On more than one occasion, I have been asked if I think women, specifically the women of the 21st century, are empowered. In fact, a friend of mine asked me this, while writing a paper on the subject. My answer was, and probably always will be, that women are exactly as empowered as they want to be. Their empowerment comes from their own mindset, their rationality, and of course, their position in the confusingly but aptly named, oft-waged, ongoing battle of the sexes. Feminism is a very loud, very active movement these days. And yes, I’m sure it has justice on its side. Or at least, it began on the side of justice, as almost everything does. But sometimes it feels to me (and yes, this is only my opinion) that feminism will soon begin to mean something completely different. In another fifty years, feminism may just begin to mean something similar to what male chauvinism means to us today. That is, simply another form of sexism, as hurtful, as discriminatory, and as unfair.
Before I say anything more, I would like to say something to those readers who may have been misled by the rather strong words I began with. I am writing this piece after a number of violent, horrible rapes have shocked the country. In speaking out against a part of feminism that I find to be more than slightly awry, I do not mean to say that I do not think feminism is not needed. I do not mean to say even once that I support crimes against women, that I would not want public awareness of such outrages. I wish to speak only of a part of Indian law that I believe to be discriminatory, one that disadvantages and exploits men and supports women beyond the limit of fairness and justice and into the murky world that I have always considered to be sexist.
Findings that women can be every bit as violent as men are fairly common. This phenomenon is commonly known as ‘gender symmetry’. There is also documented evidence that abuse perpetrated by females is considered more ‘acceptable’, at least in the eyes of the law. Cases of violence against men are not usually even brought to the notice of the authorities; when they are, police officers usually view the battered husbands as ‘pathetic figures’, henpecked by their wives. That is possibly why cases of domestic violence against men are rarely reported in the first place. A situation where a woman gets away with abusive behaviour because certain men think that her husband is not enough of a man (and therefore deserves it) doesn’t make much sense to me. Actually, such an attitude is as insulting to the woman as the man. A proper man, it implies, would be her superior. He is only subservient to a mere woman because he is weak. But I digress. Physical violence was not precisely what I wanted to talk about.
The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill seeks to make divorces in India some among the most equitable in the world. It suggests that the woman be given a share in the residential property of her husband as a part of the settlement. This seems to be fair at first, but consider this. The bill does not refer only to property that the couple has purchased after the marriage. The woman has a right to both inherited and inheritable property. In everything that I’ve read so far, nowhere does it say anything about property that the woman has inherited or may inherit. Should the bill be passed, husbands do in fact have everything to lose; wives stand to gain a substantial amount. If there are immovable properties, the woman will receive compensation for her part of them. What is more interesting is that it is the Ministry of Women and Child Development that has vehemently rejected the section of the bill relating to inherited and inheritable property. The WCD feels that the wife’s rights extend to properties acquired after the marriage.
The bill presupposes that everyone is going to be fair, sensible and generous during the divorce proceedings, which seems rather unlikely. It threatens to take away the man’s inheritance, extending to objects that perhaps have been in his family for generations. It completely fails to consider the fact that spouses aren’t exactly happy with each other while in the throes of a legal separation. It would be more apt to say that they are angry, vengeful, perhaps even vindictive (and occasionally violent). A woman scorned is never a pretty sight, and the law might just put all the power into her hands. This isn’t about women’s rights or security. This is about the fact that human beings are human beings, and human beings take advantage of power. And they do so regardless of their gender. I believe I have said before that I do not condone rape. This means I do not condone it in any form.
Women have always been painted as victims. They are the meek, the diffident; poor, oppressed souls, and men their tyrannical oppressors. Why is this image so pervasive, in our world of equal opportunities and empowerment? We cry out for equal opportunity, but this is the way the law sees us, how men see us, and this is how we see ourselves. Men might supposedly have placed the manacles on us first, but we’re the ones who continue to feel them on our wrists; we might not even notice that they’re gone. We are educated, we are strong, we are independent, but we are still victims. Are women empowered? They’re exactly as empowered as they think they are, as they want to be.