Cover photo of 'In the Body of a Woman: Essays on Law, Gender and Society' by Aaliya Waziri. (Photo by arrangement)
A book of essays that examines law, gender and society is always relevant. But it seems more so, now as we as a society grapple with images which have emerged out of Manipur, of women being used as weapons in warfare, as victims of violence in identity and political battles and crimes against women being used as political counterpoints. In all these, the women themselves are irrelevant and immaterial. They are symbols of society at its worst which is often society at its most malevolently powerful.
As Aaliya Waziri writes in her opening chapter, on the "Nirbhaya" gangrape case of 2012 which woke us up, only to send us to apathetic sleep again, "They saw injustice never lives forever. They’re wrong. Brutality does. Insanity does. Inhumanity does. Fear is palpable. It’s something we women carry."
Waziri used this trigger — the indescribable pain she says she still carries from the horror of that gang rape — to embark on her in-depth study of Indian law, in statutes, in investigative methods and in our courts. It is not an easy journey, neither for her nor for the reader.
What Waziri lays bare are the inequalities of our gender laws. The insensitivity of our judicial pronouncements. And the long road ahead for what is a fundamental right of equality of gender to be translated into social and psychological realities.
In the Sonepat rape case of 2017, the Punjab and Haryana high court suspended the sentence of all three accused, and made the following observation, that the victim was of "a promiscuous attitude and voyeuristic mind". Such sentiments are not uncommon in our courts, because the woman is still seen as something between a virgin and whore. Sexual feeling or behaviour is unacceptable in women. And that is why judgments so often mimic the social inclination of the "what was she wearing" school of thought.
That is, a woman of a promiscuous and voyeuristic bent cannot claim to have been abused or assaulted by a man, because she may have been "asking for it". Although as Waziri outlines, the Law Commission has several times updated itself, what is in the minds of judges is less easy to update.
Consent itself is not easily defined or understand. Or rather the problem appears to be between what women say and what men interpret that as, including in the minds of the judges.
In Waziri’s words, "Neti, neti is a Sanskrit expression, found in the Upanishads, which translates to ‘neither this nor that’. It refers to what we are not. Similarly, the present definition of consent is an example of neti, neti."
What is evident in reading these essays is that the law, not just in India, still sees rape as a form of violent sex. Not as an expression of power and subjugation, which is how psychology, sociology and women’s movements themselves interpret rape. What we see in the viral video of the naked women being paraded in Manipur is not an act of sexual excitement but a violent statement of power.
As Waziri looks at the issue of marital rape in India, this dichotomy is further underlined. The facts, as she quotes, show that women are more likely to face sexual and physical violence from their husbands, compared to strangers. Yet, since marriage is seen as sacred, "nonconsensual sex" is regarded "as an extension of ‘disagreement in married life and the bedroom’."
Waziri looks at the opposing judgments which struck down the provision of marital rape as a crime as she examines the subject. And then speaks for herself, a 26-year-old woman and a lawyer: "Often people say that women have recourse… a litany of statutes… But… we are not addressing the basic issue of violation of basic personal autonomy caused by marital rape."
In the Body of a Woman takes a wide sweep through laws and women: The need for gender sensitivity amongst judges, the lack of representation of women the denial of abortion rights to women in the United States, cyberbullying and harassment, the dehumanising transactions of Muslim women in the Sully Deals and Bulli Bai cases (where her own mother was named and abused), laws in Islam and Judaism and more.
The "indescribable pain" lies below the surface and will emerge for any woman who read this book. But it is also an education for the reader, a study of laws and court cases. For someone so young, this is a work of great insight and focus.
In the Body of a Woman: Essays on Law, Gender and Society
By Aaliya Waziri
Simon & Schuster India
pp. 220; Rs 499