Dev 360: To empower women, hear what they want

In the Hadiya case, sections of society have labelled the matter a case of love jihad .

As talk about women’s empowerment rends the air and much advice is trotted out on how to do it, let me add my bit — to empower women, one must listen to what they want. That must be the starting point. You can’t buy empowerment off the shelf. You must work at it. Not all women have the same views about empowerment. And women, just like men, can and do make mistakes.

But one thing is clear — you can’t empower anyone if you don’t respect their right to think for themselves and take decisions based on their own aspirations and capabilities. This is what is understood as agency. You can’t claim to empower anyone if you deny her or him the agency or the autonomy to think for herself/himself, especially if the person is an adult.

These unoriginal thoughts are worth repeating in the context of recent headline-grabbing events. One recent case is that of a young couple — Faiez Modi, 23, and Payal Singhvi, 22 — who were classmates and childhood friends. This April, they got married “secretly” and a few weeks ago Payal left her home to be with Faiez.

Childhood sweethearts wanting to marry each other is not novel. But the story became news because the girl’s family filed a habeas corpus petition, alleging that she has been “brainwashed” and was a victim of “love jihad”. According to news reports, the Rajasthan high court asked the local police to pack off Payal to a Nari Niketan, a shelter, for a week. Then, after listening to Payal, the court ordered that she be set free. “Payal Singhvi stated before us that she is a major, and she was not in illegal detention of any person, therefore, she may be set free,” said a bench of Justices G.K. Vyas and M.K. Garg. Payal has now changed her religion to Islam, changed her name to Aarifa and has moved in with her husband.

Will the couple live happily ever after? We don’t know. Will they split after some years? We don’t know. Did the duo marry hastily? We don’t know. What we do know is that both are adults, and capable of taking decisions on behalf of themselves and both will have to also bear responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

But if you read parts of the national media, that is not how many see it.
According to a national daily, Payal’s father is convinced that his daughter is under some sort of a spell, “tantra mantra”, as he called it. He also thinks that “no other parent should face this” and that “there should be a law whereby one cannot change his/her religion without the consent of parents”.

If we want to walk the high-decibel talk about women’s empowerment, we have to accept that an adult is capable of taking decisions, right or wrong. While parents and other well-wishers can certainly advise and offer suggestions, they have no right to take decisions on behalf of their children, once the children become adults. Empowerment cannot happen if you infantilise a person.

Which brings one to the big story of the week — Hadiya. A Hindu girl, Akhila, converted to Islam, was renamed Hadiya and married a Muslim man, Shefin Jehan. Hell has broken loose. The family complained as in the Rajasthan case; the Kerala high court annulled the marriage and gave her custody to her father. The case went to the Supreme Court. This week, the Supreme Court said that the 25-year-old woman who had converted to Islam two years ago against the wishes of her parents, and married a Muslim man, would resume her studies in a homeopathy college in Tamil Nadu. She will no longer be in the custody of her parents as she was since August. The case will come up for hearing again in January. While staying in the hostel, would she be able to meet her husband? We don’t know yet.

But what is striking is the set of assumptions being made about the 25-year-old woman. Hadiya’s parents and many groups allege that the girl had been forcibly converted to Islam and there were plans by terrorist groups to take Hadiya to Syria. What is the credible and concrete evidence to support these serious charges? What stops the government from tracking Hadiya and her husband and taking action if there is indeed enough evidence to link to them to terrorist groups? That’s what they should do if anyone is suspected of planning criminal activities, be they married or unmarried. Why is the marriage a problem? The final word is not out yet.

Very similar are the situations of hundreds of people who marry outside their caste, and particularly so if one those involved happens to be a dalit and the other one not. It seems everyone has the right to criticise, vilify, assault or even kill in support of their prejudices; with the two people who want to marry despite such daunting odds the only ones who cannot exercise the normal rights of adult humans unless some empathetic judge comes to the rescue.

In the Hadiya case, sections of society have labelled the matter a case of “love jihad”. The stories of Aarifa and Hadita should be opportunities for self-introspection. Do labels reflect prejudices? Like the use of the term “honour killing” when the killing is just the opposite, clearly an act of dishonour.

Without pushing these changes through, talking about women’s empowerment is just empty talk. When we talk of women’s empowerment, we must remember that it starts with acknowledging that an adult woman has an independent mind. If we don’t allow her to exercise it and believe those who say she has been brainwashed every time she acts/reacts in a way that someone else does not like, we rob her of power, of the agency that the authorities claim they want to

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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