Tell Me More: Talking What Stands in the Way of Women Asserting Their Legal Rights With Manasi Chaudhari
“You can have a lot of things on paper, but what about the actual implementation at a grassroots level?”
In The Swaddle’s interview series Tell Me More, we discuss crucial cultural topics with people whose work pushes societal boundaries.
Manasi Chaudhari is a lawyer who is passionate about women’s rights and gender equality. She has practiced in the Hyderabad High Court and later assisted Supreme Court Judge D.Y. Chandrachud with several landmark judgments. She also runs Pink Legal, a legal knowledge platform geared towards women. The Swaddle’s Aditi Murti spoke to Manasi about Indian women’s relationship with the country’s legal framework and why complex legal language is a necessary inconvenience.
TS: In what ways does India’s legal system continue to fail women?
MC: The good part about India’s legal system is that it has a lot of laws that are in favor of women and they’re very strong laws. There are several ways it does fail women though — one is there is obviously room for improvement in existing laws, and that a lot of more modern issues do not have any specific legal interventions. For example — rape threats are more and more common due to social media and cyber-bullying. Yet, there are no laws that make such threats in particular illegal or criminal, though you can be arrested for making rape threats under several other sections of the Penal Code. In my opinion, a rape threat should be considered an act of violence because you’re threatening to commit that act of violence and have that intention.
The second big problem is the flaws in the implementation of laws. You can have a lot of things on paper, but what about the actual implementation at a grassroots level? Say a woman is facing some form of harassment and has to go to the nearest police station to file a case — that’s immediately when the ineffectiveness of law kicks in. Police stations are not comfortable or safe enough spaces for women to talk about the issues they’ve faced, there may not be a female police officer who can accompany the woman, or the police will show apathy via putting this woman through bureaucratic cycles. So right from there, which is the first step that you have to take to realize your legal rights to when you file a case and until the time the judgment comes, there are failures in the legal system.
TS: How can strong laws lead to weak implementation?
MC: So I think it happens because India lacks resources, systemic training, and has a very biased social mindset overall. Each person who is a part of the system has their own patriarchal mindset. So they will apply that mindset to their profession as well when they’re dealing with all of this. The loss that happens is you are not able to realize your legal rights, right? You may have them, but the system blocks you from gaining any actual benefit.
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TS: What are Indian women most uninformed about, when it comes to their legal rights?
MC: Number one – women barely know anything about their property rights, because women did not have any property rights in the past, and that tradition has shaped their mindset into thinking they don’t have these rights when they actually do. When they do find out they have rights, they’re not aware of how to ask for their rights. They don’t know if they have equal rights as their brother, or if they can ask for a share in the existing property, or who gets to inherit a property in their name. And I think this is very important for them to know. Because I think likely economic and financial independence is the backbone of any woman’s independence. So until then, unless women are not economically strong, they cannot protect themselves.
Secondly, women are also heavily unaware of cyber laws. There’s this one law about voyeurism, which covers when somebody records or shares private photos and videos of you. A lot of women are victims of these crimes but don’t know that there’s this particular law that can protect them or allow them justice.
TS: What’s a law that surreptitiously controls women’s bodies and independence in India?
MC: A major example I can think of is the abortion law. It really controls women’s autonomy over their bodies
TS: Wow, but India’s abortion laws have always come across as progressive right?
MC: So the abortion law in India does not allow women to have abortions on demand unless you’re a married woman. If you’re unmarried and you need to get an abortion, you have to show a ‘reason’ like — this will really affect your physical or mental health, or that conception occurred due to rape, or that this will seriously hurt the child. This is supposed to be the medical opinion of a doctor — one doctor under twelve weeks, and two doctors beyond twelve weeks. Doctors receive a lot of agency over a woman’s body while approving abortions — they can straight up refuse to give that opinion.
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TS: When we view pop culture depictions of women in court — especially when it comes to sexual violence cases, there’s a lot of focus on the woman’s moral character in court. Is this a relic of the past or accurate?
MC: Yeah, it is. That is one thing that I think pop culture depicts quite accurately because no matter what the case — whether divorce or rape — the first thing that they will do is attack the woman’s character. And this is in spite of the Supreme court ruling in a couple of judgments that you’re not supposed to question a woman’s character because it has no relevance to the outcome of the case. The Supreme Court gives judgments, but they don’t effectively trickle down to the lower courts and they don’t follow those judgments, unfortunately. So the smallest things — drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, going out at night, hanging out with male friends — everything is brought in to question her character. What they want to do is create this doubt in the judge’s mind that this woman has a ‘loose’ character, and so whatever she says is not worth believing because ‘loose’ women, according to them, will have ulterior motives like money or revenge or blackmail.
TS: What problems do women practicing law in Indian courts face?
MC: First, women in courts have to deal with the infrastructure problem. There are no proper washrooms for women in courts. If you are in a place from morning to evening every day, this can become difficult, especially if you have your period. If you don’t have a clean washroom, you will not feel comfortable going to that place of work at all. Then, there are attitude problems — they don’t take female lawyers as seriously as male lawyers. You’re viewed as an assistant, but never the go-to person for anything.
Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.