Indo-Jamaican woman made legal history in India against gender bias
Anyone who has ever uprooted themselves and chosen to migrate will tell you that adjusting to life in a new and distant land can be both an exciting and a challenging experience especially if the new environment is fraught with vast cultural differences from the earlier one. Even more arduous is being a woman and taking on the judicial system in a foreign land and forcing a landmark judgement in your favor. Today we at Indo-Caribbean.com highlight one such brave and pioneering woman of Indo-Jamaican origins- Roxann Sharma as she recounts her story and firmly establishes herself as a role model for all Indian women (not only those in the Caribbean) . Hers is a story that encourages one to stand up against a patriarchal society and fight for your rights and not be resigned to a passive fate, deterred by customs and traditions.
On February 17, 2015, the Supreme Court of India awarded me, Roxann Sharma, interim custody of my then two-year-old son. It was a landmark judgment in the legal history of India. In short, the ruling was that a mother must retain the custody of a child who is under five, unless the father is able to provide evidence showing that the child’s welfare is at risk by being with the mother. At the time, I was just thankful to have my son in my arms. Now, as many years have passed, and I have had time to reflect upon this moment, I realize that this moment deserves documentation.
More than half a million Indians left India for the Caribbean as indentured labourers, beginning in 1838. 36,412 of them were brought to Jamaica. From scholars like Professor Verene Shepherd, we know some of those Indians were women. We also know some came alone with hopes of leaving behind the narrow confines of their existence in India in order to live a fuller life. Some like the fictional Miss Coolie in Olive Senior’s short story “Arrival of the Snake Woman”,became prosperous. She became a successful businesswoman. Some, like my great, great grandmother, did not succeed in escaping victimisation. She was married at thirteen and had her first child at fourteen years old. That was the year 1882.
As her descendent, I made India my home in 2013. Living there has shown me that many of those narrow confines that caused Indian women to board ships sailing to unknown places, like Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad, from 1845 to 1917, the period of indentureship, still exist in India.
In India, a woman’s life is legitimized either by her paternal birth parent or by her husband. On every legal form, a woman has to identify herself as daughter of _____ or wife of _______. This sets a tone that her validation, then, can only come from a man.
Male privilege in India’s judicial system
It comes as no surprise that this privileging of male authority shapes the mind-set of many Indians. In the actions of those who are in powerful positions, like judges, in place to administer justice, we see, instead, blatant sexism. Women who attest to domestic violence in marriage still face ridicule, are still labelled as troublemakers, and are still dealt with as if they were silly children telling a fairy tale by some in the legal system.
In 2013, I filed a domestic violence application against my husband. The judge presiding over the case brought myself, and my husband into her chamber for the purpose of solving our dispute. There, she listened to my husband’s story and mine. Instead of administering justice, she chose to ignore both my written evidence and my oral testimony. Instead, to my horror, she squashed the matter, categorizing it as a mere incident of cultural differences to be resolved by us spending two consecutive nights together at a hotel.
The backbone of India’s judicial system, in fact, is based upon male privilege. Custody falls under the legal domain of an 1890 act called Guardians and Wards. Its purpose is to protect the rights of minor children. Section 6 of this act deals with the natural guardianship of a child. As per this Section, the first natural guardian is the father and only after him, the mother is considered the natural guardian of a child. This means that while the father is alive, the mother cannot claim natural guardian status.
It is against this backdrop that my order was declared a legal victory for women. The court rejected male privileging. Being male was not enough reason to claim a child reasoned the court. Then the courts evaluated my standing in regards to guardianship. Me being educated and self-sufficient was their criteria. In doing this, the courts recognized female autonomy. Lastly, the courts took the evidence of my husband’s abuses seriously and held him accountable.
Although this judgment was given in India and celebrated as a legal victory in the kitty for Indian women, I see this judgment also as a defining moment for Indo-Caribbeans, and part of our collective narrative. The judgment speaks to the vision that many of our “coolie” great grandmothers experienced. They envisioned a place where a woman’s life was not invisible or bound by social hierarchy. They envisioned female emancipation.
This belief carried them across the kala pani [dark waters], and when they landed, they put it into action. The realisation of their vision is seen in our female politicians like Jamaican MP Lisa Hanna; it is seen in our female academics, and it is seen in our female businesswomen. This judgment turns full circle. As a descendent of indentured “coolies”, I returned to my ancestral place of origin, and not only took on a fight for female agency, but succeeded.
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