8 February 2009

Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws

I have finally finished a most remarkable book by Madhu Purnima Kishwar. I met Madhu in Seattle and had the opportunity of interacting with her personally for a few hours. So, while reading the book I felt I had a face and personality talking to me, which added a richness to my experience.

The book has some fantastic reviews (The Hindu is one) out there and I won't expand on it, instead as usual, I'll give you my personal take on the book. The reason I picked up the book was because it was about women's laws in India. My knowledge on this issue is scant and I was curious to understand her opinions. In this book she covers laws on a number of women's issues like dowry, sati, harassment and inheritance. She illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of these laws combined with a powerful analysis of its usefulness in the real world. Each law is dealt as a separate essay and was penned during her tenure with Manushi, her journal, so it's not current news. Although, it is highly possible that these laws have changed little in the past decade so you can't entirely be dismissive of her perspectives.

The book is intellectually heavy and stimulating. It is also supremely informative, coherent and darkly humourous. I did indeed learn about most issues pertaining to women's laws. Perhaps, the most startling feature is Madhu's honesty - she clearly admits that the strategy her organization initially had to protest dowry harassment (public outcry outside the husband's home) did not help. It created a stir but still left the wife estranged and helpless. That is a laudable feat: the ability to say that something didn't work and re-focus your effort on the bottom line viz., how do you ensure women are not harassed for dowry? She now feels that changing inheritance laws and encouraging parents to take married daughters back into their house coupled with better education for girls, might work better. We Indians love belonging in a society and she rightly identifies that strengthening the society safety net for married daughters while providing them asset-generating dowries (FDs in her name, property etc) empowers them more, instead of asking for more stringent anti-dowry laws that create strife and are easily abused (by women and men). I have elaborated on just one of her essay topics. But all essays are similar in vein: they provide rich detail on the situation and then she provides what she thinks are better solutions.

I found her informative on inheritance laws as well; I didn't realize how poorly we women come out in the laws for inheriting ancestral or self-acquired parental property. She also has a zinger on Deepa Mehta's Fire, which caused a major social upheaval in India. She trashes the movie not for the concept, but for its execution and the film directors' lack of not presenting a more real situation. I honestly didn't like the movie, just as a movie and never really felt strongly enough to debate about its merits or demerits, so this was a highly amusing piece for me to read.

Overall, the book has provided me a wonderful framework to understand women's laws in India and help me contextualize any recent blurb I read about it in the news. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in women's issues in India.

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