarchal norms but from the “utter lawlessness of the government agencies.” Disagreeing with the standard “progressive-feminist” view that the family is at the core of women’s oppression, Kishwar believes the real way out is to “figure out ways to strengthen and reinvigorate civil society’s own organisations especially family and kinship ties, in ways that ensure that individual rights remain inviolable.” Underlying her writing is the belief that the solutions to promote the empowerment of Indian women must be practical and must pay heed to the cultural and social milieu in which the problems arise.

Issue of dowry

Dowry is a good example of Kishwar’s approach to women’s issues. Almost counter-intuitively, she suggests it is misplaced to call for stricter anti-dowry legislation or make the giving and take of dowry the focus of the campaign against the practice. Pointing out the redundancy of a law that hardly anyone follows, she suggests that the penal route be limited to cases of extortion and blackmail for more money or goods.

Arguing that the issue of dowry is closely related to that of the women’s share in family resources, Kishwar maintains that rather than asking for more stringent anti-dowry laws, women’s groups would do much better to demand legislation that makes it mandatory to give daughters an equal share of the family inheritance. “If parents cannot disinherit daughters they will have no incentive to give them dowries.” Counter-intuitively but persuasively, she argues that dowry demands are not related to greed as commonly presumed. If it were so, then the families of grooms would not spend so much on weddings or encourage the families of brides to do so. Like rape, she suggests, dowry demands are a form of psychological violence to degrade and victimise women. The object is to make them feel vulnerable and perpetually insecure with her husband and in-laws.


Kishwar is unafraid to strike unconventional postures on other issues such as child marriage, domestic violence and the women’s reservation bill. Unlike most feminists, she is comfortable about appealing to the decent side of men as well as enlisting their support in the battle for women’s empowerment. And finally — and in some ways this embodies one of the most interesting aspect of her writings — she is willing to battle with first world feminists and the western media head, attacking them for the simplistic conclusions, “their oppressive stereotypes of Indian women’s lives” and their way of “us …as exotic survivors of a vicious and murderous civilization.”

As one might expect of such a book, the essays cover a range of subjects and vary in their depth and complexity. There is a rather simplistic one on women in politics, which argues that gender is an advantage for those women who prove themselves “stronger and more commanding than men.” And there is a frontal no-holds-barred attack on Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which is portrayed as a shoddy film made by a self-hating Indian.

To my mind, the pick of the essays — the one that defines the Kishwar approach — is “Learning To Take People Seriously”, which calls for addressing the perceptions and the beliefs of those who study seriously and, ipso facto, come to terms with the rationale behind the choices they make. Written for a seminar on “The Subjectivity of the Researcher versus the Subjectivity of the Researched”, it makes a strong and persuasive case for putting the latter over the former.



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