Analysis: Women Need A Level Playing Field, Not Protection

Analysis: Women Need A Level Playing Field, Not Protection

The state’s job is to level the playing field by ensuring that public spaces are safe for women, that those in unsafe domestic environments receive justice and that the gender gap in health, education, income and jobs is bridged

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Thursday, February 15, 2024, 01:51 PM IST
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Representative Image | Jackson David/Pixabay

The NDA government has made landmark efforts towards closing the gender gap and improving ease of living for rural women. At the same time, it has adopted a decidedly patriarchal approach in some of its legislative initiatives.

Take for instance the Uniform Civil Code of Uttarakhand, which contains a contentious section on live-in relationships. Equally questionable are the Surrogacy laws which impinge on women’s reproductive rights, and the so-called “Love Jihad” law. All of these laws are informed by the patronising impulse to “protect” women, even if that means intruding on their privacy and diluting their rights.

The paternalistic assumption that women as a class need special protection is based on the notion that power “naturally” resides with men. Often accompanied by romantic representations of women as fragile, morally superior beings, it serves as an excuse to impose restrictions on them “for their own good”.

Let us first consider the Uttarakhand UCC. If the criminalisation of triple talaq through the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act of 2019 levelled the playing field for a section of women, Part 3 of the Uttarakhand UCC does the reverse. It mandates compulsory registration of live-in relationships, and accords considerable discretionary power to bureaucrats, thereby creating scope for corruption. It also opens the door to gratuitous harassment of women.

When a woman chooses to share premises with a man, there are degrees to the relationship. It may be one of pure convenience, a friendship, a sexual relationship without commitment or a monogamous committed relationship. The latter is the only one that falls within the meaning of a “live-in”. The state clearly defines it as one in which the partners “cohabit in a shared household through a relationship in the nature of marriage”.

However, by mandating registration of such a relationship and instituting penalties for failure to comply, it brings every man and woman occupying shared premises under the scrutiny of the law. Many state officials come from conservative backgrounds and lack the cultural context to understand that a couple living together may not, in fact, be in a committed monogamous relationship, ie, in a live-in situation.

What’s more, Part 3 of the code tasks the registrar with conducting a “summary inquiry” to determine whether the facts furnished by the registering couple are accurate. What is the scope of the inquiry? What are the questions that might be asked? Might these questions amount to sexual harassment of the women concerned?

The spin put on this controversial provision is that the state is “protecting” women. If the relationship is broken off, she is entitled to maintenance, and children born during the course of the relationship will be regarded as legitimate. In other words, it is a common law marriage. No argument there, but given that the state cannot suo moto intrude into the private lives of its citizens, registration of a live-in relationship must be by choice and not mandatory.

Likewise, the Surrogacy laws seek to protect women from exploitation of the “rent-a-womb” kind. This has resulted in draconian restrictions on egg donation and surrogate pregnancies, and discrimination against single women and LGBTQ individuals. Why should a single, childless adult woman not be allowed to donate an egg or carry a baby for an infertile or gay friend? Or for that matter, donate an egg to a stranger desirous of having a child? Why is a single, 35+ woman who has never been married disallowed from having a baby through surrogacy?

Not surprisingly, a flood of petitions by women have been filed in courts against these laws. The point is that women have a right to make reproductive choices without state interference: to decide when and how to have a child and with whom.

The “Love Jihad” law has generated the most headlines. As the name implies, it is based on the premise that women must be protected from “predators” who lure them into marriage for the sole purpose of religious conversion. Such marriages are void and the offenders and their accomplices can be subjected to stiff penalties.

Women of all ages and cultures fall prey to predators, but then, so do men. The notion that women are inherently, biologically vulnerable smacks of patriarchy. That women can be deployed in defence of the country, but cannot protect themselves, is a contradiction that escapes policymakers.

The state’s job is to level the playing field by ensuring that public spaces are safe for women, that those in unsafe domestic environments receive justice and that the gender gap in health, education, income and jobs is bridged. The fact that India ranks 127th out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap report of 2023 shows where the government needs to focus its efforts. In a fair and equal, gender-neutral environment, women are perfectly capable of empowering and protecting themselves.

To that end, a Valentine’s Day message for the ruling dispensation: ‘Level the playing field, then get out of my way’.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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