Abolishing Indian adultery law opens door to conversations about future of feminism

Graphic by Jieyu Feng ’22

Graphic by Jieyu Feng ’22


India’s Supreme Court struck down Section 497 — the 158-year-old law that stated a man could be imprisoned for a maximum of five years if he was sexually involved with a married woman without the consent of her husband — on Sept. 27.

According to the BBC, the law also affirmed that a husband could prosecute any man sexually involved with his wife, but a wife could not prosecute any woman sexually involved with her husband. Having raised multiple questions about gender bias, Section 497 was referred to as “a threat against women by their husbands” by Jayna Kothari, executive director of the Center of Law and Policy Research in Bangalore.

The abolishment of Section 497 is the latest in a series of changes to outdated historical legislation, including the recent overturning of the law banning gay sex. After the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, in which 23-year-old woman Jyoti Singh was sexually assaulted by six men on a private bus in New Delhi, activist Kavita Krishnan led a series of protests, objecting to the lack of police investigation into the case. According to an article by The Guardian, “India’s abuse of women is the biggest human rights violation on Earth.” The uproar over the reported rape influenced India’s high court to effectuate the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, which created six new fast-track courts made to hear rape cases.

Although feminism in India has gained momentum in the 21st century, the movement was constantly challenged; in a country torn between modernist and traditionalist ideals, many individuals aimed to preserve India’s more traditional laws. Saachi Khandpur ’22 lived in Delhi and expressed that gender stereotypes are an existing part of her community. “Most of us [women] are taught to dress modestly and talk quietly so as to not attract attention,” she stated. “I have been eye-teased and followed home, but have been told to disregard it.”

For Anna Tavares ’21, a Brazilian-American who lived in New Delhi for five years, gender norms are also incredibly present in India’s modern society. She compared the country’s society with that of America’s. “In a rural village of Uttar Pradesh while men sat and drank their afternoon chai, the women worked in the fields. In contrast, women are seen as too delicate for manual labor in the United States,” she said.

The National Crimes Records Bureau stated that in 2016, the rape of minors in India increased by 82 percent compared with the year prior. The Bureau revealed that 95 percent of rapists in India are not strangers, but family members and friends. Tavares said she believed women in India did not come forward with their assaults because they were afraid that they would not be considered pure and experience public shame. Tavares’ mother worked for the UN Women’s Office in India, in which the victims expressed their feelings of helplessness.

In January of 2018, an eight-year old girl named Asifa Bano from Kathua was brutally sexually assaulted and murdered in a Hindu temple. According to CNN, when police officers attempted to arrest the temple’s custodian and seven other men linked to the crime, multiple traditionalist individuals protested the arrest. Some argue that since the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, there is a culturally sanctioned degradation of women present in India’s society.

With the abolishment of laws that restrict the rights of individual women, one can argue that India’s government is slowly moving towards a more fair and unprejudiced judicial body. According to “The Better India,” in recent years women are experiencing increasing economic liberty and young men and women are working together to change traditional marriage structures to be an equal partnership. However, running concurrent to the emergence of feminism is a society with anti-feminist realities — according to a survey by the Indian goverment conducted in 2014, 42 percent of girls under nineteen have been sexually assulted. India is still in many ways a traditional society growing into its modern identity.