Let's not skirt the real issue

Ranjona Banerji A woman is not allowed to enter an exhibition on 150 years of the Bombay High Court because a female constable at the security gates decides that the woman’s sleeveless top is indecent. And indecently dressed people are not allowed into the court.

In Bangalore, a Karnataka High Court judge, K Bhaktavatsala on hearing a divorce case where a woman accused her husband of beating her up and throwing her out of the house, had this to say, “Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children and know what it means to suffer as a woman.” He told the husband to take his wife and child out for a “Davanagere benne dosa” and all would be well. On seeing photographs of the woman’s swollen face, he said, “You have to adjust. Are you just behind money? There is nothing in your case to argue on merits.”

Priya Pathiyan
Dressing down: Priya Pathiyan (36), a media professional, was wearing a long top and jeans. She perhaps did not realise that her uncovered upper arms were unacceptable for public view 

It is a woman’s lot to suffer and ‘adjust’ is the clear message and the law will not do anything to help.

The Karnataka case is much worse than the Mumbai one but both attack the same aspect of a woman’s person — her dignity. Priya Pathiyan (36), a media professional, was wearing a long top and jeans. She perhaps did not realise that her uncovered upper arms were unacceptable for public view. She said in the September 4 edition of MiD DAY: “It is advisable that the authorities put up a notice clearly mentioning their dress code at the entrances. Leaving it to the arbitrary interpretation of sundry personnel will inevitably lead to another situation like this.”

It is easy to blame the police woman on duty for officiousness. But the law was not laid down by a constable. It was done by the judges of the Bombay High Court who feel that people — men and women — who come to court should be modestly dressed and in sober colours. Pathiyan was not of course going to court. She was going to look at an exhibition. There was no cause for her to be humiliated because of a vague law which does not state what can and cannot be worn. India already has public decency laws — if those are not enough for the eminent justices of the Bombay High Court they need to enumerate the dos and don’ts a little better. They also need to explain the reasoning behind this high court dress code for visitors — their own sense of propriety, some public need? The statue of justice is blindfolded anyway, for reasons of fairness so that cannot be the problem. To what extent does this decency law go? If a woman who has been molested and her clothes torn runs into the court for help, will she be turned away? That may sound extreme but our judges know that all laws need to be properly delineated if they are to be effective. They also have to explain how this decency law makes them any different from the Taliban.

As for the Bangalore judge, he has confused upholding a social institution at any cost — in this case marriage — with upholding what is just and what is legal. Domestic violence is unacceptable, in legal and moral terms. For a judge to tell a woman to put up with an abusive husband is nothing short of reprehensible.

In no part of any marriage Act in India is domestic violence set down as acceptable and legal and nor are there any such indications. A judge has to interpret the letter and spirit of the law and should not impose his own vision of marriage, life, morality and the need or desire of women to suffer on litigants.

The Constitution of India came into effect on January 26, 1950 and promised us, among other things, “justice, social, economical and political”, “equality” and “dignity of the individual”. At the very least, after 62 years, our venerable judges should know this.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona 

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