When listening to Britney Spears give her searing 24-minute speech during her legal conservatorship court hearing on June 23, it took me a minute to understand why something so outlandish felt so familiar.
Spears spoke of being forced to perform against her will, and punished when she objected; of not having had the choice to take a break; of not being able to see her friends; being treated like a “slave”; and of being prohibited from having her IUD removed, among a long list of other alleged abuses.
As Spears detailed how her every action had been restricted under the ongoing guardianship of her father, I had the sinking realisation that there was actually very little separating her experience from that of scores of Indian women who live in a socio-cultural environment that lets the men in their lives make decisions for them.
Jhilmil Breckenridge – founder of Bhor Foundation, a non-profit that works in mental health advocacy – gave VICE a first-hand perspective on how terribly these situations can play out.
Back in 2006, New Delhi-based Breckenridge consented to being put under general anesthesia for the birth of her fourth baby via a C-section.
“I came to about two hours after the delivery,” she recounted. “My ex-husband handed me my son, all wrapped up and beautiful, and said, ‘Here, he’s perfect… and by the way, I had your tubes tied.’ I was aghast, because there had been no conversation about this.”
Breckenridge was 38 at the time. “I was a mental health activist and fairly educated; the doctor could have asked me. That’s how you would treat any adult person. I didn’t say anything at the time; I just smiled politely as we’re trained to do in India, but in my head I questioned, ‘Is my body my own or does it actually belong to my husband? Who actually owns our bodies? Our fathers and then our husbands and then the state?’”
For decades, Indian women have been pushed into getting hysterectomies or permanent sterilisation procedures. Take the otherwise-nondescript village of Beed in the western state of Maharashtra, for instance, which has a large population of labourers who work in sugarcane plantations. Here, civil rights organisations allege that the hysterectomy rate is 14 times higher than that of the state or country. The reason is suspected to be an unholy nexus of corrupt doctors and labour contractors seeking to maximise profits from female plantation workers. These cane-cutting contractors do not hire women who menstruate. “We have a target to complete in a limited time frame, and hence we don’t want women who would have periods during cane cutting,” a contractor told Business Line. They “don’t force” the women who are in need of work but they thus create a system where they’re left with no choice.
“Especially if you have a mental health condition or a mental illness, it’s routine sterilisation,” said Breckenridge. “People with mental health distress need other kinds of support. You can’t just perform blanket sterilisations.”
Six years after the forced hysterectomy, in August 2012, Breckenridge said all four of her children were kidnapped by her ex-husband. “He kidnapped them without court permission because our divorce case was not going well. By then, I was living in a very small room in New Delhi. I’d already been thrown out [of my marital home], I’d been locked up once [in a mental health institution], and my lawyer was worried he would kill me, or put me in another [mental health] institution.”
Breckenridge did not have support from her own family either. “You see, I was the one acting out of character per patriarchal norms, I was the one complaining that I couldn’t sleep, I was the one with the mental health diagnosis, so I was the one to be ‘fixed’, right? I was the one asking for help, so I was the one to be locked up.”
The fallout from patriarchal notions of how women should behave isn’t restricted to women with mental health diagnoses. Women in India face stifling control at practically every stratum of society.
Let’s look at some numbers before engaging in a bit of legal gymnastics.
The results of the latest available National Family Health Survey, for 2015-2016, ring weirdly Britney-esque. According to the survey, Indian women are considered to have freedom of movement if they’re allowed to visit the market, a healthcare facility, and places outside the village unaccompanied. The results reported that only 41 percent of Indian women meet even this pathetically low benchmark for freedom of movement.
The report’s findings on contraception are just as disturbing. It says that 36 percent of currently married women “choose” to undergo female sterilisation, as compared to the 0.3 percent of men who undergo vasectomies – despite vasectomies being more cost-effective and five times less likely to end in death than female sterilisation.
But here’s where it gets really Toxic.
Around 58 percent of Indian women who underwent sterilisation were not informed of side effects that could occur; 65 percent were not told what to do in case side effects occurred; and worst of all, more than half were not informed that other methods of contraception could be used at all. This means that the majority of women who underwent permanent sterilisation did not do so with informed consent.
You don’t need to go rooting around in obscure governmental surveys to find resonances between the lives of Indian women and Spears under her conservatorship.
One of the most shocking revelations Spears made during her speech in court was that she was disallowed from marrying and starting a family with her boyfriend.
In India, where 90 percent of marriages are said to be “arranged” by families, parents have immense control over whom their daughters marry, and the price of disobedience can be cruelly high.
Gruesome stories of these women or their husbands emerge in the media all the time – like that of Gowsalya, whose husband was hacked to death on her casteist relatives’ orders in 2016; or of Amrutha, whose husband was similarly murdered by her father in 2018 as they returned from a prenatal checkup; or Divya, whose father committed suicide after she eloped with a Dalit man, sparking the 2012 Dharmapuri riots.
Now while the law tends to be a more egalitarian arena for women than the family or societal unit, it comes with its own inherent biases that often effectively result in women living under conservatorship-like situations.
As Sarasu Esther Thomas – professor of family law at the National Law School of India University – wrote in a 2013 essay, studying case law shows that courts are often quick to “label women insane, while not tarring the husbands with the same brush.”
This could be due to a combination of factors, Thomas explains in the essay, including that Indian law constructs mental disability in gendered terms through words like “lunatic” (which comes from the word “luna” or moon, referring to monthly “cycles” of madness), gendered perceptions of a woman’s role in a family unit, and (usually male) medical or legal experts assessing whether a woman with disability is able to perform that role.
India’s paternalistic socio-legal culture also often places familial control of women above their individual agency.
One of the most telling examples in recent times is the 2017-2018 Hadiya Jahan case. An adult woman who chose to convert from Hinduism to Islam and marry a Muslim man was told by the Kerala High Court that she was being sent to the custody of her father until legal issues surrounding the marriage were resolved.
The court’s stated reason for this decision was that “per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents, until she is properly married.”
It’s the same kind of patronising sentiment that’s recently seen state assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat pass laws to address the mythical bogey of “love jihad.” Judicial practices and trends like these reflect the prevailing belief that the family unit knows what’s best for an adult woman.
Of course, many women don’t even make it to the courts in the first place. Karnataka High Court advocate Ashwini Obulesh told VICE that in many cases, especially those regarding property, many families very conveniently exclude women from this discussion.
“If there’s a division of property, there’s a partition deed drawn up, and the women are often not even mentioned,” she said. “In many cases, brothers go to court on a partition suit, [but] women are not even a party to the legal case, even though the judgements are bound to affect them and they should be able to appeal. They’re not even aware of such cases. They’re seen within the family as inferior, and are not involved in making ‘important’ decisions like property disputes.”
While the letter of the law may allow women some protections on paper, in a country where the majority of women can’t even go to the market unaccompanied, it’s hard to imagine them having access to the courts and finding legal representation against their own families. If this is how Indian law and society restrict the average Indian woman, it becomes far easier to understand how women with mental disabilities are subjected to extreme or unjust familial control.
It feels more ominous still when you remember just how public a figure Britney Spears is. When one of the most visible American pop stars in the world could be placed under such oppressive conditions and have her wishes ignored by the legal system, what chance do the most oppressed among us have?
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