Many years ago, an Indian friend of mine told me her husband could say “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” take her children and throw her out onto the street with nothing. At the time, I thought “how horrible to live in a society where women have no rights” – not realizing that this was her potential reality, as much as mine.
In the past decades, women’s rights laws have changed in countries around the world, with almost everyone becoming signatories to the CEDAW, as well as passing a myriad of gender-equality laws. However, because lawyers across the globe have been slow, hard-pressed, and even refusing to further women’s rights during the dissolution of marriage, the oppression of women today, is much the same as it was a century ago.
In Divorced from Justice: The Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges, Karen Winner puts divorce courts under a microscope, declaring that “laws – the no fault, equitable distribution, and “best interest of the child” doctrines – were supposedly formulated to promote gender equality and make the laws more equitable between the sexes. But as exhaustive research has since borne out, these supposedly gender-neutral laws are being used as tools of discrimination and abuse against women, with a ferocity that seems uparalleled in modern American history. Women are now legally being ordered to give up their children, their homes, their economic security. The fact that the undermining of the laws’ intent has taken place under the noses of the state judicial branches nationwide – and been openly acknowledged – makes this phenomenon all the more shocking.”
The abuses regarding women’s property rights within the courts are well-known, even at the highest echelons of government. In the early ‘90s Vice-president Biden “then-Judiciary Committee chairman, declared: “When cases cost so much and take so long that some people can’t use the courts at all, and those who can use them find their pocketbooks depleted at a record pace, we have a crisis of major dimensions.” Winner goes on to say that “[these] laws’ lucrative benefits to lawyer actually became an inside joke among lawyers. “We called it ERA - the Economic Recovery Act for Lawyers, Accountants, and Appraisers.”
As bad as the situation is for the average women, when discrimination in the courts is combined with domestic abuse, the consequences can be extremely dangerous, even lethal for victims. As Amnesty International documents in Más allá del papel, the Provincial Court of Murcia minimizes the seriousness of gender violence in declaring that “by only having doused her with alcohol without actually lighting the lighter… he did not intend to kill his wife, only frighten her, overcome her will, and have her return to the home,” –subsequently absolving the abuser of all wrong-doing. (A similar decision, handed down by an American judge, is documented in “Are Good Enough” Parents Losing Custody to Abusive Ex-Partners?).
Judicial decisions such as these expose the double-standards in the ‘West,’ which consider ‘bride-burning’ in the Indian subcontinent an aberrant savagery (and it is), but which rationalizes this same type of behavior in the ‘East,’ as “only a judicial error” – therefore acceptable, with no accountability from judges. The ‘western’ doctrine is more liberal because it accepts ‘wife-burning’ as long as the woman is not actually set on fire?!
Then, while the press is all too ready to expose rulings of judges in the ‘East’ who order women to marry their rapists, decisions such as a Cincinnati judge, who “ordered [a] man to marry [a woman] after [he had] punched her in the mouth” are buried by the press. (While admittedly, the degrees of violence in these cases differ, the principles and consequences for the victim remain potentially the same.)
Winner also provides some insight into why such norms in the courts continue to exist, stating that “woman’s advocacy groups, the most likely lobbyists, have not taken a concerted interest in challenging the legal system on behalf of divorcing women. Part of the reason, I am told be academics, is that many professional women don’t identify with or sympathize with dependent women. Most feminists advocate that women break free of financial dependency on men. Feminists and professional women, therefore have been less than zealous in supporting mothers’ rights and can’t relate to what they perceive as women fighting for their share of their husband’s earnings. There may even be an unconscious resentment on the part of some feminists who may think that full-time homemakers and mothers deserve what they get for putting themselves in a dependent position. What these professionally successful women fail to realize, however, is that no matter how strong their belief in independence, they can [and do] wind up in the same boat as their “dependent” counterpart.”
As long as everyone in the ‘West’ continues to play ostrich to the rampant gender-bias in their courts, and to the inequality of women within marriage, the potential for oppressing women ‘in violation of the law’ in the ‘West,’ will equal the potential for oppressing women ‘under the law’ in the ‘East.’
Not all men are oppressive (in the ‘West’ or the ‘East’), but those who are, can and do, abuse their victims, with societies complacently standing-by and ‘watching.’ Not until attitudes and fundamental belief systems change, with societies dominated by acceptance and respect for ones fellow man, woman, and child, instead of dominated by bullying, ‘politicking,’ and at time extremist violence, in every walk of life – women will never achieve equality, and women (and men) will never live productive, fulfilling lives.
And, at the end of the day isn’t that what it’s all about, and why we’re all here?