September 21, 2007

Whose Justice?

FOR THE LAST few years, I have been working on an Access to Justice programme or A2J (the cool new abbreviation for something civil society groups have been doing forever). Some questions pop up repeatedly in the course of my work: What is justice? Who defines justice? Whose prerogative is it to define justice? I’ve discussed these with like-minded women and while the discussion generated interesting debate, the concept of justice and how women experience it remains ambiguous. The only thing that’s clear is that different women have differing experiences and notions of justice.

Justice can mean so many things; equality, equity, Plato’s common sense notion of justice. This is compounded when conflicting parties choose to interpret and define justice in their own, opposite ways. How does all of this play itself out in womens lives and in their quest for justice?

When one looks at the formal justice system, which is ruled by a framework of patriarchy and assisted by Judges (usually male and upper caste) bolstered by a system that allows them to believe in their own ‘rightness’, it’s obvious that there have been abundant idiotic, harmful judgments that have defined for women how they should experience and accept justice. (But one shouldn’t be too harsh on the formal justice system. Its many failings became rallying points for women across the country and, in many ways, precipitated the birth of the Indian women’s movement.)

The other, not-so-obvious spaces where justice is defined and often imposed on women lie closer home — womens rights organizations, lawyers and informal justice mechanisms. These are more complex and yet, in many ways, more critical to women because they are more accessible and function as immediate resources, ultimately conveying their viewpoint to the world. But there is a looming tension and disharmony between what women expect of these spaces and what they receive.

A few years back, a womens rights organisation called a meeting to discuss the issue of compensation for survivors of sexual assault. The overwhelming tone was outrage that the State could bring up the issue of compensation vis-a-vis sexual assault: How can a monetary amount be placed on an experience like sexual assault? Fear of being judged ensured silence in the room, which was interpreted as consent among all participants. I regret the silence and am, perhaps, guiltier than some because I had worked with various women who had survived sexual assault and would have welcomed some form of monetary compensation. Who were we to decide on behalf of women everywhere? What was this notion of justice that was so at odds with how justice was experienced by other women? Why did it become the prerogative of a bunch of urban, well-educated, middle class women to decide? And was this not informed by the very same morality-based values that the women’s movement has fought for so long?

Most significant meetings where there is critical debate and decisions on women’s rights issues leave out a chunk of women from different backgrounds who may have completely divergent perspectives on what should be included (or not) in a collective understanding of justice. How does one ensure that all perspectives are taken into account? Will it be possible to do so? Can we honestly take steps to bridge the gap between differing identities of women?

Just to make things a little stickier, there is a power dynamic here. After all, someone like me — urban, well-educated, articulate, middle class — does have a louder voice, greater convincing skills and a larger audience to stand by my defined understanding of what justice. So should I get away with imposing it on women whose lives I may have little understanding of? And is there even an awareness of this and the potential damage it is wreaking?

Other immediate resources for women are lawyers and informal justice mechanisms. Lawyers are informed by their own identities, but they often use strategies based on the need to win a case. Their arguments and defense may be couched in language that is protectionist rather than empowering. The larger responsibility lawyers have in broadening the definition of justice and placing it within the location of rights is often completely lost. This annoying framework (based on protection and pity) may win the case but, ultimately, lose the larger battle.

The most fascinating of these spaces are informal justice mechanisms. A few years back, I made my first visit to an informal women’s court in a village in Gujarat. The women from the village managed the court entirely; they had received some training from the organization that had mobilized them but this was entirely their show. It was a warm summer day and as I waited for the proceedings to start, I watched the women coming in small groups. They had possibly traveled quite a distance in the heat, bearing local transport expenses to come to this meeting. There must have been close to a 100 women when the proceedings began. It lasted about four hours and eight cases were addressed ranging from domestic violence, sexual assault and property rights to dowry – and all judgements were made keeping in mind what the woman wanted.

All the women from the villages support these proceedings so there is a social sanction to the decisions. What was different was the freedom with which women could speak of violations they had faced. What would their experience have been if they had decided to go to a formal court? It is entirely possible that if the informal court did not exist, women would still not access the formal courts. But here too, the issue of who defines justice is mired in problems. While there is coherence in most cases, there are instances of different understandings of justice. During a sexual assault case, for example, it is not unusual to hear of a solution that involves marrying the rapist. This is absolutely the worst thing that can be offered in terms of justice to a woman.

Justice is a complex, subjective idea informed by identities and the person’s location, which makes it more important to really listen to what women are saying. We don’t do it too well yet. Perhaps, a way to increase this understanding is to constantly be aware of how one is being informed and affected by one’s own identity. Easier said than done.

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