In the quest for equal rights for all, the Supreme Court of India has taken an important step by releasing guidelines to take on harmful gender stereotypes that perpetuate inequalities. Laying down a set of dos and don’ts for judicial decision-making and writing, the Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes helps judges identify language that promotes archaic and “incorrect ideas”, about women in particular, and offers alternative words and phrases. Instead of “affair”, it will be de rigueur to say a “relationship outside of marriage”; similarly, for “adulteress”, the preferred usage is a “woman who has engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage”. A host of derogatory and seemingly mild adjectives have been dropped too while referring to women. For instance, it is no longer “chaste” woman, “dutiful” wife, “housewife”; a plain “woman”, “wife” and “homemaker” will do. Men have not been forgotten either, with the Court striking down words such as “effeminate” (when used pejoratively), and “faggot”, with the directive, “accurately describe the individual’s sexual orientation (e.g. homosexual or bisexual)”. Pointing out that stereotypes — “a set idea that people have about what someone or something is like, especially an idea that is wrong” — leads to exclusion and discrimination, it identifies common presumptions about the way sexual harassment, assault, rape and other violent crimes are viewed, skewed against women.
One of the stereotypes the Court shatters is women who do not wear traditional clothes and smoke or drink are asking for trouble, and drives home the important point of consent. It also firmly asserts that women who are sexually assaulted may not be able to immediately report the traumatic incident. Courts should take social realities and other challenges facing women seriously, it says. It is wrong, the Court adds, to assume women are “overly emotional, illogical, and cannot take decisions”. It is also a stereotypical presumption that all women want to have children, says the handbook, and points out, “deciding to become a parent is an individual choice”. These possibilities, to be able to choose what to do in life, are still frustratingly out of reach for most of India’s women. In a largely patriarchal society, girls are often forced to pick marriage as a way out to avoid social stigma, and not education and a career. Even if things are changing, the pace is slow. To achieve gender equality, fundamental changes need to be made to shun all stereotypes. That women are more nurturing and better suited to care for others, and should do all household chores are simply wrong notions. The handbook may be a guide for judges and lawyers, but it could also be a catalyst for change right down to the societal level.