SOLI LOQUIES: Women in society

Soli Sorabjee in The Indian Express

Women in society

September 11, 2005

There was a time when no less a person than Thomas Jefferson, the principal architect of the US Constitution, believed in the need to ”exclude from our deliberations women, who, to prevent deprivation of morals and ambiguity of issues should not mix promiscuously in gatherings of men”. Judicial conception of the role of a woman was that ”the paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother”. And as late as 1961 the liberal Warren Court in the USA said, ”woman is still regarded as the centre of home and family life”.

Judicial attitudes have since changed. At one time in English law a woman was deemed to have given irrevocable consent to sexual intercourse with her husband and hence the husband could not be convicted for rape. In 1991 the House of Lords rejected that view and held that ”the rule that a husband cannot be criminally liable for raping his wife if he has sexual intercourse with her without her consent no longer forms part of the law of England since a husband and wife are now to be regarded as equal partners in marriage and it is unacceptable that by marriage the wife submits herself irrevocably to sexual intercourse in all circumstances”.


Internationally things have changed dramatically. The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 (CEDAW) has given substantial protection to women against discrimination. The Convention has been ratified by almost all States.

Our Constitution (Article 15(3)) permits special provisions for women. Laws reserving places for women in local bodies and educational institutions, according special treatment for women in the matter of bail, or making advantageous provisions for maintenance in favour of wives without similar provisions in favour of husbands, have been upheld. One curious result is that the exclusion of a woman from the offence of adultery in the Indian Penal Code thus exempting her from punishment whereas a man on conviction may be sentenced to serve five years, has been held to be non-discriminatory. Totally unfair.

Women have been Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, judges, legislators, and have been highly successful in business, professions and the arts. Yet the hangover of masculine chauvinistic thinking about a woman’s inferiority still persists in one form or another. Women are tacitly considered unfit for military service and certain employments. If the commander of a commercial aircraft happens to be a woman some passengers subconsciously doubt their safety forgetting that it was an Indian lady who was a member of the crew in the failed space shuttle Columbia. In cases of internal and external conflicts and natural calamities women are the worst sufferers. Discrimination and bias against women persist acutely in the rural areas. The killing of female foetuses is a chilling and vivid example. The disingenuous arguments advanced to thwart or dilute the Bill for reservation of seats for women in Parliament spring from a biased misconception about their role in society. What is needed is a thorough psychotherapy of some of our parliamentarians and legislators.

Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

Killer Katrina has devastated New Orleans. Several persons have been killed, many are missing and rendered homeless. The slow pace of the rescue operations is amazing. In New Orleans, winding streets where revellers meandered, listening to jazz in the sticky heat, are now flooded with contaminated murky water. The Mayor has ordered mandatory evacuation of the city to prevent exposure of residents to air and water borne diseases, loot and violence. Hardliners are refusing to leave their homes and their forcible removal could only add to their misery.

These tragic events have deeply saddened me because New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, has a special place in my heart. The legends of jazz: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet to mention a few hailed from New Orleans. I visited the city in 1982 and was swept off my feet by the sounds of pure improvised jazz flowing from every second restaurant on its famous Canal Street, Bourbon Street, Basin Street, Beale Street. Preservation Hall, a famed New Orleans jazz club located in an unassuming building which was originally built as a private residence in 1750, is situated in the middle of the French Quarter and was converted in 1961 to a ”temple” for worshippers of New Orleans jazz and for veterans of jazz music who filled the building with music night after night. Fortunately, because of its location it is likely to be unaffected unless mindless looters have vandalised it.

The spontaneous offer of aid to the City of New Orleans by our government was most gratifying. Apart from humanitarian considerations perhaps some people in the administration are fond of jazz. May their tribe increase.