At the 21st annual Herbert Rubin and Justice Rose Luttan Rubin International Law Symposium, “Constitution and Custom: Women’s Rights and Access to Justice in Pluralistic Legal Societies,” keynote speaker Vrinda Grover LLM ’06 described why women’s movements in India have eschewed supporting the implementation of a uniform civil code (UCC) in favor of using multiple strategies in their pursuit of gender equality.

Based in New Delhi, India, Grover is a lawyer, researcher, and human rights and women’s rights activist. She has helped draft laws in India, including the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment to the law against sexual assault, which was precipitated by the 2012 gang rape of a young intern. Named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2013, Grover is now a research fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi and a member of UN Women’s India Civil Society Advisory Group.

India’s legal pluralism is a vestige of British rule, which allowed religious groups to retain “personal laws” to govern areas such as marriage, divorce, and adoption. According to Grover, when the UCC was being drafted, it was meant to strengthen national integration by doing away with an inconsistent legal system. Instead, its spirit was incorporated into Part IV of the Indian Constitution, which provides guidelines for the government but is not enforceable.

“Despite the establishment of a republic on the basis of a constitution with a charter of rights for citizens,” Grover said, “personal laws continue to make Indian law and society unequally committed to social and political equality.”

In her speech, “From Uniformity to Equalities,” Grover argued that adopting a uniform civil code today is not the key to gender parity. In fact, religious minorities in India are leery of calls for a UCC, which the political right has used, according to many commentators, as “another stick to beat the minority community with,” Grover said. Meanwhile, she added, the Indian Supreme Court, wary of religious backlash, has failed to uphold women’s rights, tiptoeing around ruling on the personal laws that disadvantage women.

“Jurisprudence,” Grover argued, “has created a false dichotomy between freedom of religion and women’s right to equality.”

Though the court has repeatedly asked the legislature and government for guidance in resolving the inconsistencies across personal laws, Grover underscored that consistency in the law does not mean gender equality.

As a result, women’s movements in India have taken a more complicated route, adopting diverse strategies and forming alliances with minority communities, such as Muslim, Christian, and tribal groups. Such strategies have included supporting minorities when they are under attack and spotlighting conversations about reimagining hierarchies in the home.

“Even as the political sphere becomes more contentious and divided, the gender inequity in the law has been contested and chipped away through multiple strategies using multiple fora,” Grover said.

“Equality and gender justice—promoting dignity rather than uniformity and legislative clarity—are the end goals.”

Posted November 30, 2015