June 23, 2015

Thoughts on Handloom v. Powerloom Sarees

An interesting and not entirely laudatory piece about urban saree enthusiasm: Livemint

Well worth reading this in conjunction with this 2013 piece on the caste implications of urban saree enthusiasm and govt handloom policy which adversely impact weavers: RoundTableIndia

More questions than answers...

Rather conflicted about the handloom v. powerloom saree debate myself; am acutely conscious of many handloom sarees being art that's both being lost and which is incapable of being replicated on powerlooms. That said, given how inexpensively handlooms are often sold (considering the amount of work often put into making them), also wonder what the ostensible support for the handloom sector (as possibly opposed to support for the individual handloom weaver) means, and wonder why support for the sector doesn't necessarily metamorphose into support for the weaver.

Have been told, and I haven't been able to verify any of this, that corporate handloom sellers may pay organisations through which they acquire handlooms as little as 25% of the selling cost of sarees, and it isn't clear what percentage of that 25% filters down to weavers. Also, that "sources handlooms from weavers" and "works with weavers" make for great stories that may not mean much in real life: the weavers could get little out of the interaction. "Working with weavers," I'm told, often means selling weavers' wares, not transferring sales and branding know-how to weavers. So, if a corporate or  other organisation "working with weavers" suddenly decides not to place an order in any given year, the weavers involved can be left high and dry. Hearing stories of the non-protection of weavers, part of me thinks handlooms should be absurdly expensive luxury wear like couture in the West, and that there's absolutely no reason to have handlooms be reintroduced to the (upper-middle class) public if doing so is at the expense, or not to the clear benefit, of weavers.

Haven't been especially impressed by the contempt which a few handloom/handcrafted saree enthusiasts have for powerloom/mechanised sarees either primarily since, even if they don't usually cost what they should, well-made handlooms still are too expensive for many people. And I'm entirely unconvinced that people who can't afford handlooms should get completely cut off from many types of traditional sarees simply because of money, particularly when a rough approximation can be made. (Take printed batiks, for example.) Assuming that handlooms and other sarees are clearly marked as being what they are, it seems difficult to sustain an argument against all sarees which aren't handlooms. Off the top of my head, and with no data at all, I've also been wondering if an argument can be made that cheaper powerloom sarees help sustain interest in handlooms in the way that the high street in the West supports couture, to borrow, perhaps inappropriately, from arguments about copyright in fashion.

And have been rather conflicted by the diffusion of saree designs within the handloom sector, especially since many designs are specifically associated with caste and class. Wonder whether the diffusion merely dilutes traditional design or if it could contribute to making it more difficult to pinpoint identity by attire, and, consequently, if it could help (? further) break down caste segregation. But really don't know enough about the subject to be even marginally certain if such thoughts about the effects of design diffusion are some form of urban delusion, or if they are grounded in reality .

June 10, 2015

Embroidered Sarees and Public Spaces

Personal Post
(Content note: street harassment, assault)

"Since ladies are not permitted to go outdoors, they are not to get fat and idle by indulging in cooking and eating, do Kasuti and spinning and be independent." 
An extraordinary nugget from a Kannada version of the Bible (Exodus, Chapter 26) which apparently came from the Greek. (The English translation and the believed origin of the verse above is from 'Asian Embroidery' edited by Jaslean Dhamija shared with me straight after I started thinking of women embroidering sarees and women in public places, in no small measure with reference to myself. The KJV does refer to needlework but definitely doesn't say this.)

To me, embroidered sarees tell the story of the beauty and resilience that often survives in spite of inequity. And it is barely possible to look at most embroidered sarees, like this Chikan saree, and not think of them as art.

I’ve been thinking of the women, and it does seem to be primarily women, who embroider sarees for a living, of the amount of time and effort embroidering each saree takes – I’ve been embroidering a saree with kasuti motifs, the simplest I could find, and know it isn’t quick.

I’ve been wondering if often embroidering sarees tethers women to their homes, or if it’s something they sometimes do whilst anyway tethered to home. Presumably the latter; embroidering sarees by hand is, as far as I know, usually done at home. How this ties into women in public spaces, and the ‘safety’ which comes from staying home, I don’t really know.

I’ve been thinking of being outdoors and of having been assaulted slightly over a year ago now by a man whom I infuriated; I ignored his asking me how much he could buy me for. Of not attempting to do anything about it later because I was tired and ill and fed up, because I was quite certain nothing would come of it, because I quite simply don’t have the support structure it’d take to navigate the legal system in relation to something like this.

I’ve been thinking of attempting to review a policy – a draft IPR policy, was it? I no longer remember – soon after, and of the sheer ridiculousness of attempting to do so whilst almost too injured to move or think. Of being annoyed that the document seemed to have no Executive Summary when, in fact, I’d completely missed ‘Executive Summary’ in big bold letters right at its beginning. Of privileging work for reasons I doubt would ever stand up to scrutiny. Of failing both to take care of myself and to complete the work I’d hoped to.

I’ve been thinking of avoiding public spaces because they are not safe, because in Delhi and NCR, they feel especially unsafe for a petite woman who’s visibly from the North East: I’m mistaken for a prostitute far too often. Of not minding being mistaken for a prostitute but of minding the way men think they may treat women whom they imagine are prostitutes.

And I’ve been thinking continually feeling imprisoned by seemingly being obliged to stay indoors. Of perhaps having to stay ‘home’ not necessarily being terrible. Of ‘home’ being safe for me because there is no one else in mine unlike, presumably, in the homes of most women who embroider sarees, women who may not have homes which are safe. Of, as Diane Wakoski put it in a completely different context, ‘the beauty that can come from even an ugly past’.

There isn’t a great deal that redeems living in a part of the world where it feels unsafe to step outdoors but, for me, the easy availability of beautifully embroidered sarees counts.

June 02, 2015

On the Wearing of Sarees

(Note: Contains references to violence.)

I’ve had sarees wear me far more often than I’ve had myself wear sarees. I can’t see the grace or the elegance of a person, myself specifically, that so many rave of whilst wearing a saree. Possibly because I see neither grace nor elegance in myself. Perhaps because I’ve been told one time too many that I look like a monster, that I’m too short, too thin, too everything that’s ‘wrong’. Feminist theory and a measuring tape that testifies to an hourglass figure doesn’t enable me to see anything in the mirror except, occasionally, the point of very expensive foundation. A camouflage.

Sarees themselves though, I do see. As works of art that take skill to create far beyond what many a contemporary, upper class artist can lay claim to, even if the artistry of the weaver isn’t acclaimed in the way the supposed talent of the well-connected urban artist is. As part of a larger whole, with a history often connected to exploitation and casteism but, still, essentially stable and predictable. As a testament to endurance and longevity which has, almost unchanged, survived the centuries. As a connection to a continuity, reaching back through the generations, which makes minor everyday turbulence fall into place simply by making it seemingly inconsequential.

The wearing of a saree: armour, almost shroud, disguise, convenience. I may not see the elegance of a saree on myself but I am definitely cognizant of the practicality of not feeling obliged to shave my legs while I’m wearing a saree and of, what is to me, the sheer delight of having subverted a time-consuming social expectation (that I have little use for) without having made the slightest effort to do so: to me, the wearing of a saree isn’t an effort. It’s usually less than a two-minute investment of time; far less time than it would take me to wear anything else I could wear. And being able to turn any saree into a chrysalis in seconds should the need arise, hiding myself beneath its folds till no one sees anything of me beyond what I want them to see, makes for sanctuary.

There is, of course, the well-entrenched idea that the wearing of a saree lends a woman, particularly the visibly young(ish) urban woman, gravitas. Beyond that though, the ability to virtually remould one’s image or to simply disappear at will is often underrated. The ability to be vastly outrageous and to verbally challenge social norms in a manner which would almost never be accepted from a woman in any other attire. Simply because the saree can be used to create the perception of being non-threatening, of respecting tradition – even the most regressive tradition and even if one doesn’t have an iota of respect for it – of supposedly being ‘on the same side’ as some of the most conservative people around. The saree is as much weapon as it is armour.

It is, for me, also tangible reminder of the life I’ve lived; often the story of having lived life through male violence. So many of my sarees are marked with memories of men, invariably unpleasant. A cream tissue when a man chose to ensure he could use me by pouring whiskey down my throat. I was grateful he didn’t tear the saree. A mauve crepe marking a man telling me that he liked the idea of spoiling me, and proceeding to do just that. Or his definition of it, anyway. A navy pashmina on a day I enraged a street creep by ignoring his asking how much I was (selling myself) for. He didn’t pay. I haven’t discarded any of those sarees. They are a constant reminder of what I have survived, of what I now know I can survive. Of who I am.

The memories are not all ghastly. There are sarees from people I’ve loved, who’ve loved me. Sarees which, even if they’re now unwearable, once belonged to people who matter to me and which I’ve spent a relative fortune restoring because the sarees are all I have to touch, because letting go of the sarees could feel like letting go of a part of them. Sarees that remind me of people I’ve loved; most recently, a saree from Dharwar. Not a place I’ve ever been to but a place meaningful to a man, now dead, of whom I had not one tangible reminder with me. A saree I wanted with a desperation indescribable and which, providentially, I found at a bazaar some 1800 kilometres away from Dharwar. Sarees which, through the people I associate with them, remind me that there is a point to it all, which call out to me, and which, when they wear me, are pure unadulterated joy.

May 01, 2015

What Indian Criminal Law Says of Marital Rape

The law does recognise marital rape. The concern is that the law does not adequately recognise marital rape as a crime. Under civil law, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, recognises sexual abuse as a form of domestic violence and, consequently, it recognises marital rape as a legal wrong, Under criminal law, the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (last amended in 2013), recognises the possibility of a man raping his wife only to promptly clarify that such rape within a marriage would not generally be considered to be rape for the purposes of Section 375 of the IPC which defines the offence of rape.

‘Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape’ reads the second exception to Section 375 of the IPC. In essence, a wife who is not under 15 cannot be raped as far as this Section is concerned. If the IPC Section were to be read in conjunction with the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, (or POCSO as it is called), it is possible that the law could be interpreted to make the rape of a wife between the ages of 15 and 18 a criminal offence through Section 42A of POCSO. However, there is at least one occasion on which a Delhi Court appears to have refrained from interpreting the law in that manner. (See State v Suman Dass, Patiala House on August 17, 2013.)

The relevant Sections of POCSO, which deal with the precedence of laws are:
42. Where an act or omission constitutes an offence punishable under this Act and also under sections 166A, 354A, 354B, 354C, 3540,370, 370A, 375, 376, 376A, 376C, 3760, 376E or section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, then, notwithstanding 45 of 1860, anything contained in any law for the time being in force, the offender found guilty of such offence shall be liable to punishment under this Act or under the Indian Penal Code as provides for punishment which is greater in degree. 
42A. The provisions of this Act shall be in addition to and not in derogation of the provisions of any other law for the time being in force and, in case of any inconsistency, the provisions of this Act shall have overriding effect on the provisions of any such law to the extent of the inconsistency.

The law is not, however, completely oblivious of the possibility of a man raping his wife. A separate offence is contained in Section 376B of the Indian Penal Code which deals with the marital rape of a wife who is separated from her husband.
376B. Whoever has sexual intercourse with his own wife, who is living separately, whether under a decree of separation or otherwise, without her consent, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than two years but which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine. Explanation.-ln this section, "sexual intercourse" shall mean any of the acts mentioned in clauses (a) to (d) of section 375.

Invoking Section 376B of the IPC is no easy matter though: the Section is buttressed by Section 198B of the Criminal Procedure Code which unequivocally states in relevant part: 'No Court shall take cognizance of an offence punishable under section 376B of the Indian Penal Code where the persons are in a marital relationship, except upon prima facie satisfaction of the facts which constitute the offence upon a complaint having been filed or made by the wife against the husband,'

There is a Section in the Evidence Act, Section 114A, which states that in certain prosecutions for rape, 'where sexual intercourse by the accused is proved and the question is whether it was without the consent of the woman alleged to have been raped and such woman states in her evidence before the court that she did not consent, the court shall presume that she did not consent'. This presumption applies only in very specific cases of aggravated rape (listed in Section 376(2) of the IPC such as rape by a police officer in a police station to which he is appointed) and does not apply either to rape generally or to any of the offences defined in Sections 376A to 376E including the marital rape of a separated wife. In short: with reference to marital rape, there is currently no presumption which favours women.

As such, as far as marital rape in criminal law is concerned, in effect, except in the case of the separated wife, only the marital rape of a wife under the age of 15 is explicitly a crime. The marital rape of a wife between the ages of 15 and 18 may be criminal depending on how POCSO is interpreted. And the marital rape of an unseparated wife over the age of 18 is not recognised as a crime in and of itself. It may be considered to be assault but, then again, assault is not rape.

Further, although Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code does deal with cruelty against a wife, 'cruelty' (the 498A understanding of it, anyway) is not guaranteed to consider allegations of marital rape. For example, in Crl.M.C No.1628 of 2013, the Kerala High Court stated:
"[....] Initially the Prosecution registered a case against the petitioner/accused alleging offences under Sections 376, 342 and 506(2) I.P.C. Later, when it was established that the petitioner/accused had married the defacto complainant, the offences of rape and wrongful confinement were deleted. Now, what is remaining is only an offence under Section 498A I.P.C. [....] I have carefully gone through the materials in the records which show that the predominant allegation raised by the defacto complainant against the petitioner is that he has deserted her and failed to provide maintenance to her. Absolutely no allegation of physical or mental cruelty meted out to her is mentioned in the statements. Therefore, learned counsel for the petitioner contended that the prosecution is an abuse of the process of the court. Going by the allegations raised by the defacto complainant, it can be seen at the most that she is entitled to seek relief for maintenance. However, the prosecution under Section 498A I.P.C is without any legal justification."

Marital rape may be recognised under Section 377 of the IPC as it was in the case of State v. Vinod Saini decided on March 3, 2014 by Dr. Kamini Lau in Delhi's Rohini Courts. However, Section 377 which deals with 'unnatural offences', as the statute calls them, does not contain a marital rape exception comparable to that in Section 375 of the IPC. As such, while it may be possible for a court to recognise some forms of marital rape as criminal offences if they fall within the scope of Section 377, as a general rule, statutory constraints would prevent a court from recognising marital rape per se directly.

If at all a court were to recognise the marital rape of an unseparated wife over the age of 18 under current law, it would have to do obliquely via Sections dealing with such things as cruelty, although there is no guarantee that any court would in fact do so.

(Most of the Sections mentioned in this blogpost are contained in the 2013 amendments to criminal law.)

April 19, 2015

On Making 498A IPC Compoundable and the Stats supporting the Proposal

Just how are the stats specifying the percentage of alleged misuse of 498A, IPC, being derived?!

In support of proposals to amend Section 498A, there seem to be stats doing the rounds of the number and percentage of supposedly false cases. Some time ago, ToI published a table in an article claiming that 10% of dowry cases are false. The table was attributed to NCRB, and the same figures seem to have appeared in another piece, this time attributed to a 'senior official'.

The Asian Age, too, published a piece against the proposed amendment of 'dowry law', stating that the Union Minister of State for home Haribhai Chaudhary had cited the same figures in the Lok Sabha although this statement doesn't appear to find mention in the uncorrected Lok Sabha debates of the day. The piece in the Asian Age pointed out that there's no mention of what the stats are based on; if they're based on acquittals, they mistakenly equate an acquittal with proof of the relevant case having been false.

Source: ToI, March 22, 2015

Source: ToI, April 19, 2015

Source: Asian Age, April 9, 2015

From published NCRB stats, it's unclear how it's possible to come up with any figures at all to determine the percentage of false cases assuming a 'false case' is defined as a 'case filed sans any basis'. Apart from concerns about methodology: NCRB stats only list the most serious offence where more than one offence is involved, the stats also seem to do such things as list mistake of fact or law together, as well as discharge and acquittal, making it impossible to determine what the percentage of of false cases actually is.

Sources: Table 4.3 and Table 4.9

Background note:

The desire to have 498A be compoundable is not new.

The SC though does seem to have made 498A compoundable in Jitendra Raghuvanshi & Ors. v. Babita Raghuvanshi & Anr. on 15 March, 2013 although the value of the judgment as a precedent is unclear.
"11) The inherent powers of the High Court under Section 482 of the Code are wide and unfettered. In B.S. Joshi (supra), this Court has upheld the powers of the High Court under Section 482 to quash criminal proceedings where dispute is of a private nature and a compromise is entered into between the parties who are willing to settle their differences amicably. We are satisfied that the said decision is directly applicable to the case on hand and the High Court ought to have quashed the criminal proceedings by accepting the settlement arrived at.
12) In our view, it is the duty of the courts to encourage genuine settlements of matrimonial disputes, particularly, when the same are on considerable increase. Even if the offences are non-compoundable, if they relate to matrimonial disputes and the court is satisfied that the parties have settled the same amicably and without any pressure, we hold that for the purpose of securing ends of justice, Section 320 of the Code would not be a bar to the exercise of power of quashing of FIR, complaint or the subsequent criminal proceedings."

This judgment came a year after the Law Commission report on 498A which also suggested the section be made compoundable:
2. The Commission has reiterated the recommendation made in the 237th Report that the offence should be made compoundable with the permission of the Court. There is overwhelming view in favour of making it compoundable. Certain precautions to be taken before granting permission are suggested. However, the Commission has recommended that it should remain non-bailable. The misuse (the extent of which is not established by empirical data) by itself shall not be a ground to denude the provision of its efficacy, keeping in view the larger societal interest.