Vendors selling vegetables, Saturday Saak Bazaar, Chottaudepur
This was an article co-written by Maya Sharma and me for the Women Studies Research Center Communiqué of Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda.
“I used to think that issues of domestic violence were personal issues which outsiders should not speak of or interfere with. After joining NA I realized that these are social issues related to all women. I had legal training, and now can talk to any government official that comes to my village. I learned to work towards settlements that are in favor of women, instead of against. I am known as the Vakil Ben (lawyer sister) here.” – Nari adalat advocate
Every Tuesday, the Nari Adalat (NA) sits under the shade of a neem tree in the midst of a governmental compound consisting of a police station, advocate offices, and the Taluka Panchayat. This physical space carved out by the women of the NA is symbolic of a deeper transformation: the creation of a socio-political space for women to speak, to be heard, and to become empowered agents creating and reclaiming their personal narrative. This negotiated space is crucial for women because of its absence in both, the legal court system as well as the community system of caste panchayats*
Ahmedabad fact-finding visit: Hour long negotiation, opposite party never lets us into house
- Courts are often inaccessible spaces for marginalized communities due to the opacity of the procedure, the physical inaccessibility, the financial costs, as well as the near impossibility of getting a judgment in a reasonable time frame; often cases pass down generations of disputants.
- On the other hand, caste panchayats have a degree of cultural violence embedded in their ideology and methods, witnessed in the exclusion of women (and oppressed classes) and their voice, both from the physical and the deliberative space.
“I came to know the legal system and its language. My mother-in-law made a will and transferred my land onto my husband’s younger brother’s son’s name. I filed a case and fought against it. I got my land back”. Nari adalat advocate
The Nari Adalat addresses the issue of gender violence not by rejecting these existing mechanisms of justice, both legal and customary, but by opening up an intersectional space that’s neither within nor without; a metaphorical crossroads in between:
Legally recognized divorce agreement made by the Nari Adalat, notarized by public authority
- The path connecting the legal courts and the Nari Adalat is based on the appropriation of institutional authority. The NA utilizes legal mechanisms such as notarizing consensual solutions, filing a First Information Report (FIR) at the police station, medical examination in case of injury, seeking security from the protection officer in the Domestic Violence Act, as well as writing letters to the Human Rights Commission to appeal for protection and justice. The NA women garner immense respect from their own community and are often addressed as ‘vakil behns’ (advocate-sister), partially due to their close relationship with the arms of the state, both physical and methodological.
- Similarly, the path connecting the NA to the caste panchayats is based in the familiarity of rooted traditions. The NA utilizes the flexibility of customary systems – a voluntary process, variable rules of evidence and procedure, and the absence of legal representation. The process of decision-making is based in a larger socio-cultural context where the community serves as a powerful unit in a wide range of individual matters, including marriages, funerals, as well as local law and order. The NA appropriates this vernacular of community-based processes into its praxis, eradicating the debilitating unfamiliarity of the legal system.
“Now that I have been involved in Nari Adalat, I want to educate my daughters more. I have put aside societal stigma and will allow them to get a proper education.” – Nari adalat advocate
After Ahmedabad fact-finding visit: using videos as legal proof
Thus, the NA opens up a negotiating space between the opacity of the legal system and the gendered exclusion of the customary system through its connected yet subversive methods. Fact-finding missions—the process wherein teams of advocates undertake visits to ensure objectivity and to understand the contradictory viewpoints inevitable in the disputes—embody the dynamic nature of NA justice, based on physical movement of the justice apparatus. These visits put pressure on parties to show up in court and also provide women with a more private space for confidences that are not revealed in the public court. In a country where patriarchal structures perpetuating violence and inequality are stitched into the socio-cultural quilt, the NA provides a desperately needed women-centric perspective.
“Just as the leaves and the roots of the Neem are bitter in taste but good for health, so it is with justice, when it is dispensed fair and straight it may leave a bitter taste for some, but is nonetheless good for building a healthy society.” – Nari adalat advocate
Posted By Jasveen Bindra (India)
Posted Jul 8th, 2013