Around a 100 feminists - partner organisations, friends, journalists, ex-clients were held spell bound for over three hours, when six feminist icons of our times – Chhaya Daatar, Corinne Kumar, Devaki Jain, Gouri Choudhury, Nayantara Sahgal and Vasanth Kannabiran – traced the precise moments when the personal became the political for them. What was deeply moving was that they were no longer afraid of acknowledging the contradictions in their lives, the compartmentalization of work / activism and family life, marriage, motherhood, and the desire to pursue their dreams, the barriers they crossed externally and also internally within themselves, to reach a new awakening.
They also addressed the challenges of building organisations and evolving new work structures and questioned whether ‘feminism’ is just a label that we adorn and whether we have evolved newer ways of resolving disputes or resort to the same old patriarchal ways of conflict resolution that we have imbibed.
Bishakha Datta, a trustee of Majlis, who was the moderator, effectively steered the conversations to lead the panelists into deep personal introspections. She became emotional when she informed the audience that while we celebrate 25 years of the legal centre, there is a void, as founder members and director of the cultural centre have left the organisation.
Flavia Agnes reluctantly explained that the concept of Majlis as a legal and cultural centre was located within an intimate partnership that Madhusree and she shared for nearly 30 years, which was mutually nurturing but which was never publicly acknowledged and hence the dispute is being addressed within familiar notions of patriarchal power and compromises with the state. She felt that the letter negated the tireless efforts of over 25 second and third generation feminists - lawyers and activists of the legal centre, in making the law work for women and children.
These issues reverberated in the junior panel comprising of Meena Seshu, Suchitra Mathur, Sumitra Mukkapati and Sakhi Anita Nitin who were within the age group of 20-50. While tracing their personal journeys, they raised questions of organisational hierarchies and ownership of founder members that continue to plague us and dent our progress.
The evening started with opening comments by Justice Suresh and Justice Prabha Sridevan both trustees of Majlis and Mr. KiranNagarkar, a renowned novelist, who also shared their thoughts on the theme ‘the personal is the political’.
There were many who anguished that while students in universities are facing violence and their voices of dissent are brutally crushed, a strong feminist voice of protest is lacking. It is time for women’s groups to build alliances with other progressive groups to put up an effective political resistance.
Audrey D’mello, Legal Centre.
(The letter is signed by the entire team of Majlis Legal Centre, after a great deal of discussion and
introspection. If there are further clarifications or a need for a discussion, please contact us at
Majlis Legal Centre is committed to the protection and promotion of women’s rights through legal
representation, advocacy, training and research.
Though the Majlis Trust has two centres, Legal and Cultural, those working at the Legal Centre for
the past decade, do not have any interaction with the Cultural Centre. The two centres function as
autonomous units from two independent offices. The legal centre has been responsible for building
its own team, formulating its projects, conducting its activities and raising its funds. We present
our annual reports to the Board at AGMs and our work has always been well appreciated. The
Legal Centre has evolved through mechanisms for interaction between team members and even
partners, which provide ample scope for discussions, debates and even dissent.
Hence the open letter circulated on the eve of the 25 year celebrations hit us like a bolt from the
blue. We are deeply saddened and disappointed that the executive director, who held the post for
12 years, chose to criticise our work after her resignation, through this mode, without first
discussing it internally within the organisation. We feel this is not in keeping with the stated
feminist ideals of the organisation and goes against the democratic principles that we have
constantly sought to uphold.
Tracing our history
In 2007 the legal centre was going through a low, with only two lawyers who litigated in family
courts. With scarce financial resources, it was on the verge of closing down. At that time, some of
us as young feminists joined the organisation because we subscribed to the ideology propagated by
Ms. Flavia Agnes, the co-founder of Majlis.
Over the next nine years, with great deal of commitment and dedication we built a dynamic centre.
Today we are an all women team of 25 lawyers, activists, and support persons from diverse
backgrounds and identities with a wide range of experiences and expertise. To be referred to as
'administrative employees' undermines the serious legal and support work being done by a very
committed set of women and also devalues the very crucial work that administrative staff perform.
Since its inception, the vision of the legal centre has been consistent. Even after 25 years we
continue to provide socio-legal support to victims of violence. Along the way, instead of settling
for the relatively easy service provider model, we have chosen the more challenging path of
working with implementers to ensure they perform their roles effectively.
The following are some of our newer initiatives during the past seven years
A Handbook on Domestic Violence Act – After a sustained effort of over four years, we were
instrumental in bringing out the “Maharashtra State Domestic Violence Handbook” which is
approved by the Chief Justice, Bombay High Court and the Government of Maharashtra. It
contains protocols, guidelines and best practises for the judiciary, police, protection officers,
service provider NGOs etc to ensure effective implementation of the DV Act. This has helped to
bring clarity and convergence among stakeholders.
RAHAT – providing support to victims of rape and domestic violence by walking the legal
journey with her to ensure that all stake holders perform their roles as per the mandate of the
statute. Working with Police, Protection Officers, Legal Aid lawyers to reduce dependency on
private lawyers who exploit vulnerable victims for commercial gains. Regular monthly
interactions between victims, NGOs, Police and Protection Officers are held to air out grievances.
Manodhairya – campaigning with the government to launch a scheme for rape and acid attack
victims by presenting data and hard evidence on the vulnerabilities of victims. The scheme which
we helped to bring about is the outcome of a consistent follow up and is unique as compensation is
paid soon after the FIR and not at the end of the trial. In other states which have introduced similar
schemes, the compensation is paid at the end of the trial and only upon conviction. We continue to
be engaged to ensure the scheme works effectively by evolving Standard Operating Procedures,
training committee members, and plugging loopholes.
Training – providing skill based training to judiciary, police, prosecution etc. by using protocols,
guidelines and caselaw. The trainings are structured to equip each stake holder to perform the
mandated role and are fine tuned around gaps and challenges they face.
Stakeholder Accountability – our engagement with implementers while supporting individual
victims, provides the scope to bring to the notice of higher authorities the problems which victims
face. For instance, monitoring of trial courts has helped to bring to the public domain the multiple
ways in which the dignity of the victim is violated during closed door trials which resulted in
bringing about remedial measures.
Research -Theorising from ground experiences. Our research has helped bring newer insights into
sexual violence and to foreground abuse within homes, more particularly rapes by fathers by
providing concrete examples. Articles in newspapers and academic journals based on our ground
work have helped to critically examine policies and to build perspective.
Policy Advocacy and PILs - We have advocated for a number of changes to highlight issues and
plug loopholes. Our latest PIL which is pending before the High Court is against the Family Court
which has started charging court fee when a mother files for maintenance for her minor son.
Engaging with community – Our constant endeavour is to network with groups working on the
ground to empower women and children, even beyond those carrying a feminist tag to create
awareness and to build their capacity.
Hence the allegations that we are mere ‘service providers’ or a ‘favoured outsourcing agency of
the state’ are blatantly false and malicious. Those who are associated with our work will vouch
that we do not work ‘for the state’ nor receive any remuneration from the state. On the contrary,
we ‘make the state work’ by constantly monitoring performances and highlighting lapses. Rather
than the constant refrain that laws don’t work, it is our endeavour to make laws work and we are
ready to walk the extra mile to attain this goal.
Some outcomes of the constant vigilance and monitoring:
• Our reports to the Chief Justice, Bombay High Court on the lapses in the functioning of the
Special Courts in Mumbai, have brought significant changes within these courts. We are
currently engaged in a litigation for better court infrastructure to secure finances for building
ideal special courts for sexual offences against women and children.
• Our reports on problems faced by victims in DV cases in magistrate courts resulted in strict
guidelines being issued by the High Court.
• Our reports on lapses by police officers while recording cases of sexual offences resulted in
around 30 enquires against errant police officers being initiated by the department.
• Recently we brought to light a case where the doctor at Sion Hospital had turned away a child
victim of rape because there was no FIR. A case has been registered against the doctor.
The list can go on and on …
Feminist legal theory
The legal centre is perhaps one of the few organisations which constantly questions and reinvents
itself in response to the ever changing realities of women and children in our society and moulds
its programmes to cater to their needs. The suggestion that the legal centre is devoid of ‘feminist
criticality’ stems from a conservative approach and fails to take into account theory which is
formulated from below, based on ground level experiences.
Questioning established mainstream feminist positions
The legal centre, and more specifically, our founder, Flavia Agnes, has questioned many of the
established mainstream feminist positions ---
• In the early eighties, challenging the then prevailing norm of attributing all types domestic
violence to dowry, by writing her own autobiography as a testimony of domestic violence.
The law on prevention of domestic violence was finally enacted after 25 years in 2005.
• In the early nineties, after the Bombay riots and in the wake of the Babri Masjid
demolition, foregrounding identity politics and the need to make secularism an agenda for
the women’s movement. An important essay on this was published in 1994 in EPW.
• Since the nineties opposing the women’s movement’s demand for enacting a uniform civil
code and reformulating the demand as ‘reforms from within’. Working to bring changes in
Christian Personal Laws and engaging with the debate on Muslim law reform.