Why must we need “all-women” courts?

It is heartening, to say the least, that the Indian government has started taking women’s safety in their country extremely seriously following the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi in December 2012. The Indian people must be congratulated for the resolute way in which they have pushed their elected representatives to act against India’s atrocious record over sexual assault against women. Given our own dismal record on the issue in Pakistan, there are more than a few lessons to be learnt from the neighbors.

One of the things that we in Pakistan should be observing keenly is that their fight is littered with just as many barriers – steeped in “culture” – as ours, but they are still putting up strong resistance. One of the biggest examples is that this women’s day, the Bombay High Court gifted the women of Maharashtra province with all-women courts to hear sexual assault cases. Great move, you say? I say, no.

According to this report in The Times of India, a circular from the Bombay High Court’s chief justice said: “Directions have been issued to assign cases involving sexual assault against women exclusively to the courts presided over by women judicial officers. In cases (where) women are the victims of crime and for the purpose of enabling victims to give their evidence in a stress-free atmosphere and without any fear or embarrassment, it is desirable that all staff members – clerks, stenographers, interpreters, typist-cum-clerks, havildars/peons, are all women.”

While I understand and appreciate the good intentions behind this decision, the idea seems slightly offensive to me. As I understand, the court means that women who are survivors of sexual violence will feel more comfortable speaking to women about what they went through, thus they will not hold back on anything and relay the entire story without any “embarrassment” or “shame” in their statement. But how a women’s-only court is the solution to this is something I fail to understand. All this decision does is confine sexual assault as a women’s rights issue, not a human rights issue as it should be treated.

There are also demeaning subtexts to this, not just for women but for men as well. Let’s assume for the purposes of this blog that a woman is describing her rape in a court where a number of men are present. Are we to assume that men are sexual beasts who cannot control their libido and will feel some kind of perverse titillating pleasure from hearing about the rape instead of a burning rage against one of their own (the rapist)? Why should we demean men such? Aren’t they rational beings, completely capable of self-control as well as distinguishing between right and wrong?

There is also an implicit assumption that women will rule on such cases “better” than men. This is similar to the one that is made when a woman sends in a job application to, say, a newspaper and is immediately mentally-classified as a candidate for “soft” reporting  such as women and children issues, health, education, arts and culture, instead of “tough” beats like crime or the economy.

Sensitivity towards survivors of sexual assault is a trait of the justice system that could help both men and women, because sexual violence can be perpetrated against both. What happens to men who get sexually violated? Should there be all-men courts to hear those cases? Going by the Bombay High Court’s logic and sexual violence statistics in India, all-men courts are perhaps a more pressing necessity than all-women courts since more boys than girls are sexually abused in India according to a 2007 survey by the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Welfare.

This is as inefficient a response as any to tackle harassment against women. A similar bad policy decision was the “Pink Bus” service that (Pakistani) Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif launched last year. That project was sheer brilliance (sarcasm implied), complete with a judgment against women who travel by public transport after 7:30 pm (when the last bus was supposed to leave).

The only way to truly give women the space to fight for justice in cases of sexual assault is by ensuring that the justice system, in all its gender diversity, supports these victims without any judgment or bias. The society, as a sum of men and women, needs to become a little less unforgiving of women who have been wronged in this way. If you must, then give the woman the option to speak to a room full of only women, but don’t make it a policy decision that sexual assault cases will automatically go to an all-women court.

If anything, in patriarchal societies like ours where it is easy to go astray because the onus is almost always on the woman, it is the men who need to be taught sensitivity and morality. As a woman who faces harassment in some way or the other every single day on the street, I refuse to confine myself to a group of women and share my tale; I want my father, my brothers, my cousins, my male friends and the men who govern to give me a feeling of safety and security to share my tale with the expectation of emotional support that a woman is worthy of after surviving her fight with a beast.

Recommended reading — Saying Yes matters as much as saying No: http://global.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/opinion/global/saying-yes-matters-as-much-as-no.html?ref=thefemalefactor&_r=0

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