The burkini ban, the uniform civil code

Democracy abhors dress-codes.

France’s ban on the burkini and India’s ongoing debate over whether to implement a uniform civil code seem to have a common thread.

For the uninitiated: this is a burkini. Wearing a burkini in public was made a punishable offence by the governments of several towns and cities in France; these laws got the support of France’s socialist Prime Minister, whose argument is effectively that the French feel icky around women in burkinis and shouldn’t be made to. The ban has now been struck down by a high court in France as being against basic human rights.

I haven’t seen many cogent arguments for why the government should be able to tell somebody else what to wear, and still be allowed to call itself democratic. Doing both sounds to me like rank hypocrisy; or at least like not enough thought has gone into it.

I read a particularly interesting take on the burkini ban at The Ex Muslim (TEM). I agree with most (see footnote 1) of what is said there, as I’ve said before (here, here). This, coming from a muslim woman who has personally suffered, is poignant:

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

In India, each religion has its own laws for marriage, divorce, inheritence, etc, and the adoption of a common set of laws governing all Indians is a constitutional directive which we haven’t yet found a way of instituting. It won’t be easy. Recent legal challenges to triple talaq have gone predictably, with “liberal” commentators behaving exactly the way TEM says they do.

The only moral argument against the implementation of a uniform civil code is something TEM points out about the burkini ban and how it is counterproductive:

Let’s pretend (lolsob) that I am one of these women directly victimized by the very regressive ideology of modesty being opposed here. I have a bit of freedom being allowed to go to a pool in a burkini by my restrictive and intolerant family and community. And you’re going to ban me from that??? Thereby making it so on top of all my other restrictions I can’t swim too?

I think this should be the central question we ask ourselves in the debate in India over the uniform civil code: would implementing the uniform civil code make the lives of muslim women more difficult? I don’t have an answer, one way or the other. The arguments I’ve encountered that a uniform civil code might make life worse for women have been unconvincing, but that may be because I have a privileged armchair to sit on and philosophise from.

Footnote 1: My one quibble about TEM’s post is her characterisation of the false-equivalence that she says “liberals” resort to (in the service of cultural relativism, let’s say). She claims that liberals argue that muslim women in burqas and women in the west in bikinis are the same. I don’t know if people claim this, but by TEM’s metric, this is a crappy analogy:

When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriageability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.

However, consider what I think is a fairer (…and lovelier?) analogy: women in the west are made to wear make-up in public; “made to”  through cultural norms and relentless social badgering. People went after an olympic athlete because her hair was frizzy

It still isn’t an entirely fair comparison, I don’t think; I’ve never heard of a woman stoned to death for not wearing make-up (or even disenfranchised). But it’s closer to what a self-hating liberal might argue than the burqa-bikini equivalency.

Net neutrality nuance

Net neutrality should be inviolable.

However, when Mark Zuckerberg says “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes,” I agree with his definition of net neutrality.

Allowing companies to pay ISPs so that customers can access their websites for free is not different from allowing companies to set up toll-free phone lines, and does not violate net neutrality. Here’s what would be a violation of net neutrality:
Airtel stops a certain company from signing up for Airtel zero; Or
Airtel charges one company more per unit data than another; Or
Airtel speeds up loading times for one company’s website compared to another;
Or–and this is something they’ve already tried to do once–Airtel decides to charge users extra for data used for VoIP calls.

If the complaint is that people will tend to use the free websites more than competitors’ websites, that’s a question of monopoly, not neutrality. The great thing about the internet, of course, is that it doesn’t cost all that much to sample the field, and the costs are only going to decrease. Ask yourself: if hotmail were made free and gmail continued to cost bandwidth, would you switch (back) to hotmail? If myspace were made free, would you switch (back) to myspace?

This is not to suggest, at all, that companies should be allowed to police themselves. A regulator exists and should be empowered by law to enforce net neutrality strictly. But it helps nobody to confuse terms.

Net neutrality in India, or what Airtel will do next

Internet access is a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you.

At 10% 20% (footnote 1), the fraction of the population of India that has (regular) access to the Internet may not be as high as in the developed world, but 20% of 1.2 billion is a significant number and India already has the third largest internet user-base in the world. And with the kind of penetration of mobile telephony that India has, it is only a matter of time before that fraction shoots up. In fact, it may already have started doing this: that fraction has doubled in the last three years.

A fifth of the country now has regular access to the internet. Internet access is, therefore, no longer a vanity; it is what might be called a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you. This has long been the argument of supporters of a free (not as in beer) internet, activists for net neutrality.

The flashpoint recently was Airtel’s decision to start charging for using its network to make VoIP calls. Unsurprisingly, Airtel wants its customers to talk over their mobile telephony network rather than use their network to make calls over the internet. It looks like they were only testing the waters, though, because they’ve now rolled back the proposed tariffs. About which, two thoughts:

1) Like the article at medianama says, they’ve possibly only done this to force TRAI to make a decision, and you can imagine how good they feel about their chances to do something like this.

2) What airtel did here was both a clear violation of net neutrality and something that would cost the end-user money. The more insidious threat to net neutrality will come when airtel (or some other company) partners up with skype – make calls on skype free, but you’ll have to pay for any other VoIP service; I don’t know if we’ll see the same kind of backlash from the public then as we’ve seen now.


*fn1: The numbers I remembered were 5% for the world as a whole and 10% for India. Good thing I decided to look up the numbers, then.

I’ve got one finger for the two-finger test

I wrote, in the wake of Mulayam Yadav’s ‘Boys will be Boys’ comments at an election rally in mid-April, about the two-finger test having been ruled illegal. This was in early-March. I feared that women would continue to get harassed by the medical establishment.

The worst manifestation of this lunacy was the two-finger test to determine whether a woman reporting that she’s been raped is ‘habituated to sex’. I say was; it was standard procedure until about a month ago; I have no doubt that there are doctors who haven’t got the memo.

There are times when I wish I had been wrong, jaded, overly cynical; that people turned out to be better than I feared. Desperately. This is one of those times.

After interviews with medical students from across India, The Ladies Finger reports that

Many well-intentioned and well-framed bits of legislation are passed by the government, but their larger reach into the worlds of law enforcement and medicine is never guaranteed. Often, the different branches of the state – the police, the law, the health apparatus – function in a deeply discordant way. So, has the passing of these regulations snowballed into a greater awareness within the medical community, especially amongst students? Our short answer – and yes, it is a chilling one – is a resounding no.

The interviewees put up every defence of the indefensible you can think of. Apparently, medical students aren’t above victim blaming. And this isn’t gender-specific. Female medical students seem as oblivious to what rape survivors go through, or what the two-finger test supposedly tests or how horrendously unreliable it is as the men.

The article points out that there seems to be a systemic and ingrained mistrust of women. If the students don’t bring in enough misogyny, their education makes sure they leave with it.

Underlying the whole procedure is the idea that women lie and falsely accuse as a matter of routine. When we pressed medical students about why they though this, the answer was the same bone-rattling chorus we kept hearing: “this is what we’ve been taught”.

“When their teachers teach the wrong thing, they might disagree. But then the textbooks say the same thing and that leaves them little space to make an argument.”


The roster of pseudo-medical rationalisations for the two-finger test that medical students come up with, or are taught, or both, is victim-blaming institutionalised. Do read the whole article for the authors’ trenchant good sense.

The two-finger test is a problem that needs to be dealt with at many levels, beginning with the judicial system. There are efforts being made by various people and organisations in the medical fraternity and outside to change this system. If brought to the court, the question of a woman’s sexual history needs to be resolutely ignored. If there was willingness, a law could be passed banning the test from medical and judicial practice. And while that will probably take time, doctors should be responsible for spreading negative awareness about the test. Medical students also need to be taught better.

When classes are conducted to teach medical students, they are taught to be distant and objective – to reduce all knowledge to scientific distillations. Their textbooks make up some of the bedrock from which their worldviews spring. For them, medical textbooks are right because they have dispensed with the messiness of social life in favour of ‘facts’. But have they? Contrary to their own self-perception, medical students are not taught to ignore the social world in favour of everything scientific. Instead, they are taught to perpetuate a particular social vision in which women often appear as yet-to-be-proven liars with potentially dubious sexual histories.

Rape isn’t rape

There are relics of colonial rule which we as a country seem desperately to want to cling to. The criminalisation of homosexuality is a perverse case in point, with the highest court in the land seemingly holding one fuck-awful section of the IPC a century and a half old above constitutional rights to freedom, dignity, privacy, life. The party which will presumably rule this country for the next five years has said it will continue this mockery of human dignity.

We’ve just been given another glimpse of what may be to come. A Delhi court has ruled that a man cannot rape his wife, lack of consent and the use of force be damned:

“The girl was more than 21-years-old at the time. Thus the girl and accused being legally-wedded husband and wife and the girl being a major, the sexual intercourse between the two, even if forcible, is not rape and no culpability can be fastened upon the youth,” Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat said while absolving the youth of the charge of rape.

I know none of the particulars of the case, and the NDTV article does nothing at all to make anything clear (the woman met her husband in December 2013, but the marriage was solemnised in March 2013?). But what the judge said in his ruling will harm more than just this poor woman. This ruling will become another in the list of cases where nothing was found wrong with marital rape.

The judge is, strictly, correct. According to what is the law today, a man cannot legally rape his wife if she is an adult. (But, you say, how can a woman even be married if she isn’t an adult? The law until 2010 said that age limit was 15. Raising the age to 18 was the ‘compromise’ Indian lawmakers struck.)

Isn’t it time we fixed this stupid law? Sexual violence against women is staggeringly common(fn1). And a significant majority of the instances of sexual violence are committed by acquaintances. I don’t know what fraction is marital rape, but surely the only acceptable number is zero. (fn2)

I can’t imagine what the woman must have gone through. And she’s among the lucky ones who can get a case registered and take it to court. For every one of her, there are many others who either can’t or don’t report sexual violence against them, or aren’t even taken seriously enough to be given a hearing. (fn3) Or, if they are, they’re put through mind-numbing ordeals.

HT: Srikanth, who pointed me to the court ruling and hopes the Supreme Court will do something about this.


1) One in three women will face some sort of sexual assault in her lifetime. That number is just depressing.

2) Two-thirds of rapes are committed by people who aren’t strangers to the victims. The page at the link also says 28% of rapes are by an intimate.

3) 60% of sexual assaults aren’t reported. 97% of the accused will never serve jail time. India’s conviction rate (for cases that are actually reported) is 24%.

The abuse of a raped woman

Justice is a lottery.

When I wrote about Mulayam Singh Yadav and his ‘boys will be boys’ speech, I was trying to make the point that while Mulayam Yadav is an ignorant asshole, his views on sexual violence are representative of our culture of victim-blaming; that how the country’s law-enforcement and medical establishment treats victims of rape is symptomatic of this culture.

This misogyny is also inherent in the way we legally define rape. Indian law defines sexual violence in terms of whether the “modesty” of a woman has been “outraged”. Why every woman must be “modest” is something nobody writing the law seems to have bothered to ask. The worst manifestation of this lunacy was the two-finger test to determine whether a woman reporting that she’s been raped is ‘habituated to sex’. I say was; it was standard procedure until about a month ago; I have no doubt that there are doctors who haven’t got the memo. [Emphasis added.]

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that what I said I feared might happen is now happening to a woman in Kolkata. She is now the victim of an establishment that not only fails to provide adequate care or support, but on the contrary seems to be accusing her of making it up (the joint police commissioner of Kolkata has apparently held press conferences where he has said he finds the victims statements inconsistent). She has also been at the mercy of a doctor who clearly didn’t get the memo about what not to do during a medical examination of a victim of sexual abuse:

[…] the doctor asked the victim a few questions and took a vaginal swab which he gave to the police for forensic examination. However, the detailed protocols as mandated by the MoHFW guidelines (page 23-36) were not followed. Some key specimen (like pubic hair samples) were not collected/looker for and some outdated and irrelevant information (relating to the hymen, elasticity of vagina, admissibility of fingers etc.) was noted on the ‘report’ – clearly flouting the March 19 guidelines, which make us believe that the doctor who performed the preliminary examination is not aware of the MoHFW guidelines and protocols.

Besides, no steps were taken for the victim’s medical care, and health concerns. No urine test or testing for HIV was done and no psychosocial care was offered. When she requested the doctor to take samples/pictures of fingerprints of the culprit that might still be there on specific places of her body she was curtly told that the doctor knows what he is supposed to do. The doctor did not even use the correct and detailed form to record details of the medical examination. (page 62, MoHFW guidelines). It appeared that the hospital does not have a copy of either the new guidelines or the correct form.

That there are doctors who haven’t kept up with the law isn’t surprising. That this is happening in Kolkata’s second biggest government hospital is. That the doctor is either so much of an ass or so cynical that he can barely go through the motions even when faced with a woman who has been raped is both surprising and shocking.

I dare not imagine what the situation is in small towns and villages.

Here she is, a politically aware, intelligent and brave young woman who was lucky to have so much immediate support from her student comrades and women’s organizations. Even she has to experience so many hurdles and so much of stigma and maligning attempts, just during the immediate aftermath of her traumatic experience. Justice remains elusive as ever. Her father wants justice for his daughter, but is extremely skeptical about the prospect of justice, going by the prevailing standards and conviction rates. One can imagine what women of lesser privilege and in places where even basic medico-legal infrastructure are missing, go through. Justice is a lottery.

From Kavitha, who pointed me to the Kafila article.

Sexual abuse, then and now

One in three women will experience sexual abuse or rape in her lifetime, statistics say. A large fraction of this will be abuse by somebody known to the victim. And the woman will be blamed for it. We can do better. We must do better.

I wrote the last time about sexual abuse and how what people in the public eye say about these things is only reflective of the society they are part of; that vilifying them without attempting to reform society is likely to do nothing. I have a couple of for-instances to show about what I mean.

The first video below is a movie review of what seems like a horrendously bad movie called Jaani Dushman. I’d call this the Gunda of the noughties, but I probably don’t know enough. The bit of interest to me is from 0:43 to 2:30. (But go ahead and watch the rest of the video too. They’re good, the reviewers.)

The last thing the reviewers say about the  attempted rape is significant: “this was in 2002.” And here we are, a decade later. Should we be pleased that at least some people find what is said in the movie about rape obviously idiotic? Should we be distressed that a decade later, leading politicians seem to be saying the same thing that the movie did?

The second video below is a short film called Bol, by a filmmaker called Pooja Batura Pathak. The short film portrays graphically what I suggest above about how we don’t, as a society, seem to have changed at all in how we deal with sexual abuse. (fn1)

One in three women will experience sexual abuse or rape in her lifetime, statistics say. A large fraction of this will be abuse by somebody known to the victim. And the woman will be blamed for it. We can do better. We must do better.

HT: Sharmila pointed me to the review of Jaani Dushman. I can’t remember where I found the short film.

fn1: I do have some quibbles about the short film. Is it important to show the girl in the short shorts doing a silent prayer as she passes a temple? What does religious belief have to do with what the girl goes through later? But, like I said, these are quibbles.