|Harassment tales of a different kind|
The misuse of the anti-dowry law prompted the establishment of the Mothers and Sisters Initiative which strives to protect harassed mothers- and sisters-in-law from abuse. Nivedita Choudhuri meets members of MASI to understand the situation
Consider this. ‘I just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.’ Or this. ‘We were having tea with my mother-in-law the other day and, out of the blue, she said: “I’ve decided I want to be cremated.” I said: “All right, get your coat.”
It’s jokes like these that upset Kiran Kukreja, a founder-member of Mothers and Sisters Initiative (MASI). “Women get married with pre-conceived notions that their mothers-in-law will be hostile and antagonistic. The moment a man gets married, his mother is labelled a monster-in-law,” she says.
“If a marriage turns sour, the husband’s mother is always blamed. She is generally portrayed as being the greedy and grabbing type, always pestering her daughter-in-law to bring money from her maternal home. In films and television serials, a sister-in-law (nanad) is portrayed as scheming and cunning. When women file false cases to harass their in-laws, everybody tends to believe the daughter-in-law’s version of the story,” says another member.
MASI was formed in 2005 when, according to Kukreja, the misuse of the anti-dowry law (Section 498A IPC) began to increase. Scores of mothers and daughters found themselves at the receiving end after they were arrested following complaints of dowry harassment filed against them by their daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law. It did not matter whether they lived in the same house, or for that matter the same city, as their daughters-in-law or sisters-in-law. Thousands of women found themselves behind bars for no fault of theirs.
A decision was thus taken during a meeting of the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), an organisation that helps men fight false cases lodged against them by their wives, to launch a forum that would push for greater protection of the legal rights of mothers and sisters. The forum now has around 2,500 members and the numbers are growing every day. It advises and counsels women who are being mistreated by their daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law on how to tackle the situation.
While there exist numerous laws to protect daughters-in-law from abuse, there is nothing to shield mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law who are being harassed, says Shalini Sharma, general-secretary of MASI. Many a daughter-in-law has invoked the provisions of the draconian Domestic Violence Act against her in-laws, but mothers and sisters of the groom cannot take recourse to these laws if they are attacked. Worse, there is no law that punishes those who make false allegations. As a result, the families of the accused men go through a harrowing time because it takes years for the slow-paced judiciary in India to hand out verdicts.
“MASI members feel that all people, irrespective of gender, age and roles in the family, must be protected against domestic violence from anyone else. However, the current laws take a very biased and one-sided approach to illegally favour the daughter-in-law in all cases. MASI recommends that separate laws be made to protect mothers-in-law and husbands in case the daughter-in-law or wife is abusive towards them,” adds Sharma.
“MASI also believes that adequate compensation must be paid to harassed mothers-in-law who have had false cases filed against them under Section 498a and the Domestic Violence Act. It also wants the creation of a separate fund to compensate and repatriate victims of false cases filed under laws such as the Domestic Violence Act and Section 498a and that the compensation paid be commensurate with the harassment and suffering caused.”
There was a time when the daughter-in-law had to live with many restrictions, but now times have changed, says Anita, a SIFF activist. “Today’s daughter-in-law is free and works outside the home. It is the old mother-in-law who faces abuse at the hands of her daughter-in-law.”
Anita recounts her harrowing tale which began as soon as her brother got married. “My sister-in-law was very hostile towards us from the beginning. She wanted to sever ties with us, but my brother refused to give in to her demands. Anyhow, two children were born and many years passed. However, last year she decided that she would have nothing to do with my brother any more. But nor was she willing to go in for a divorce.
She threw my brother out of his own home, threatening him by saying that the laws of the land favour women and that he would not be able to take action against her. So, it was better that he kept quiet.”
“My sister-in-law then proceeded to file false cases against my elderly parents, my brother and me, accusing us of harassing her for dowry. My parents never lived with her under the same roof and I have never stayed with her in the same house. The matter is in court and we have had to put our lives on hold till a verdict is announced. We have not taken a single paisa from my sister-in-law, but I do not know if we will get justice. I spend sleepless nights, worrying about what the future holds for us,” Anita adds.
MASI members want an amendment in laws such as the Domestic Violence Act so that innocent men and women are not harassed. The Domestic Violence Act needs to be made gender-neutral so that both men and women who face abuse at home can invoke the law. At present, only married women can take recourse to the law against their spouses and in-laws, says a member. Also, women who lie and claim falsely that they have been beaten up and badgered for dowry, need to be punished. Only then will the misuse of this law be prevented and genuine complaints filed.
MASI is striving hard to bring about changes in the way the mothers and sisters of men are perceived. Taking a break from their kitchen duties and household chores, members of this organisation will not give up till they can ensure that no woman, or man, is targeted unjustly by the wife-centric laws of the land.