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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A meaningful ‘war’

It was back in the first term at the ACJ that we were preparing our website on ‘Violence against Women’. I was working on a section called ‘Violence against Sex Workers’. To understand this complex reality, my friends and I had gone to the Indian Community Welfare Organisation, a group that works to spread HIV/AIDS awareness among sex workers. That was the first time I spoke to sex workers and got a harsh yet clear idea of their lives. Sunday [12th of March] was the second time.

I saw a play organized by SANGRAM [an NGO based in Sangli district in Maharashtra] at the Alliance Française in Chennai. Sangram works with sex workers and their children. It was once again an overwhelming experience…an interaction I thoroughly enjoyed.

The actors are none other than sex workers and their children who play themselves. The stories are all real…and so are their feelings. They played out a day from their lives: the lover of a prostitute who promises to marry her, the humiliation suffered by sex workers’ children in school, the harassment by the police, false assurances by local politicians and so on.

The play also shows the complexity of the relationship between the prostitute and her lover [the maalak]. It portrays how sex workers act as support systems for each other and how ‘normal’ their lives are. And of course, the viewer rejoices in the little celebrations the sex workers have every now and then.

The effort was mighty impressive considering that they performed in Hindi when none of them could speak the language until about two years ago. Some of the protagonists are illiterate, making it even more difficult for them to learn a new language. But they surmounted this obstacle, like they have surmounted every other in the course of their lives.

In the Q&A session, I was more than happy to ask them questions in Marathi. And they were just elated to hear someone speak their mother tongue in a not-so-Hindi-friendly Chennai! Their confidence and courage could put anyone to shame. They were eager to speak and share their experiences with a hope to change people’s perception of them. They succeeded when newspapers in Sangli like Pudhari and Lokmat, which had written objectionable stories about them, changed their reports to positive and inspiring ones.

I would like to write more about them and the immense strength of their characters but this one is a must-see for everybody. They perform next in Mumbai and Bangalore.

Watch out for news about a meaningful ‘war’…a Sangram that is changing their lives and our perceptions.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Feels great to be back!

Hi all!
It feels great to be back to blogdom! I have been quite busy all this while trying my best to be at least half a journalist. Our daily news shows are over and we'll have only special reports now.
A big thanks to all who have been visiting my blog while I was gone. Hope I can post more interesting stuff on my blog...
As I haven't had time to write much, I am posting my Politics assignment for now. It's about the Shah Bano case of 1985 and the debate over the Uniform Civil Code. I'd like to mention that it's only an attempt at understanding politics. All comments and suggestions are welcome...

It’s International Women’s Day on the 8th of March…a day celebrated by the United Nations to honour ordinary women who made a difference. And yet, all is not well. Like last year, Imrana and Gudiya lent faces to the horrible treatment meted out to women even in this age. Their life stories have brought back into focus the debate over the legitimacy of Muslim Personal Law and the demand for a Uniform Civil Code [UCC].

It all started in April 1985 when the Supreme Court gave Shah Bano, a Muslim divorcee, the right to maintenance for life. The judgment had entered stormy waters by challenging the Shariat that governs the personal life of a Muslim. And there emerged the demand for a more just personal law i.e. the UCC.

What could have been a chance for women to break away from the patriarchal domination over their lives became political warfare. The communal tone of the judgment and the reporting of the incident sparked hatred and insecurity between Hindus and Muslims. Political parties feasted on this disharmony to get back at each other and the issue of gender justice became only a disguise for mindless plotting.

For sometime now, the UCC has been on the agenda of the BJP and other right wing groups. In a debate at IIT-Kanpur in 2005, lawyer and BJP leader Arun Jaitley argued that even eminent members of the Constituent Assembly aimed at the final goal of a UCC. His party colleague and Rajasthan CM Vasundara Raje supported the demand asking for equal rights for women. They oppose the validity of triple talaq and polygamy.

Such views have emerged from a perception, natural or deliberate, that Islamic personal law is regressive. But, it’s important to remember that practices such as polygamy are as prevalent among Hindus as among Muslims. In fact, Muslim law grants more equal property rights to women than Hindu law. Also, the concept of a UCC contradicts, in principle, Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. Every person in secular India can profess, practise and propagate any religion of his/her choice. So how can the State impose a common law on everyone without a national consensus?

In the same debate, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress member, questioned Jaitley as to why he hadn’t, in his six years as Union Law Minister, even tabled a bill for the BJP’s vehement demand for a UCC.

A debate between political parties is still digestible. We should worry when religious groups become fanatical in supporting or opposing the UCC. Muslim groups are strictly against the imposition of any kind. Muslims are constantly told how they need ‘protection’, with the recently constituted Ministry for Minorities being one such message. There has been enough violence against the community in the recent years. They feel ‘Islam is in danger’. And many are ready to do almost anything to protect what they think is the sanctity of their religion.

It would be wrong to think that most Hindus would support a UCC. First of all, their personal laws are already governed by the Hindu Code. In addition, there is diversity within the religion itself with marriage and family customs being different in different parts of the country. Would the Hindus from Tamil Nadu agree to compromise in favour of a marriage custom of Haryana?

When the Government is questioned about the cruel treatment to a Muslim woman, it chooses to stay out of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s way. They insist ‘the reform must come from within’. Such a reform is not likely to come about easily enough. Dr. Vibhuti Patel points out how reform has become a conflict between community authority and individual rights with each pulling at the other in the opposite direction.

It is in this scenario that Asghar Ali Engineer suggests ‘legal pluralism’ as a solution. Every religion must try to change regressive practices in their own religion to make it more humane toward women. Imposition in a pluralist country like India would not be without its share of communal violence. Even in a ‘modern’ country like France, the State’s version of secularism [forced uniformity] hasn’t gone down well with its immigrant population.

If things are to improve, religion in India will have to depart from communal interests and actually start working for gender justice. In 1985, Shah Bano had asked for the Supreme Court judgment to be withdrawn. She feared communal carnage against her community.

How many more Shah Banos will India see before it can promise its women citizens the right to an honourable life?