- The Trouble with Marriage: Feminists Confront Law and Violence in India by Srimati Basu
Marriage is more than one site of structural vulnerability captured in law; it is at the core of gender trouble.1
This book, the first in a new series on “Gender and Justice,” edited by Claire M. Renzetti, offers a profoundly feminist analysis of the laws in India that surround and frame marriage and, especially, marital strife and violence, against women, including rape. It focuses on law and gives an account of law reforms in India, intelligently informed by debates within and about feminist jurisprudence, but author Srimati Basu adopts a mainly anthropological approach to her subject.2 Over several years, she conducted an ethnography of the family court (particularly the family court in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta) as well as the Women’s Grievance Cells, managed by the police and mediation agencies. For instance, she “lurked” in family court in order to see law at work and to see how people looked and behaved in this legal setting and as they negotiated.3 For Basu, law is a complex phenomenon, one that is a preferred venue of cultural negotiation because of its regulatory power. As she says, “people narrate their lives through the logic of laws even though they rarely encounter formal cases.”4 As a result, law has the capacity to constitute new subjectivities. People’s speech or performances in court or in mediation are not simply “truths” or “desires” but, rather, are framed by legal strategy.5 Moreover, in a multilingual context, judges may “translate” the words of litigants in problematic ways; even their silences can be misinterpreted.6 [End Page 241] Some themes revealed by Basu, notably the unintended consequences of feministinspired law reform, will be familiar to most feminist legal scholars, even though the cultural context within which law reforms are implemented is sometimes radically different.
As a Western legal feminist with expertise neither on India nor in legal anthropology, I read The Trouble with Marriage as a scholar of feminist legal studies, marriage, and family law. I enjoyed Basu’s turn of phrase and her frequent invocation of quotes from cultural sources as varied as poetry (W.H. Auden’s 1941 “Law Like Love,” for instance), film, theatre, and the signage on the walls of the Mumbai Family Court. Her ethnographic approach lightens her theoretical accounts with stories from her fieldwork, most of which illustrate the extremely complex court and affiliated processes of dispute resolution.
Basu’s book studies family courts and related dispute resolution mechanisms as sites for gender construction and the negotiation of gendered lives. It illustrates problems with institutionalizing feminist legal reform that was conceived as a potentially “radical measure to destabilize the patriarchal nature of legal discourse.”7 In addition to addressing domestic violence, including as it relates to dowries, the main procedural reform in the 1980s was to make the family court in India easy and facilitative and to eliminate lawyers, for the most part, and, instead, to generate a direct relationship between litigants and judges. The difficulties with executing the original radical vision include “the intransigence of gendered norms, the ambivalence of forgoing lawyers, and the problems of adjudicating violence alongside divorce and maintenance.”8 Basu argues that the “[n]ew ways of speaking and listening” cannot be transformative without significant alteration of the legal process or, importantly, changes to the “inscription of marriage.”9 More insidiously, she suggests that the cases she witnessed “demonstrate the law’s collusion in enforcing gendered vulnerabilities while ostensibly acting in women’s best interests.”10 Far from being a radical innovation, mediation can fail to challenge gendered norms and inequalities and, instead, exacerbate them. Moreover, the push for justice without lawyers is couched in the language of “conciliation,” which is interpreted quite often as “re-conciliation” of spouses rather than as a mode of conflict resolution. As a result, women can be pushed by counsellors to return to problematic marriages, sometimes for economic reasons.11
Invocations of an idealized family...