The Word ‘Keep’ Defames Women in India

By Amrita Nandy,Womens Feature Service

The use of the word “keep” by the Supreme Court seems to have prescribed and graded sexual moralities for women in India. Although the term is a demeaning. It’s use by the apex court reveals the depth and spread of inappriate attitudes towards women.

The word “keep” is unacceptable because it has deep negative undertones. It reinstates sexual hierarchies for women and equates “honor” with her sexuality.

In any clandestine relationship both the man and woman should be guilty of acts of immorality. Yet, it is the woman who gets branded as a “keep”. She is a defiled individual with low morals and lower status than men.

The absence of any appropriate term for a male “keep” is not a coincidence. It exposes our age-old cultural stance on the matter. As is well known and accepted, women are given secondary social identities and that too by virtue of their relationship with men, not vice versa.

It is not widely known that India has been and continues to be home to a range of bigamous relationships. We have such terms like ‘maitri karar’ in Gujarat, ‘nata prata’ in Rajasthan and others.

Patriarchy and its legal-moral definitions of good women and right relationships hold these as transgressing established norms. Thus, women are pushed into non-marital relationships outside the orbit of entitlements and obligations.

To save women from the inherent oppression and exploitation of a variety of intimate relationships should be the real and substantive purpose of a just society. Legal morality does not serve as a valid reason for the State to either ignore them or deny them their rights. In fact,the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 seeks to protect them through various compensatory measures. This is to counter rampant violence in different intimate relationships.

Although our courts deserve much credit for their many rights-based and pro-women judgments, some of these have sadly been marked by cultural stereotypes and norms. It is the language used that conveys the underlying attitude towards women and their social worth.

In the 1996 landmark case of ‘State of Punjab vs Gurmeet Singh’, the judge ruled, “no self respecting woman would come forward in a court just to make a humiliating statement against her honor such as when it involves the commission of rape on her” and that “the rapist degrades the very soul of the helpless female.”

Apparently, the court here viewed rape as a violation of a woman’s honor. It is not an attack on her physical security and freedom. The judgment lays stress on the notion that a woman’s chastity is nothing but her honour. While it also gives greater emphasis to the shame and stigma that is attached to issues of violence against women.

Placing shame on the victim and not the perpetrator is the classic mistake our society continues to make. It is ironic that this case established the legal precedent that a rape victim’s testimony should be accepted.

Clearly, words play a central role in shaping our worldview. They are laden with meaning, myths and symbols. They can affirm and insinuate prevalent views. They can also equally resist cultural constructions. Women often spend their lives condemning words that undermine them.

In many languages across the globe, similes, proverbs and idioms stereotype women. While curse words and profanities offensively refer to women’s sexual behavior. A walk down a busy street would reveal how almost every male conversation is liberally laced with curse words involving women.

A highly patriarchal society like ours needs words that challenge the negative portrayal of women in mainstream cultures. This is best known to the judiciary, whose interpretations often challenge and re-define hitherto accepted social mores. Sadly the word “keep”, suggested synonym concubine and divulges a casually cruel outlook to the use of language and its implications for the dignity of women.

Women are already deeply indoctrinated by a self-deprecating and martyr identity. Often they have low self esteem. No wonder then that as many as 54% of women justified violence against them by their husbands in the last National Family Health Survey (2005-06).

When notions of self identity, shame and honor exert more pressure on the collective consciousness of women. It is the primary duty of the judiciary to undo these falsities and not preserve them.

The demand by Indira Jaising, the Additional Solicitor General of India, is to eradicate such words from the vocabulary of the judiciary. Partners for Law in Development, a Delhi-based network of lawyers, along with other women’s organizations are planning a long-term campaign to address the issue of the rights of women in intimate relationships.