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Engaging With the Law

Geeta Ramaseshan

By Nivedita Menon
Permanent Black, Delhi , University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2004, pp. 263, Rs. 595.00


The experience of the women’s movement throughout the world has led to an increasingly critical engagement with legal discourse. In many systems the substance, structure and culture of the law are actively discriminatory to women denying them equal rights. Even in areas where there is de jure equality, the de facto position of women is far from equal because of the way all the actors involved interpret laws.   In India there continues to be an engagement with the law, the recent example being on violence against women. The constant recourse with law where the state is reminded of its obligations towards women’s rights also means the increase of state control. Often there is a tension between wanting state intervention since the state itself is the perpetuator of much violence. The language of rights itself has a lot of complexity. It is also impossible to see ‘women’ as a category unmediated by other identities like religion, caste and ethnicity. Nivedita Menon addresses these complexities and what she sees as the dilemma of the interface of radical political practice with the logic of ‘constitutionalism’ by which she means the specific method adopted by modern democracies of safeguarding the autonomy of the individual self.   She argues that there is a contradiction generated by the mutual interaction of the language of rights and the law. “This contradiction arises from the belief of social movements that they are articulating the universal values required by legal discourse when they use the language of rights, when in fact rights constituted differently by the moral perspectives of different discourses. This opposition between the universality and uniformity required by the law on the one hand, and the multi-layeredness of rights on the other, becomes particularly problematic when feminist politics attempts to use the law, through the language of rights, to liberate ‘women’s bodies’ from the oppression of patriarchal structures and institutions.” Menon’s argument is that the intersection of feminist notions of the body with legal discourse produces dilemmas of a nature that feminist politics has not fully confronted. Addressing three specific issues, abortion, sexual violence and reservations for women in Parliament, she clearly demonstrates that the experience of feminist politics in the arena of law not only raises questions about the capacity of the law to act as a transformative instrument but more fundamentally, points to the possibility that functioning in a manner compatible with ...

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