The tricks to keep women silent are old ones. Women are supposed to be hysterical, illogical, nervy, inclined to misuse any form of power they get, even if it is the law. Their alleged misuse of Section 498 (A) of the Indian Penal Code is now part of popular discourse; why, then, are cases of domestic violence against women and dowry deaths not myths? The beliefs about women’s irrationality are part of society’s misogyny and therefore, inevitably, part of institutional attitudes. A study of over four lakh first information reports in Haryana shows that women are at a noticeable disadvantage compared to men from the police station right up to the courts. A man complaining on behalf of a woman has a far better chance of having the FIR registered and its follow-up done faster than a woman complainant. There is a bigger gap between the complaint and the registration of the FIR when a woman complains of anything, from burglary to violence against her, and her complaint stands a bigger chance of being dismissed or the alleged offenders acquitted, often because of the delay. Gender inequality is entrenched in the entire justice system, not just in the police station.
The police station, however, is the first port of call. Before this study, other reports showed how women complainants are turned away from police stations before they can register a complaint; they are also treated with insensitivity and disrespect. The study on FIRs demonstrates indubitably that the gender of the complainant has a discernible effect on the registration and outcome of the complaint. There has been much talk of and some attempts at sensitising the police, establishing all-women police stations and fast-track courts. But there has been little change. The police force still has 11.7% women in it. Since gender bias resides in the whole justice system, it has to be asked whether these improvements — although necessary — would alone work the desired change. The bias has its roots in society’s prevalent belief-system. Education and the environment at home must address that. To ask women to speak up, to reach out to institutions dispensing law and justice, seems to hold a false promise since the system is weighted against them. The dominant forces in society would rather that they remained silent.