Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Srimati Basu's "The Trouble with Marriage"

Srimati Basu is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of She Comes to Take Her Rights: Indian Women, Property, and Propriety, the editor of Dowry and Inheritance (Issues in Contemporary Indian Feminism series), and the coeditor of Conjugality Unbound: Sexual Economy and the Marital Form in India.

Basu applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Trouble with Marriage: Feminists Confront Law and Violence in India, and reported the following:
I was hoping that page 99 would contain one of the legal cases animating The Trouble with Marriage, which demonstrate the quotidian ways in which marriage, parenting, labor or care are shaped and contested. But page 99 has few words on it. It depicts life in the courtroom statistically and visually, dominated by an image of a confinement cell [inset, below left; click to enlarge ] and an analysis of court data. One may read these to reveal critical themes nonetheless.

Page 99 is part of Chapter 4, “Justice Without Lawyers?: Living the Family Court Experiment,” literally the core of this project. I read about the establishment of new Family Courts in India which would generally exclude lawyers, with the goal of enhancing people’s direct engagement with legal matters and providing a less alienating, more gender equality friendly space. My book began as a legal ethnography of the Kolkata courts, spanning a decade of fieldwork. It grew to encompass the governance of family law alongside that of domestic violence and rape, in courts and police stations and mediation organizations. But life in the Family Courts is the ethnographic center of the book, and page 99 appropriately brings us there, with considerations of whether the court has improved the speed of clearing cases. The broader contention of the chapter -- that set-aside courts for special issues can move cases along, but the new format still works through familiar forms of legal discipline and process – can be gleaned from the two brief paragraphs of text.

The confinement cell reminds us, similarly, that the idea of a new-style courtroom may be different from its materialization: the jail-like enclosure seems at odds with the notion of a comfortable, friendly space. The image is a reminder of my argument that these courts may have enhanced the unilateral power of judges in curbing that of lawyers, rather than empowering litigants. The cell typically houses poor men who might be jailed for failing to pay (or being unable to pay) maintenance: while husbands routinely default on maintenance, poorer men become symbols of the State’s serious intent. Women’s economic woes in marital trouble range across classes. The image also graphically conveys a point made in several chapters, that using the protective provisions of criminal law gives women some leverage against the disadvantages generated by gender-neutral civil marriage law; however, criminal law works through profoundly patriarchal notions of harm and reparation.
Learn more about The Trouble with Marriage at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue