The Statement of Objects and Reasons that accompanied the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Bill, 2015 has instructive language — perhaps in ways that the government did not even realise. As a lawyer you learn fairly quickly that people often do not realise the importance of what they are writing. The said Statement accompanying the legislation says, “The instances of violence against women have been on the increase primarily because the existing legal system does not effectively address the menace and violence by some is perpetrated with impunity.”
The operative words here, no prizes for guessing, are “the existing legal system”. And since the system is not just the letter of the law but its implementation — along with the actors shaping or being shaped by the existing system — therefore the problems are not going to go away any time soon.
People rarely act out of purely altruistic motives. Their incentives to act are often driven by one of three things: self-interest (i.e. they gain something in terms of value or self-esteem by following a particular course of action), loss or risk aversion/deterrence (i.e. they avoid loss or punishment by following a particular course of action) or fidelity to a value system or bonds that they hold dear (i.e. it is in line with their conception of the greater good). When we enter into a social contract, the underlying assumption is that, either by force or persuasion, people will sign onto a least common denominator as far as values go. And this least common denominator will be broad enough, in scope and acceptance, to give every one (especially the marginalised) incentives as well as protection to stay within the system and be faithful to it. This is how strong systems work.
Weak legal systems are those that cannot bridge the gap between the values that they are trying to enforce and the values they are trying to curb. Their weakness means that, regardless of whether persuasion or force are used as the tools to shape society, they fail to undermine the bonds that hurt the values that the system ostensibly holds dear (at least in public).
When it comes to women the bonds embedded by patriarchy, custom and patriarchal interpretations of religion pose the greatest challenges in a society like ours. Since the new legislative measures recognise that the ‘system’ does not afford adequate protection to women, the law-makers and the Punjab Government should not raise their hopes of what this law will achieve. If the system is weak, and there really is no doubt about it, then the system — along with its practices and beliefs of those who run the system — will not change dramatically.
Many will reply to my argument by asking, why pass a law at all then? An immediate response to this would be that maybe we should not pass laws just for the fanfare it generates. The real solution is to engage with factors and actors that determine how (and whether) laws are enforced. Engagement is also necessary with discourse that stems from religion and aids marginalisation of and violence (in thought and action) against women. Class, power and those the law protects are important factors in how effectively a law is enforced. When the cultural and social beliefs/practices of those charged with enforcing the law (or even adjudicating upon it) are steeped in patriarchy then women have little hope. However, police and lower judiciary come in after the violence has already occurred. Real progress is re-shaping discourse and actively engaging with narratives that support or, no matter how silently, condone violence against women.
This does not mean that passing a law has no value — it, at the very least, has symbolic value and even when it is criticised by the religious right it actually forces a debate on issues that are far too often gagged in silence. Yet symbolism does not save lives. And violence against women claims thousands of lives every year and, just as importantly, squeezes the life out of millions of dreams. A few cases or prosecutions will not change the mindset we are battling. Real change will occur when a woman will not have to think twice about what society, her parents or the cops will think if she makes a complaint of violence against her person — just the way a man can. When a man claims he was violently attacked, no one asks if it was within his home or elsewhere. For male complainants, violence is violence. When it comes to women, there is violence embedded in the system against her when she tries to complain of physical/mental violence.
This violence is evident from the statements of the religious right — with one political leader saying that the law will rip apart the sanctity of the home and will encourage divorces. There is a certain repulsive view of women hidden in that statement which has far too much currency in our milieu.
One wonders, what alternatives do such people have in mind? Does it make sense to gag a woman’s voice? How does that square with human dignity — a value that every religion aims to protect.
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Once the celebrations and the back-slapping regarding bringing a new law have died down, we will need to think long and hard about what we are actually achieving with such measures. Injustice does not have one face — it exists in the untold stories of millions of lives that never make it to the front page of a newspaper or the (often expensive, male dominated) halls of a courtroom. And those shrieks and cries of help go unheard, not because they are not loud enough but, because the idea of inherent dignity of a woman is undermined by powerful forces every day. The promise of punishment is not strong enough to tackle such forces. The real way to achieve justice is the same way this injustice grew: through conversations, writings, convincing others of a common denominator that binds us.
As we celebrate women on the 8th of March, I hope we can all keep our eyes and ears more open about the injustices that plague our society — and often the ones we condone. Close your eyes at any given moment in a day and imagine this: thousands of women, at any given second, are facing violence. Imagine their cries of help or sobs of fear. And a woman you know, I bet, has been through it.
What are we doing to help? The least we can do, the very least, is talk about it. And part of this effort is to check ourselves before we start celebrating cosmetic measures.