Inheritance of loss

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Inheritance of loss

Parsi woman’s case of identity post-marriage raises vital questions about human rights

A woman’s identity continues to be fluid and malleable, referenced by civilisation, custom, context and role-playing. Gender justice, the much-tom-tommed agenda in any public discourse, is just a talking point and is not born out of a lived experience or a humanist perspective beyond the clichés of oppression or denial. This is why the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court has an intricately loaded task at hand while addressing the legal question of a Parsi woman losing her religious and paternal identity after marrying a man of a different religion under the Special Marriage Act. Jurisprudence has to evolve at the intersection of gender, religious and cultural identities. Goolrukh Gupta filed her case challenging a Parsi law that ex-communicated her since she married a Hindu and, consigning her to the adoptive religious status of her husband, prevented her from entering the Tower of Silence on her father’s death.

She challenged the ban in the Gujarat High Court, which in 2012 upheld it, disregarding the fact that born a Parsi, she had continued practising Zoroastrianism after her marriage and had not adopted Hinduism. The court perhaps chose not to err on the side of caution, negotiating the tricky territory of minority rights and gender parity, and gave weightage to circumstance. Fact is Goolrukh got married under the Special Marriage Act, which is a boon for inter-faith couples, allowing each partner the right to practise his/her religion. And if this is nullified by faulty interpretations, then mixed marriages in this country would automatically see the girl denied the legitimacy of parental inheritance, be it religious, legal, social or economical. This would be discriminatory for not only women’s rights but personal freedom. Then there is the question of probing the gender bias inherent in Parsi community laws. A Parsi man continues to enjoy all rights of being born one, even if he’s married to a non-Parsi. A Parsi woman on the other hand is guilty of diluting the insular strength of the community, which itself is under strain and stress. At last count, Parsis number just a little over 57,000, with their population falling by 18 per cent in a decade. Continued short-sightedness about their purist strain would only exacerbate the steady decline in their gene pool and lead to extinction of a way of life. Disowning those who embrace diversity while staying true to their faith will only enhance rigidity and prevent them from ever mainstreaming themselves with India’s cosmopolitan polity.   

Then there is the question of human rights. Does a daughter not have the right to the funerary duties of her family or any say in the house she has been born into and grown up in simply because she is married to a man not of her origin? Isn’t her volition to practise her own faith a matter of fundamental right? Is a daughter to be circumscribed within norms convenient to patriarchy and uprooted when she challenges them? Most important, the assessment of this case will not depend on the binaries of gender and religion. It will be seen in consonance with the scope and width of the triple talaq verdict, which while striking down instantaneous divorce on a whim or fancy, still has to address the wider realm of gender equality within the prolonged period of conflict resolution in a marriage. A protectionist discourse should be about the human, not man or woman.

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