On Monday 2 September, we held a Twitter chat on the topics of feminism and justice. The chat was moderated by Nishma Jethwa our Program Director for Feminist Justice and coordinator of the FemJustice Legal Centre, launched last month.
We explored the intersection of feminism and justice in the context of India and looked at where feminist tools and approaches might be used in the formal legal system. We also explored what justice meant to us as feminists and some of the challenges in being able to secure that kind of justice using only the existing legal mechanisms. Finally we looked at where accountability should sit in crimes of gender-based violence and how we could better account for and address trauma even as legal professionals. You can read some of the answers and conversations below.
What does feminist justice mean to you?
One of the participants was of the view that feminist justice is the realization of the fact that all harm can be set in a gendered-context and that there is a collective responsibility to address it in such a manner that the needs of the survivor are kept at the center ensuring that power and resources are shared equitably. This was added to by the moderator who was of the opinion that feminist justice ensures that the law, apart from addressing the needs of the survivor, is also used as a tool for transformative change while placing individual justice in the context of the greater structural and institutional movements. Another participant pitched in to state that feminist justice essentially means to cover and secure the rights of all persons in such a manner that they are more detailed with a greater emphasis on the implementation of the laws. It was also pointed out that gender-considerations having a permanent and indispensable place in all policy and ethical roadblocks is an important element of feminist justice. Most opinions that were posted in response to this question reiterated the need for the interests of the survivor to hold the center of the trial while also focusing on reformation, not retribution.
Do you think the legal system addresses the intersecting oppressions well?
It was observed by one of the participants that intersectionality is a complex, time-consuming and arduous concept to enquire into leaving the main focus of the laws to be the maintenance of order and not addressing social inequalities and disabilities. It was also brought to light that the law as it presently stands addresses discrimination emanating from a single disability (social, economic, political) but is not flexible enough to deal with multiple angles contributing to a single act of violence or abuse which also goes to show that justice, equality and equity may mean starkly different things to different sections of the society. The lack of the law’s ability to single-handedly address all intersecting oppressions was also addressed by the Moderator who went on to highlight the role that judges, lawyers and activists can play in using different laws to address several disabilities comprehensively. Another participant was also forthcoming in pointing out that even in cases where the laws are sufficient and are progressive, an acute lack of awareness among the general population (usually those for whose benefit these laws are made) disables them from mobilizing and organizing themselves in a way where these laws can become a reality. This problem is accentuated with the increasing need for keeping legal knowledge within closed, legally elite circles excluding primary stakeholders’ agency.
Can better laws remove or transform structural inequalities that exist in a society?
One of the participants was of the view that the law by itself may not serve as an effective tool to foster social transformation. She however also clarified that this does not mean that the law lacks all transformative potential and that if used strategically they can serve to be extremely beneficial in securing fundamental rights and working towards dismantling structural inequalities. This was also substantiated by another participant who was of the view that no matter how progressive a law may be, if they are not accompanied by a change in the mindset of the society as well. Citing the example of Section 377 being written down, the moderator was of the view that even the law has adopted a positive, progressive outlook, the interests of the community remain at risk considering that the societal perceptions of the community remain archaic. Another participant contributed stating that many a times structural inequalities exist not because the laws are not good enough but because of lacuna in their implementation.
There was an overall understanding that the law alone cannot solely effectuate social change and that there is a need for collective social action in bringing about a transformation of the existing structural inequalities. In essence, what can really help the situation is not just the drafting of progressive, inclusive laws but also investing in the form of implementing them. This necessarily involves greater public action, collaboration between the legal community and social activists, lobbying and forming pressure groups impacting the decision-making process of the government. Capacity building, strengthening and exposure to agency have to accompany the laws in order for them to truly be transformative.
What does taking a trauma informed approach mean to you?
According to a participant, adopting a trauma informed approach revolves around the understanding that although the law serves as a remedy for victims of gender-based violence, it can also often be a source of distress for them revictimising and retraumatizing them. From the work that has been done under the FemJustice LC project, it has come to light that primarily, this approach requires lawyers, judges and police officials to reexamine their line of questioning and align them in a manner that is accommodative, understanding and respectful of the experiences of the victim. It was aptly pointed out that this trauma sensitive approach needs to be adopted not just by the legal fraternity but also by medical professionals who play a central role in cases of gender based violence. This trauma, a participant noted, could be physical, emotional or even social thereby requiring all the relevant professionals such as therapists, lawyers and medical professionals to be well-versed with the incident and well-being of the victim.
On discussing how such an approach can be adopted universally, one of the participants suggested that all those associated with the incident be spoken to. Additional insights that can be obtained only by communicating freely and openly and by building a relationship of trust is essential to adopting a trauma informed approach. Obviously, this approach necessitates persons involved to go beyond what can traditionally fall within their job description and champion their clients. In light of this, the moderator also highlighted the need for adopting methods to take care of and look after oneself.
With whom does accountability sit when it comes to gender based violence?
One of the participants was of the view that in cases of gender based violence accountability sits with more than just the parties to the suit such as the perpetrator and the victim. According to her, it sits with the media, schools, parents and the society as a whole which is responsible for normalisation of gender norms and gender-based violence. This view was also supported by another participant who also held the view that the community as a whole was responsible for these crimes. This was backed by the use of an apt analogy by one of the participants who said that just like it takes a village to raise an individual, these misgivings are also the responsibility of the entire village.
This scope of this discussion was also expanded with someone referring to by-stander intervention. There was agreement on the fact that by-stander intervention does not refer to the duties of merely those who were present at the scene of the crime but all those who are in a position of power or privilege whose duty it is to address these incidents and use their position to spread awareness. Another participant clarified that many a times persons exit from these situations not because of indifference but because of ignorance thereby highlighting the need to show more people how they can be effective bystanders.
Where in the legal system, do you think, feminist frameworks, tools and practices can be of use?
It was pointed out by some participants that there is an underlying assumption that feminist frameworks, tools and practices are customised and relevant to only a specific category of cases. But that may not be true considering that they play an important role in every step of the legal process. This was substantiated by the moderator who was of the view that this necessarily requires lawyers to apply a feminist approach which revolves around ensuring taking on cases that resonate with feminist principles, in adopting trauma-informed approaches and refraining from relying on gender-stereotypes and biases in our work with victims of gender based violence. Additionally, it was pointed out that feminist frameworks are integral to lawyers fighting for gender justice within courtrooms which can be achieved by collaborating with movement lawyers.
To pigeonhole feminist principles and only apply them to a certain set of cases would cause more harm than good because at the core of feminism lie universal principles of acceptance, tolerance and equality which necessarily have to find mention in any legal process.
Do lawyers have a duty to the wider movements?
It was clarified by the moderator that this is not so much about whether individual lawyers are obligated to contribute to the wider movements but about whether there is a responsibility of social-activist lawyers to work with movements together with social workers, activists and social leaders who may not necessarily be lawyers. Law is helpful in posing as a tool for social change but cannot be relied on as being the only solution to enable such transformation. It necessarily requires collaboration with those who are directly impacted because of a certain disability which is either protected by law or is required to be protected by law. One of the participants also pointed out that social movements do not concern only lawyers or the legal community but often has the interests of the entire community at its core. But it was also noted by some that the understanding of feminist principles and feminism itself may be a privilege but in cases where such an understanding exists, it is integral that lawyers work hand in hand with activists to achieve their true potential.
If lawyers are looking towards using the law as a tool for social transformation, then for reasons of efficiency, expertise and impact, there is a responsibility to be willing and open to relying on persons who are well-versed with the issue as well. The focus has to necessarily lie on collaborative efforts between lawyers and civil rights movements which may not necessarily be led by lawyers.
Overall, it was an enthusiastic and thought-provoking dialogue and we are excited to continue the conversation at our FemJustice Legal Centre. To find out more see: http://onefuturecollective.org/femjustice-legal-centre/.
Uttanshi Agarwal is a Research Associate with the Feminist Justice vertical at One Future Collective.
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