An ordeal by fire for women

Women face an insensitive system and society while seeking divorce from abusive husbands, who deny them their rightful claim

by- Dushyant

Why don’t you try and have a child? This question was posed to a woman not by a gynaecologist but by a judge in Delhi. The woman had sought divorce, alleging that her husband frequently beat her up. The husband opposed her petition, and the judge, at least in his mind I suspect, was making an attempt at ‘reconciliation’.

The husband jumped at the suggestion of having a child, claiming it was precisely what he wanted. The woman, infuriated by his stand, cited details from medical documents that showed the violence she had endured. The hearing concluded with the judge telling the woman: “Tell me till the next date if you want to keep his sindoor on your head or not.” The husband was told to love his wife ‘a little more’.

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A recent study claimed that India has the lowest divorce rates in the world, and it made me think of the various matrimonial disputes I have either witnessed in court or appeared as a counsel in. The most discussed aspect of such disputes is of course the much-reviled section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, there’s little or no discussion about the hellish experience that contested (non-consensual) matrimonial litigation is. Take for instance how seeking maintenance works in practice for women despite all the statutory provisions and exhortations in various judgments. Keep in mind the fact that in most of these cases, women are heavily dependent on their husbands for financial support.

The case begins with the woman demanding a sum as maintenance and the husband contesting the quantum, saying he can only pay a certain figure. Often, the husband engages in a great deal of fudging to claim that he cannot afford to pay anything at all, forcing the wife to challenge the claim, file applications in courts and seek the appointment of a ‘local commissioner’ who can inspect the husband’s home. All this takes months and sometimes, years.

Even after maintenance is granted, it’s common for the husband to default on the payment, which forces the wife to pursue separate proceedings. Many such cases see repeated adjournments before the husband finally turns up and says something like: “Alright, here is a cheque towards part payment of the dues.” Note that this cheque could cover anything between 5 per cent to 90 per cent of the money he has been ordered to pay. Sometimes, the wife gets so frustrated by the seemingly endless round of court visits and hearings that she agrees to settle for a lesser amount than what was originally granted. There are also instances where the cheque given by the husband bounces.

There are many tactics that husbands and their families employ to deny the women their rightful claim. The moment a case of a matrimonial dispute is filed, the husband shifts to a dilapidated house in a low-rent area, at least on paper, so he can later claim in court: “Look, I cannot even afford to live in a proper home.” If the estranged couple stay in a house owned by the man’s family, his parents quickly issue an advertisement in newspapers saying they are disowning him because of strained ties and leaving him out of their property. All this to prevent the woman from asserting her right to reside in the matrimonial home.

One of the most heart-breaking cases I witnessed was that of a mother of four. One of the kids was disabled and she spent most of the money she earned on his care by hiring the best professionals. The estranged husband tried every trick in the book to avoid covering these expenses, and the judge questioned her, making her explain and defend every expense. The woman had to face a patriarchal court and judge, who could not understand mental health issues or the reasons she spared no effort to look after the child.

Hindu women in India did not have the legal right to divorce till 1955. The remedy of mutual divorce did not exist till 1976. Even in 2019, women continue to fight an extraordinarily patriarchal society and its institutions, the taboo the word “divorce” carries with it, and the pressure to “focus” on their children and not their careers, combined with the mammoth hurdles in obtaining maintenance and more. When you consider all this, you realise that one reason behind the low rate of divorce in the country has nothing to with an abundance of love or tradition, but the fact that divorce proceedings for women, in Flavia Agnes’s words, are an “ordeal by fire

courtesy- Mumbai Mirror