Everyone who commented – thanks for asking some really incisive questions! The challenge lies in the fact that there always seems to be multiple answers, all seemingly valid.
That was the caveat. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I have been struggling with the question of legality: what makes these women’s courts legal? What makes their decision enforceable? From where do they derive authority? In the process of finding answers, I began to question my questions. My idea of legality is based on retributive justice and coercive power. On the other hand, the Nari Adalats are based on restorative justice, which is concerned far more about restoration of the victim and the victimized community than about the increasingly costly punishment of the offender. It also requires the entire community to hold the offenders accountable and, whenever possible, make them accept responsibility for their behavior. The enforcement is based on social pressure, the process is voluntary, the rules of evidence and procedure are flexible, there’s no legal representation, and formal law is merely one factor in reaching a compromise. The Nari Adalat fits this classic description of restorative justice; in addition it focuses on empowering women by validating their experience and prioritizing their proposed solutions.
Perhaps illustrative examples can highlight these themes more effectively.
First case at Nari Adalat: Salmabhen, husband and mother-in-law
The first case I witnessed in the women’s court was a dispute involving a wife (Salmabhen) and her in-laws, with the husband insisting that he was stuck in the middle (the universality of certain themes…). First, the wife was asked to present her story. The moment the opposing party began to dispute her arguments, the judges immediately (and aggressively) asked them to await their turn. Thus, a certain procedure was established right form the start. Salamabhen stated that she was constantly harassed and manipulated by her in-laws; she didn’t mention if the harassment included physical violence – if it did she wouldn’t mention this in a public court, but later during the judges’ personal visit. Once she had listed her problems, she was asked by the judges to suggest a solution: she wanted a separate section of the house to be allocated for her and her husband so that they could live without constant interference by the in-laws. The husband was asked if he was agreeable to this proposition, and if he could afford it based on his monthly income – he answered in the affirmative.
Salmabhen argues her case
After this, the floor was given to the mother in law who had a litany of complaints against the wife. At this point, the female judges sitting around me began to do the Indian equivalent of rolling their eyes, and stated, “now shall ensue the melodrama – the shouting, the vehemence, the tears – but let her have her say, she needs to get it out of her system”. I though this whispered comment was quite illuminating. What I realized was that they rely, to a large extent, on instinct – a strange word when used in a quasi-legal setup, but one of crucial importance. The judges have been addressing such issues for a long time, and have an insider’s understanding of the community – possibly having gone through the same challenges. Their instincts are often revealed to be spot-on. Sure enough, the mother in law soon admitted to certain counts of harassment, justifying them by arguing that her mother in law also behaved similarly, pointing to an interesting and generational dynamic of violence.
Melodramatic sepia: Mother-in-law argues her case
After other members of the family were invited into the circle to corroborate Salmabhen’s testimony, a consensus was arrived at – all parties were in agreement that a separate section of the house would be demarcated for the couple. Also insisted upon, however, was that the son would continue to financially support his parents. The next step is my favorite part – the fact finding mission – for which a date was set within the next month. All the judges would go to the household to delineate this newly created section and oversee the move. If needed, another hearing would take place afterwards. This case demonstrates some key themes that underlie the women’s courts.
Consent: As important as the judgment is the process of arriving at it. This process is based on the democratic consent of all parties involved, to the extent possible.
Women-centric: The women are asked to arrive at the solution, even if this solution changes over the course of the hearings. This validation of what women have to say, amidst a circle of other women whom they respect, in a relatively equal footing to the opposite party is a transformative moment. Or as Lederach would put it – the serendipitous moment where the moral imagination kicks in. The symbolism of having all the parties sit within the circle of women is drastically subversive of the existing gender norms in a caste-based, hierarchical society. Almost all of the women who have been surveyed find the process empowering, simply because they are heard. In fact, there are instances when only a single hearing created the desired impact, as the female complainant was able to go home and resolve her problem herself because she felt that she was supported and believed in by the members of the women’s court.
Community-based enforcement: The process of enforcement is ingrained into the nature of this system: firstly, the implementation is overseen in the fact-finding visit, as mentioned in the case above. These missions derive their power from the eyes of those watching; the collective neighborhood that gathers outside to scrutinize. This creates a force often stronger than ‘legal sanction’ in close-knit rural areas – social pressure and the censure and shame attached to violating a judgment. Another more practical way of ensuring is based on the fact that the women’s court is not just made of the 15 judges, but of over 200 members living across the locality. The complainants are aware of the members who stay close-by and can often go to them for support. Lastly, when judgments are reached, they are notarized and signed by the local elder, adding multiple avenues of credibility.
Gender equations: husband feels insulted and leaves the ‘circle of women’
I hope this answers some of your questions. I’ll be discussing other cases, touching upon the quanititative data comparing women’s courts to the legal courts, the selection procedure of the judges, the human rights and legal training provided to them by Vikalp, the perception of the courts in the community, and the origins of the court and its connections with the arm of the state. For the latter, I’m hoping to elaborate using interviews with the local police and legal professionals.
I’ve also added more pictures on Flickr. Also, find here some tweets about the hilarious things my co-fellow Andra says about life in Gujarat/Indian food/Indian men/internet dongles. And the women’s courts.
Posted By Jasveen Bindra (India)
Posted Jun 24th, 2013