The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The courts seldom do anything that is simultaneously amusing for some, a great relief to others and a cause of irritation for the rest. But the Calcutta high courtís ruling on the equal right of the wife to decide where she will live after marriage is likely to have done just that. The amusement it might have caused is incidental: it is difficult not to smile a little to think of personages in that august institution pronouncing on something as intimately familiar in everyday life as a girl living in her in-lawsí home. But it is also this that makes the ruling important. Placing this issue in the sphere of equal rights for women demonstrates the clarity of perception most needed to review the roots of accepted social arrangements. In spite of the remarkable progress that has recently taken place in the understanding of womenís rights, certain long-established practices remain relatively unquestioned, almost as if they are a condition of womenís lives. Women are supposed, through marriage, to move from one family to another, and accept the members of that family and its rules as her own. That the stark injustice of this has never surfaced officially before is an indication of the blinding strength of social habit based on a value system structured by male convenience and conviction of superior status.

It may not be comfortable to have a court pronounce upon where a couple should live. But the courtís comments were made in the context of a particular case, on which it ruled that wanting to live with the husband away from the husbandís family home cannot be cause for divorce. In effect, this means that if there is an option, economically or otherwise, then the couple can choose where to live. And in this choice, the wife has as much say as the husband. The courtís role here, beyond pronouncing on one particular case, has been to illuminate the larger context in which the ruling was made. Articulating the larger context is of signal importance in a society in which stubbornly oppressive values, poverty, ignorance, a huge population, all make progress towards gender equality slow and uneven. The simple truth of an unequal situation, when thus brought to the surface, can generate new understandings among both men and women, and create new directions in the attempts to raise awareness. Some of the most violent crimes the courts deal with, like dowry murders and torture, have their origin in the social arrangement the courtís comments have opened to question. The remarks are unlikely to be popular among those who feel that women are being given too much rope. Perhaps that is what is most amusing.

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