Even as the Supreme Court tried to define the contours of domestic partnerships and give unmarried women in long-term relationships some of the legal benefits of marriage, it found itself embroiled in a nasty spat about words and ends.
The judgment by Justice Markandey Katju and Justice T.S. Thakur sought to clarify the cases in which a woman was entitled to maintenance — when both partners were in an acknowledged consensual relationship for a significant length of time. One night stands and occasional weekends did not count, said the bench, and that "if a man has a 'keep' whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for s*xual purpose and or as a servant", it would not be akin to marriage. Assistant Solicitor General Indira Jaising strongly objected to the language of the judgment and demanded that words like "keep" be expunged from the Supreme Court ruling. "The expressions are very derogatory and reflect badly on women. Language should reflect our commitment to gender equality," she asserted. At which point Justice Katju told the upset Jaising to confine herself to the case itself, and Justice Thakur wondered whether the word "concubine" might have been preferable?
This is the laughable, tragic bind that women face. In essence, this judgment is a progressive moveto extend rights to relationships outside marriage. And yet, it's expressed in unwittingly s*xist terms. A few months back, the Supreme Court observed that a woman's word should be sufficient in cases of rape and s*xual assault, but again, worded it in the vocabulary of izzat and victimhood. Words are inseparable from intentions — they betray the patriarchal lens in which women are viewed as passive and acted-upon, rather than rights-bearing agents in reciprocal relationships. Those who deploy words like "keep" and "concubine" are likely to view these partnerships as asymmetric in a particular way and deprive these women of the rights and benefits they deserve. Either way, no matter how avuncular and well-meaning, certain terms should be off-limits, at least for institutions like the Supreme Court. And the searching seen in court this week for a more appropriate voca-bulary should be notice that, in progressive law-making and judgments, language itself is a measure of social change.