I raised a lot of questions about a particular law in the last post, as an example of how the law does treat women as inferior to men. The law relating to rape assumes that everything apart from penis-vagina penetration is ‘unnatural’. It assumes that marriage is blanket consent to sexual intercourse. It assumes that consent to sexual intercourse can be given at the age of sixteen. It assumes that men cannot be raped. It assumes that the word of a rape victim is worth less than that of a rapist (or did, till quite recently). Because of these assumptions, child abuse is treated on par with rape. A married woman cannot prosecute her husband for rape. Men can never claim to have been raped. Because of them, only a small percentage of rapes that actually occur, even get reported, let alone prosecuted.
These assumptions reflect social mores that existed when the law was framed (and the social mores that exist even today), and those social mores are based on a gender imbalance of power. They reflect the norms of a patriarchal structure, in which men’s control over women, the idea that women’s ‘chastity’ reflected on the patriarch’s ‘honour’, are unquestioned. And by reflecting these norms and giving them sanction, the laws give them the support of State power, and reinforce the power structures of patriarchy.
Of course, I’ve only talked about one area of law, but this pattern of reinforcing patriarchal norms permeates all law. “Personal Laws” – those that govern marriage, divorce, succession, adoption and so on – aim primarily to codify social and religious practices, and it is only recently that the manner in which these social and religious practices discriminate against women have even become a matter of debate, let alone being addressed. Commercial laws are seen as neutral because they deal with commerce – and it is assumed that commerce is blind to gender. But we all know that is not true – even what we believe is ‘commercial activity’ is based on the acceptance of traditional gender roles. For instance, a person driving a car for another is engaged in commercial activity, but a person taking care of another’s child is usually not (a businessperson is entitled to claim a tax deduction for a driver’s salary, but the nanny’s salary is a ‘personal expense’ and not deductible). Labour laws, which are supposed to encourage women to join the formal labour market, again base themselves on traditional gender roles. Maternity leave is compulsory, paternity leave is not; childcare must be provided by any employer who employs more than a certain number of women.
All law is based on the assumption of a society in which people play roles that are assigned to them on the basis of their gender – a family where father is the head, mother stays at home and takes care of the house, and the children go to school – the family in a social studies textbook of not very long ago. It is not only based on those assumptions, it actively excludes people who don’t fit into this pattern, perpetuating power imbalances that ought not to exist.
It is in response to this structural patriarchy that the women’s movement responds, when it calls for changes in the law. Feminist calls for law reform are thus aimed at dismantling this hierarchical power structure. Let me caveat – feminism is not one school of thought, but many. So the solution to the problem of dismantling gender is not one, but manifold.
In any case, one thing is definitely not true – that feminism seeks to replace the existing power imbalance with another, in which women are on top. While it is true that feminism began with the women’s movement, and is focused on women’s empowerment, the idea that it threatens men is one that originates in the unimaginative mind; the mind that refuses to look beyond bipolar shifts of power, as if power is a scarce resource, over which men and women fight. This is the mind that constructs the feminist bogeywoman who comes to snatch power and rights from men, to leave them disempowered and impotent.
The opening of imagination to the possibility that redressing gender imbalances, overthrowing traditional gender roles, frees all people to exploit their potential to the full, is what I will explore in the next post.