This is Part 6 of our series, 2018 in Review, and focuses on Gender. Specifically, how women and the LGBTQ+ community have taken it upon themselves to systematically slay clichés.
In the beginning there was the cliché, that as far as the life of one half of the world population goes, the subjective experience will always be a radical, partisan issue debated in public. It served as an antithesis to the notion that the straight male of the species did not have to subject their lives and their bodies, their work and their ideas, their actions and their space as intimately as the other genders to the scrutiny of the state. The men could inarguably benefit from the idea of equality, the notion of inalienable rights, and the bonds of fraternity without ceding all their personal to the political.
Everyone else needed a revolution.
India seemingly had its revolution on behalf of, by and for the other genders in 2018. It was a year marked by protests, and judicial declarations that did its best to scrub antiquated laws and customs of inequality. From laws that dictated sexual preferences, to actions beyond marriage, and occupying of spaces deemed too pure, the supreme court of the land ensured that men will not be allowed to use the law as a tool to suppress and subject other genders. The battle has not been completely won yet, but it’s a start.
It’s promising to see strides made to right the decades of unjust practices and laws that served merely to draw a sharp line between the genders. The movement was propelled in large parts by activists, lawyers, and everyday people whose lives were shaped in myriad ways by the laws and the social norms that followed. Where devotees moved to be accepted into Sabarimala, lawyers aided the erasure of laws that condemned “unnatural sexual practices,” activists voiced their concerns with laws that declared women be subject to men’s desires and will, maternity bills were passed, and made into law. The fruits of the revolution have been exhilarating and, in many ways, signaled a willingness to kickstart conversation in public about gender and equality in all aspects.
The activism of the Supreme Court alongside the social activism that has brought these issues to the forefront has created the perfect environment to address decades of gender-based inequality in the country. The personal lives of women — be it their menstruation cycles, their pregnancy, their home lives, sexuality, sexual practices — have become matters of debate, and fodder for partisan politics. It’s paradoxical that only with increased public discussion about their personal lives can hetero, cis men move to create laws, and policies that give them the rights to exercise their identities and choices in private. The personal has become political. This is a huge leap ahead from the idea that the personal and the person remain unseen and their lives be led behind closed doors.
Women and the LGBTQ+ community have always been at the mercy of being branded alone or by way of association with men to make better sense. Women were never women. They were goddesses; mother, daughters, sisters, and so on. They were either meant to be saved or feared. They were the Madonnas and the whores. People belonging to the LGBTQ community were exotic, prostitutes, pledged to the gods, companions and unnatural. Where men overwhelmingly made laws and decided who needed to be subject to those laws, this is how the other gender was seen and understood. Laws in turn reflected the inequality. The state became the savior or the oppressor for these identities, rather than view all citizens as just that — citizens.
By persisting on creating backstories for genders, the men who make laws, and in turn the State has refused to acknowledge the wide gaps that lie in between. The men stand on one side stoically asking everyone to please mind the gap, the caricatured shells of the other genders on one side of the divide, and in the gap lie the real women and the rest.
The gaps created were not just a reflection of the laws of the land, but also a mirror held to a society that is still intensely patriarchal and often misogynistic. Studies from last year alone have showed falling employment for women, wage inequality, increasing risks to health and economic empowerment, literacy, and safety issues. Violence against women, and safety for women in public spaces have repeatedly proved to be an Achilles heel in the “new India” narratives. The situation is worse for members of the LGBTQ+ communities.
Government policies, and the ineffective law and order situation are offered as reasons. But, dig a little deeper and the complete absence of women or other genders who benefit from the laws and policies emerge. The problem then is not a matter of active discrimination, but invisibility, not neglect, but a thoughtlessness. Policies and laws are not made to be pliant. They don’t have the suppleness to bend and accommodate all citizens and are not flexible enough to reflect gender based public choices. They are instead rigid, splintered planks. The few who do get across don’t get there because of the benevolence of the law, but rather the intense fight against a patriarchal system.
The past year has seen the breaking down of some of these laws and policies. There has been enough social movement to erase a few of these rigid Victorian moves and the law has responded appropriately. The court has also, in keeping with its more recent activist leanings, moved the gender equality needle forward. While judicial activism is in and of itself not the worst way to drive social change, it has proved to be ineffective more times than not. Judicial activism’s weakness lies in the fact that it does not reflect the majoritarian view, but rather chooses to dictate what the view should be. And given the nature of the Supreme Court, the reach of law, and its cloistered existence, there is negligible impact on ground. Regardless, the move has been welcomed. The Supreme Court has proved to be the much-needed oasis in a desert.
In the beginning there were many clichés. And the past year has been one where women and the LGBTQ+ community have taken it upon themselves to systematically slay those clichés. They have been aided in this by a court that is ironically almost all male, and by laws that are still made by a male-dominant political arena. That itself should give an idea of the journey that lies ahead. While the laws can help in unlocking doors, and pushing past a pusillanimous patriarchy, the system itself needs to change. The year past was one where the personal became political, the years ahead will be the one where the bastions will be stormed – half-a-league by half-a-league.