Feminism is the belief in and support of the social, economic, political and educational equality of all genders. Feminists concern themselves not only with specific issues of violence against women but also, with the broader issues of education, reproductive rights, health, childcare, economic opportunities and pay equity and, the intersecting issues of gender, race, gender identities and sexual orientations in today’s society.
When we speak about the values enshrined by the Constitution of India, one of the most important values is that of ‘equality’ and ‘feminism’ itself is based upon the concept of equality. As observed by Justice DY Chandrachud –
“If feminism is based on the principle of equality, it is aligned with the values the Constitution of India upholds”.
The Constitution of India, under Article 14, speaks about equality and that equality should be universal. Women have been oppressed since time immemorial, be it the Later Vedic Age, or the Epic Age where, in Mahabharata, Yudhishthira put his own wife, Draupadi, at stake considering her as his chattel, and even until a few months back when Section 497 of Indian Penal Code was declared unconstitutional which was based on the principle that ‘woman is the property of a man’, needless to say- Marital Rape is still not punishable in India.
Our Constitution has played a very important role in ensuring justice and equality to the women of our nation – be it the Shah Bano Begum Case, in which justice was delivered by the Supreme court under Section 125 Cr.P.C.[i] in 1985 or the case of Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, where the Supreme court entrenched the feminist ‘vision’ and held that “International Conventions and norms are significant for the purpose of interpretation of the guarantee of gender equality, right to work with human dignity in Articles 14, 15 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Constitution and the safeguards against sexual harassment implicit therein.”[ii]
No doubt, democracy provides equal opportunities for all in the decision-making process. Women as free citizens, and constituting almost half of the population, are theoretically able to redress their grievances through democratic processes, but due to socio-economic reasons and cultural patterns they are not effective players of our democracy.
In her book “So You Want to Talk about Race”, Ijeoma Oluo remarks, “[W]hat keeps a poor child in Appalachia poor is not what keeps a poor child in Chicago poor – even if from a distance, the outcomes look the same. And what keeps an able-bodied black woman poor is not what keeps a disabled white man poor, even if the outcomes look the same”, essentially pointing out how affirmative action based on colour and caste is also something very inherent to the ideals of Feminism. The Indian Constitution too, has always believed in working towards targeted upliftment of the depressed castes and religions along with gender.
For the protection of the rights of prostitutes and the children of prostitutes, in the landmark judgement of Gaurav Jain v. Union of India, K. Ramaswamy J. observed that
“The prostitute has always been an object and was never seen as complete human being with dignity of person; as if she had no needs of her own, individually or collectively. Their problems are compounded by coercion laid around them and tortuous treatment meted out to them. When they make attempts either to resist the prostitution or to relieve themselves from the trap, they succumb to the violent treatment and resultantly many a one settle for prostitution.”[iii]
The efforts of the Supreme Court, in this case, were to remove the stigma which is attached to the prostitutes and the children of the prostitutes, and it was concluded that the prostitutes and their children should be treated with respect and humanity. It also reflected upon Article 46 of the Indian Constitution which directs the State to promote the educational and economic interests of women and people of weaker sections of society and, protect them from social injustice and all other forms of exploitation. In protecting the rights of sex workers, the Constitution sends out the message that female sexuality should not be stigmatized, while simultaneously protecting those who are pushed into this work without their consent, thus highlighting that even though the world may finally be waking up to female sexuality, the agency to control and profit off this still lies in the hands of men.
The Constitution is indeed feminist, not only because of its structure but also, because it was made by people who, in my opinion, were feminists – people like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who realised the problems of women, and that is why Articles like 15(3) and 46 of the Indian Constitution were framed.
“Feminism is a lot about disruption of social hierarchies and that is what the constitution intends to do. Transformation involves a disruption of the existing social structures.”
Justice DY Chandrachud Justice, Supreme court of India
[i] Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, AIR 1985 SC 945.
[ii] Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 3011.
[iii] Gaurav Jain v. Union of India, 1990 AIR SC 292.