In college I worked at a place called the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape. The office was in a paper-strewn, dilapidated north Berkeley, Calif., home presided over by a silver-haired, chemically sensitive woman named Laura X, who had made it her life's mission to make marital and date rape illegal. She was largely successful, but it wasn't without two decades of legislative battles, from 1974, when she embarked on her crusade, to June 1993, when marital rape became a crime in all 50 states. As an intern, I did research on court cases and followed each state in its plodding process toward precedent-making law.
So when I read in the Times of India that as of today the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 is finally in effect, I got pretty excited. Sure, it took over a year to get here, but this is no ordinary violence-against-women law. It's like a massive blanket of protection for any woman abused, badgered, sexually assaulted, belittled or coerced by her male cohabitants. The law puts reins on marriage traditions, protecting women and their families from unlawful dowry demands. It extends not only to wives and live-in partners but to women who end up living with men in some relation or another, including "sisters, widows, mothers, single women or [other women] living with the abuser."
As the law is written, domestic violence is also so broadly defined as to cast shadows over many a modern Western marriage. No bloody nose or a black eye is required to incur the government's wrath; the law also attempts to protect women from "threats of abuse, whether physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic." It even offers women legal recourse against name-calling, insults and pressure to quit a job or stay out of the workforce. Finally, the law establishes women's right to secure housing, affording a woman the right to live in her matrimonial household even if she doesn't own it.
Seeing major crimes (of rape and battery) lined up alongside more business-as-usual, "I'm the man of the household," B.S. is fascinating. The law acknowledges that in a culture (or a family) in which one person has all the power, the person without power doesn't need to be beaten to be completely stripped of her human rights. But can government really monitor intimate relationships at the level of name-calling?
In the short term, it's hard to imagine it being very effective. Indeed, women's rights activists told north India's Tribune they don't hold out hope that this law will have a substantial impact on behavior for another decade. But that doesn't mean the law can't gradually influence our most private relationships by holding up a vision of a new norm. And in a country in which some studies have shown that 70 percent of all women have been victims of violence, it's good to have a radical statement that the norm needs to change.
It's easy to look at other cultures, like India's, and regard their women's rights issues as terribly distant from our own political battles over abortion, "mommy wars" and eating-disordered models. But a visit to Laura X's retired Web site reminded me that our own issues regarding women's legal equality at home are not yet ancient history. Heck, they're not even history: Although all 50 states have made marital rape illegal, 30 states still have something referred to as marital rape exemption laws on the books. These laws allow a husband, and in some states a live-in boyfriend, to avoid prosecution from rape if the woman is too mentally or physically impaired to give consent -- i.e., when she's unconscious. Nice!