How Justice Pratibha Singh’s Controversial Address Reflects The Flaws In The Mainstream Indian Perception of Feminism
“India is the only land where the divinity of women is recognized”, this is a statement that echoes throughout mainstream feminist discourse in India (the existence of which in itself is, admittedly, debatable). Strangely enough, this statement is seldom used independently; instead, it is a common defence against criticisms about the deplorable state of women’s rights and feminism in Indian society. It is almost as if because we pray to female deities, we are not obligated to honour universally accepted ideas of equality. Of course, if you refuse to accept divinity in exchange for your mere mortal right to be seen as equal, you will be exposed to some colourful labels, including but not limited to: “terrorist sympathizer”, “pseudo-liberal”, and my personal favourite, “liberndu”.*
Justice Pratibha M. Singh of the Delhi High Court (to the profound disappointment of my aspiring feminist lawyer heart) seems to belong to the school of thought described above. Addressing an event which concerned the challenges women face in STEM, Justice Singh made statements which range from tone-deaf to downright ignorant. Adopting the all-too-familiar culturally imperialistic rhetoric, she hailed Indian scriptures for knowing “very well how to respect women ''. The scripture she chose to highlight was the Manusmriti, because it mandates respecting women for any prayer to be accepted. To unpack this, let’s begin with the glaringly obvious: if women’s respect had to be mandated in such a manner, it is evident that they are viewed with a sense of “otherness”, and that respect for them is not to be assumed or natural, but must be ‘given’, for fear of divine rejection. This debunks the utopian notion of Vedic and post-Vedic society that several of those who decry feminism in India like to peddle. Further, choosing to explicitly hail a scripture like the Manusmriti, which is infamous for its condemnable views on women and its blatant casteism, was either an instance of Justice Singh being ill-informed or indicative of her support to the entirety of the text’s beliefs. I’m honestly not sure which is more alarming.
To better express the depth of my dismay at this, here are some excerpts from this scripture:
“It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world” (2:213)
“A Kandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmanas while they eat.” (3:239)
“Though he may be bereft of virtue, given to lust, and totally devoid of good qualities, a good woman should always worship her husband like a god.” (5:154)
“Let the first part of a Brahman’s name denote something auspicious, a Kshatriya’s be connected with power, and a Vaishyas with wealth but a Shudra’s express something contemptible.” (2:31)
Several key actors in the Indian feminist landscape have condemned the mention of the Manusmriti, with politician Brinda Karat calling the address out for mentioning a scripture “in flagrant opposition to the Constitution”. Supreme Court Advocate Karuna Nundy has also expressed her displeasure at the statements, claiming that she believes Justice Singh has not read the entire text yet. While the majority of the discussion surrounding the address was focused on the mention of the Manusmriti, there are other statements made by Justice Singh that also follow the troubling trend of cultural absolutism, which flies directly in the face of basic equality. For instance, Justice Singh encourages women to ‘prepare’ themselves for living in a joint family, as these would be more supportive for their careers. While there are several women who choose joint families for this, or any other reason (as is their right), this statement by a female High Court judge is highly insensitive towards those who women who suffer by having their identity reduced to the ideal Indian daughter-in-law who ‘fits in perfectly’ in her husband’s joint family. These women already have their difficulties trivialized by all and sundry; to have an esteemed member of the Judiciary reaffirm the unbalanced system that affects them adversely on a daily basis must be beyond disorienting. She also links this line of argument to Indian culture, and how following the ‘core values’ of the Indian family system align with the needs of career-oriented women. Allowing for (and celebrating) the exceptional Indian joint families that do enable women to pursue their ambitions, the ignorance in this statement is painful to witness. How is it not obvious to this undoubtedly brilliant and well-read judge that asking women to be “adjusting and compromising” to be able to fit into a man’s joint family is, in and of itself, an unmistakable example of the inequality ingrained in the Indian family system?
In an address that would ideally focus on the systemic challenges faced by women in STEM, Justice Singh seems to focus on superficial and trivial issues while extolling the good fortune Indian women have to be born in this country (which ranks 135th out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index). Concerns she lists include parents of aspiring female litigators being concerned about them not being suitable wives and how employing domestic help can enable more women to make their foray into the professional world. Expecting patriarchal systemic biases to be called out in an address that itself is so deeply entrenched in patriarchy would be irrational. Justice Singh, however, goes further in the completely opposite direction. She urges women to not seek “sympathy” which she illustrates with the following example: “Don't ever go and say my child is ill, I want to go home…Just say it is a personal difficulty.” Instead of calling out the gender imbalance in childcare duties or focusing on the apathy of the professional world towards working mothers, she believes that working mothers should comply with this apathy. How does wanting to care for one’s sick child reflect poorly on their work ethic or professionalism? Why is it not even in the most remote contemplation of hers that men may also want to take time off for childcare duties? How is it that she made it through an address on challenges faced by women without once highlighting that equally sharing responsibilities and creating a more sensitive work environment are imperative to women’s professional success?
Justice Singh’s remarks are, unfortunately, an accurate picture of women’s rights and equality in India. Discussions focus on exalting cultural supremacy, feeble suggestions of hiring external help to transfer domestic responsibilities and dictating how women must modify their behaviour to fit into a world that was not created for them. To hear an eminent member of the judiciary echoing these views is disheartening. The need to steer Indian feminist discourse on the right path has never been more compelling.
About the Author: Nidhi Anand is a Second-Year law student at King's College London. She is a staunch feminist, firm believer of gender equality and a fierce advocate for the rights of the marginalised sections of the society.
(Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article are personal)