Sociological changes are supposed to visit the judiciary the last.
The judiciary is the least dynamic of all the systems that makes our democracy function. It is not a fault of the institution; it is built into its nature, for it reflects the collective consciousness of a society and its very philosophy that has solidified into laws. And the courts generally do not move ahead of society but follow its shibboleths and sayings. In short, judgments reflecting society’s stereotypes making their way into judicial behaviour and pronouncements are not frowned upon. Sociological changes are supposed to visit the judiciary the last.
Yet the Supreme Court of India has now chosen to tread a path it has hardly attempted to till date. In a bid to keep pace with positive changes in a society that has been pathologically patriarchal, it has become responsive to women’s interests. It has published a handbook of sexist words and usages that depict the stereotypical and unjustified portrayals of women that are to be avoided in its day-to-day dealings as well as in judgments. It has also suggested alternatives representative of a progressing society.
An example of this is the very word, woman. An examination of various usages of the word in the courts would convince anybody with a fair idea of justice that the word always comes in the company of other words that depict a patriarchal, and sometimes far from accurate, interpretation of her situation. Sample career woman, chaste woman, woman of easy virtue, fallen woman, harlot, Indian woman, Western woman, seductress, slut, whore, woman of loose morals, promiscuous woman and wanton woman. The court will have none of these, starting now. All these descriptions will be simply replaced by the word, woman.
The court shall not recognise a dutiful, faithful, good or obedient wife or even a housewife; she is a ‘wife’. Someone is assigned female/male at birth, instead of being born a girl/boy. A rape is a rape and not forced rape and it is no more eve-teasing but street sexual harassment. Importantly, a raped woman can choose whether she is a victim or a survivor. The court would also want a series of roles society has assigned to a woman to be looked at from the point of view of an egalitarian mind. Hence it is not the job of the woman to take care of the family but a shared responsibility of all. Stereotypes must go, the court has decided.
This is not the first time the republic’s apex court has come out with correctional texts for the people who occupy its bar and bench; it cannot be the last either. Exasperated and infuriated by a high court order asking a rape-accused to tie a rakhi on the victim’s hand to get bail, a bench had, two years ago, ordered judges to go by what the law and the Code of Criminal Procedure say and not inject personal prejudices into judicial decisions. The latest guidelines were prompted by several judicial pronouncements, including one that commented on the way a sexual harassment victim had been dressed.
The glossary and guidelines must be seen as another forceful intervention from some of the finest judicial minds in the world to help Indian jurisprudence escape convenient notions it has been accepting unquestioningly and refine its functioning instead; and if it works, every Indian — woman or man — will stand to benefit. Of course, there is a whole list of problems that do persist including case pendency and long delays. True, we are inured to systemic inefficiencies and actual injustice; that gives us the very reason to cheer every forward movement.