A news piece resurfaced recently about how the Delhi High Court had granted a divorce to a man who said he was subjected to repeated verbal cruelty by his wife. She allegedly taunted him about his weight and his inability to maintain conjugal relations. Of course there must have been more than frivolous abuses that led to the breakdown of this marriage but the fact that the Court had taken a strong view of their bitter exchanges, which the wife had quite reasonably contended were vague and non-specific, suggests a departure from the sympathy with which courts view a woman’s situation in such cases. “When two parties are in a marital relationship neither is expected to maintain a logbook and note therein each and every instance of a matrimonial offence committed by the other,” the judge had concluded, before sanctioning the divorce.
This judge appears to have a very idealistic idea of the kinds of conversations couples have but in a long relationship, often, it is precisely a mental logbook documenting old grievances and laments that come up during a fight. While this man was well within his rights to seek the court’s intervention, a divorce being granted for a reason (among others) that his wife called him foul names sounds comically ridiculous. Laws are framed for the greater good and Indian legislation is generous to women stuck in abusive marriages, at least on paper. The perils of living in a (slightly more) gender-equal world is that occasionally, the ball will roll to the other side. In another divorce case, a Delhi court asked a woman to look for a job saying since she was so qualified she should not be burdening her estranged husband. The woman had argued that she had married young and never held a job, or travelled alone. The judge had acerbically replied that if she could come to court to fight litigation alone, she could very well go looking for a job alone.
If the message from these cases is that we’re all expected to look after ourselves and the historic security system that marriage offered can no longer be taken for granted, it is worth looking at how horribly risky a marriage is for women, to begin with. In the first case, it seems the wife was supposed to make peace with being stuck forever in a loveless marriage with an unattractive man who was fine with the status quo and wilfully indifferent to her unhappiness. Her asking for compensation for her opportunity cost (where she could have been if she hadn’t married him) backfired. In the second case, the aftermath of a divorce is far more terrifying. The judgment failed to take into account the vagaries inbuilt in Indian marriages and the unspoken pressures that women in every economic strata have to cope with. Perhaps this qualified woman didn’t work because her in-laws didn’t approve or she was raised to believe her career shouldn’t undermine her husband’s. As for her being urged to seek employment post the separation, there is the very practical reality that despite whatever degrees you hold, if you’ve been out of the workplace for years, it’s very difficult to explain a long gap in a resume.
In this case like in many others, the mere act of getting married significantly diminished this woman’s career prospects and this is not factoring in the road ahead, the necessary timeouts women need to take in their careers, for motherhood. It’s happened far later in India than in the rest of the world, that people have begun to question their obligations to family and have begun to wonder about their obligations to themselves. Finally, an idea is gaining traction, that who you are, and who you want to be with can change over the course of a long life. There is a tendency to dismiss this ethical shift — specifically divorce — as symptomatic of an intolerant generation’s selfishness when actually it has less to do with emotions and much more to do with economics. Women who can afford to leave bad marriages do, and those who can’t, stay. Toughest is for those who suddenly find themselves bereft of both home and career, in a situation they never expected or planned for. The law should and often does consider the built-in inequality in Indian marriages that reduces the ability of women to rebuild their lives from that point on.