The history of the women’s movement’s relationship to law in India cannot be written without acknowledging the pioneering work of activist, advocate, and scholar Flavia Agnes. Her own life’s journey, engagement with the movement, involvement in women’s rights litigation, feminist jurisprudential scholarship, and outreach work through Majlis (the organisation she co-founded) offer key insights into the kind of movement-based legal pedagogy, awareness, and training that the women’s movement has fostered in India. Flavia’s activism and scholarship over the last three decades have opened up sophisticated critiques of rape law and family law reform in India that have become foundational to the field of what can be called Indian feminist jurisprudence. This interview offers insights into the autobiographical, the feminist, and the scholarly convergences in Flavia’s thinking and writing. She speaks with candour and conviction and introduces ways of thinking about feminist lawyering, violence against women, and the politics of law reform in India that are historically and theoretically grounded in an ethics of self-reflexivity and quotidian wisdom that the insulated nature of clinical legal education in India has much to learn from.
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Flavia Agnes, ‘Women, Marriage, and the Subordination of Rights’ in Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan (eds), Community, Gender and Violence: Subaltern Studies XI (Permanent Black 2000); Flavia Agnes, Feminist Jurisprudence: Contemporary Concerns (Majlis 2003).
One of Flavia Agnes’ first activist-academic pieces were published as a book chapter in Rehana Ghadially (ed) Women in Indian Society: A Reader (Sage 1988).
Flavia Agnes, My Story, Our Story… of Rebuilding Broken Lives (Women's Centre 1984).
For a critical take on the genre of feminist autobiographical or testimonial accounts of violence, see Tanya Serisier, Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape and Narrative Politics (Palgrave Macmillan 2018).
Flavia Agnes, Parvaaz: Tooti-Bikhri Zindagi ko Sanvarne ki Meri Kahani, Hum Sabki Kahani (Nasiruddin Haider Khan tr, Daanish 2008).
See generally, Patricia J Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Harvard University Press 1992); Uddipana Goswami, ‘How to Heal Through Life Writing’ (Psyche, 28 October 2020). https://psyche.co/guides/to-start-to-heal-from-trauma-in-your-life-write-about-it. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Flavia Agnes, State, Gender and the Rhetoric of Law Reform (Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University 1995).
See generally, Flavia Agnes, ‘Women’s Rights and Legislative Reforms: An Overview’ (2008) 36(2) International Journal of Legal Information 265; Debolina Dutta, ‘Another Story of the Open Letter: An Inheritance of Relationship-Making’ (2018) 9(2) Jindal Global Law Review 181.
See generally, Preeti Pratishruti Dash , ‘Rape Adjudication in India in the Aftermath of Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013: Findings from Trial Courts of Delhi’ (2020) 4(2) Indian Law Review 244; Debolina Dutta and Oishik Sircar, ‘India’s Winter of Discontent: Some Feminist Dilemmas in the Wake of a Rape’ (2013) 39(1) Feminist Studies 293.
Flavia Agnes, ‘Protecting Women Against Violence? Review of a Decade of Legislation, 1980–89’ (1992) 27(17) Economic and Political Weekly WS-19.
s 304B (1) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) defines ‘dowry death’ in the following manner – ‘Where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called "dowry death", and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death.’
Agnes, ‘Protecting Women Against Violence’ (n 29).
Justice JS Verma (Retd) and others, Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law (2013) 70–118. https://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Justice%20verma%20committee/js%20verma%20committe%20report.pdf. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Jyoti Singh Pandey, labelled Nirbhaya or ‘fearless’ by the Indian media, was the woman whose brutal gang-rape and murder in Delhi in December 2012 lead to widespread protests and numerous criminal law reforms in 2013; see TOI-Online, ‘What is Nirbhaya Case? (The Times of India, 18 December 2019). https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/what-is-nirbhaya-case/articleshow/72868430.cms. Accessed 30 December 2020.
Some of the child-friendly provisions under the POCSO Act include guidelines to the police (ss 19, 24), appointment of a support person (ss 38, 40), protection during medical examination and during the trial (ss 27, 36–37).
Flavia Agnes, ‘Dowry Murders and Suicides in Judicial Discourse – Interrogating Women’s Agency’ in, Nirmala Banerjee, Samita Sen, and Nandita Dhawan (eds), Mapping the Field: Gender Relations in Contemporary India, vol 2 (Stree 2013).
Pratyay Gender Trust, ‘First Annual Rituparno Ghosh Memorial Lecture by Flavia Agnes’ (6 September 2014). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO5KAabT2ew. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Carceral feminism is a strand of the feminist movement that seeks the punitive power of the state, through strict criminal laws, to remedy patriarchal violence; see Alex Press, ‘#MeToo Must Avoid Carceral Feminism’ (Vox, 1 February 2018). https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2018/2/1/16952744/me-too-larry-nassar-judge-aquilina-feminism. Accessed 30 December 2020.
Prabha Kotiswaran, ‘The Carceral Politics of Sexual Violence’ (2nd Annual Lecture in Criminal Law, Project 39A, National Law University Delhi, 22 November 2019). https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dxP1LtF66m-lyNSVwrOdU-2ds5E-tcmK/view. Accessed 28 December 2020; Oishik Sircar, ‘The Happy and Anxious Lives of (Feminist) Legal Scholarship: An Interview with Prabha Kotiswaran’ (2019) 10(2) Jindal Global Law Review 303.
See generally, Poorvi Gupta, ‘How India’s Rape-Survivors End Up Marrying Their Rapists’ (article 14, 25 August 2020). https://www.article-14.com/post/how-india-s-rape-survivors-end-up-marrying-their-rapists#:~:text=New%20Delhi%3A%20On%2016%20June,impregnated%20when%20she%20was%2016.&text=Vadakkumchery's%20plea%2C%20pending%20in%20the,Court%2C%20is%20not%20without%20precedent. Accessed 28 December 2020.
See generally, Jonna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present Day (Virago 2007); Mithu Sanyal, Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo (Verso 2019).
See generally, Stephen P Pistono, ‘Susan Brownmiller and the History of Rape’ (1987) 14(3) Women’s Studies 265.
Mrinal Satish, Discretion, Discrimination and the Rule of Law: Reforming Rape Sentencing in India (Cambridge University Press 2017) 74–75.
Audrey D’Mello, Flavia Agnes, and Persis Sidhva, ‘The Making of a High Profile Rape Trial’ (2014) 49(29) Economic and Political Weekly 37; Flavia Agnes, ‘Opinion: Why I Oppose Death for Rapists’ (Mumbai Mirror, 5 April 2014). https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/cover-story/opinion-why-i-oppose-death-for-rapists/articleshow/33250078.cms. Accessed 28 December 2020; Flavia Agnes, ‘Not by a Stricter Law Alone’ (The Indian Express, 27 October 2015). https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/not-by-a-stricter-law-alone/. Accessed 28 December 2020.
In 2013, a photo-journalist, among several other women, was gang-raped in Mumbai in what came to be dubbed as the ‘Shakti Mills case’ by the media on the basis of the site of the incident; see Rashmi Rajput and Tejas Mehta, ‘Mumbai Photojournalist Gang-Raped: One Arrested, Four Accused Identified, Say Police’ (NDTV, 23 August 2013). https://www.ndtv.com/mumbai-news/mumbai-photojournalist-gang-raped-one-arrested-four-accused-identified-say-police-532517. Accessed 30 December 2020; India Today Online, 'I Too Was Gangraped by the Same Men at Shakti Mills, Says 19-yr-old Ragpicker' (India Today, 3 September 2013). https://www.indiatoday.in/india/north/story/ragpicker-alleges-she-was-gangraped-by-same-men-shakti-mills-photojournalist-209713-2013-09-03. Accessed 18 January 2021.
See, for instance, Manasi Phadke, ‘The Maharashtra Shakti Bill on Crimes Against Women, Children & Why It’s Called Draconian’ (The Print, 17 December 2020). https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/the-maharashtra-shakti-bill-on-crimes-against-women-children-why-its-called-draconian/567660/. Accessed 31 December 2020.
Jahnavi Sen, ‘Interview: Why Harsher Criminal Laws Won’t Make Sexual Violence Go Away’ (The Wire, 21 November 2019). https://thewire.in/law/prabha-kotiswaran-sexual-violence-human-trafficking. Accessed 28 December 2020.
See generally, Flavia Agnes, ‘Hypocritical Morality’ Manushi (October 2005). http://www.indiatogether.org/manushi/issue149/bardance.htm. Accessed 28 December 2020; Prabha Kotiswaran, ‘How Did We Get Here? Or a Short History of the 2018 Trafficking Bill’ (EPW Engage, 21 July 2018). https://www.epw.in/engage/article/how-did-we-get-here-or-short-history. Accessed 28 December 2020; LiveLaw Research Team, ‘Decriminalising S.377 Will Not End Homophobia & Transphobia: Interview with Oishik Sircar & Dipika Jain’ (LiveLaw.in, 22 December 2016). https://www.livelaw.in/decriminalising-s-377-will-not-end-homophobia-transphobia-interview-with-oishik-sircar-dipika-jain/. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Jyotsna Siddharth, ‘We Must Call It What It Is: Caste-Based Violence’ (Akademi Mag, 1 October 2020). https://www.akademimag.com/caste-based-violence-hathras. Accessed 28 December 2020; Sowjanya Tamalapakula, ‘Dear Upper Caste Indians, Hathras is Not Another Nirbhaya. It is a Khairlanji’ (The Print; 24 October 2020). https://theprint.in/opinion/upper-caste-indians-hathras-rape-murder-nirbhaya-case-khairlanji-massacre/529981/. Accessed 30 December 2020; Skye Arundhati Thomas, ‘Caste Atrocities’ (LRB Blog, 21 December 2020). https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/december/caste-atrocities. Accessed 31 December 2020.
Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association (AHAR) and Ors. vs. The State of Maharashtra and Ors. (2019) 3 SCC 429; Flavia Agnes, ‘SC Ruling Half the Battle Won for Bar Dancers’ (The Tribune, 22 January 2019). https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/comment/sc-ruling-half-the-battle-won-for-bar-dancers-717332. Accessed 30 December. 2020
The Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working Therein) Act, 2016.
See generally, Prabha Kotiswaran, ‘Labours in Vice or Virtue? Neo‐liberalism, Sexual Commerce, and the Case of Indian Bar Dancing’ (2010) 37(1) Journal of Law and Society 105.
Flavia Agnes, ‘The Bar Dancer and the Trafficked Migrant: Globalisation and Subaltern Existence’ in Gayle Letherby and others (eds), Sex as Crime? (Willan 2008).
Flavia Agnes, ‘State Control and Sexual Morality: The Case of the Bar Dancers of Mumbai’ in John and Kakarala, Enculturing Law (n 8).
http://majlislaw.com/en/top/resource-centre/films/kya-apko-pata-hai. Accessed 28 December 2020.
D’Mello, Agnes, and Sidhva, ‘The Making of a High Profile Rape Trial’ (n 43).
Deepak Nayyar, ‘1991: Economic Liberalization and Political Process’ (Live Mint, 14 October 2016). https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/l46jd4x7sEnYgxizMcnq3M/1991-economic-liberalization-and-political-process.html. Accessed 30 December 2020. K Balagopal, ‘This Anti-Mandal Mania’ (1990) 25(40) Economic and Political Weekly 2231.
Flavia Agnes, Law and Gender Inequality: The Politics of Women’s Rights in India (Oxford University Press 2001).
See Meena Menon, Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation (SAGE 2011).
Flavia Agnes, ‘Women's Movement within a Secular Framework: Redefining the Agenda’ (1994) 29(19) Economic and Political Weekly 1123.
Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs. Shah Bano Begum and Ors. (1985) 2 SCC 556.
Flavia Agnes, ‘From Shah Bano to Kausar Bano: Contextualizing the “Muslim Woman” within a Communalized Polity’ in Ania Loomba and Ritty A Lukose (eds), South Asian Feminisms (Duke University Press 2012).
Feminist scholars like Uma Chakravarti and Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay have referred to this in their books. See Uma Chakravarti, Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (Kali for Women 1998) and Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, Legally Dispossessed: Gender, Identity and the Process of Law (Stree 1998).
Flavia Agnes, ‘Common Codes, Uncommon Challenges’ (Himal Southasian, 5 December 2015). https://www.himalmag.com/common-code-uncommon-challenges/. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Shayara Bano and Ors. vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. (2017) 9 SCC 1.
M. Siddiq (D) thr. L.Rs. vs. Mahant Suresh Das and Ors. 2019 (15) SCALE 1.
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Supriya Nair, ‘The Meanings of India’s ‘Beef Lynchings’’ (The Atlantic, 24 July 2017). https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/india-modi-beef-lynching-muslim-partition/533739/. Accessed 28 December 2020.
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Aathira Konikkara, ‘Adivasi Christians Face Widespread Persecution in Chhattisgarh, Pressurised into Ghar Vapsi’ (The Caravan, 29 June 2020). https://caravanmagazine.in/religion/adivasi-christians-face-widespread-persecution-in-chhattisgarh-pressurised-into-ghar-vapsi. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Muslims Targeted Under Indian State’s ‘Love Jihad’ Law’ (The Guardian, 14 December 2020). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/14/muslims-targeted-under-indian-states-love-jihad-law. Accessed 30 December 2020.
M. Siddiq (D) thr. L.Rs. vs. Mahant Suresh Das and Ors. (n 65).
Press Trust of India, ‘Anti-Triple Talaq Crusader Shayara Bano Gets Minister Rank in Uttarakhand’ (The Hindu, 21 October 2020). https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/anti-triple-talaq-crusader-shayara-bano-gets-minister-rank-in-uttarakhand/article32906809.ece. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Flavia Agnes, Family Law Volume I: Family Laws and Constitutional Claims (Oxford University Press 2011).
Flavia Agnes, Family Law Volume II: Marriage, Divorce, and Matrimonial Litigation (Oxford University Press 2011) 328–349.
Apoorva Mandhani, ‘2 Years, 3 Charge Sheets & 16 Arrests—Why Bhima Koregaon Accused are Still in Jail’ (The Print, 31 October 2020). https://theprint.in/india/2-years-3-charge-sheets-16-arrests-why-bhima-koregaon-accused-are-still-in-jail/533945/. Accessed 30 December 2020.
Taran Deol, ‘CAA Protesters’ Arrest ‘Designed to Send Chilling Message’: UN Asks India to Free Activists’ (The Print, 26 June 2020). https://theprint.in/india/caa-protesters-arrest-designed-to-send-chilling-message-un-asks-india-to-free-activists/449401/. Accessed 30 December 2020.
International Commission of Jurists, ‘India: FCRA Amendment 2020 will undermine the work of Civil Society’ (ICJ.org, 24 September 2020). https://www.icj.org/india-fcra-amendment-2020-will-undermine-the-work-of-civil-society/. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Commonwealth of Australia, Family Court of Australia Annual Report 15/16 (2016) 234, 242, 251. https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/publications/tabledpapers/6c529852-b23c-4ff1-b365-e90d341f5f12/upload_pdf/FCoA_AR_2015-16_WEB.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22publications/tabledpapers/6c529852-b23c-4ff1-b365-e90d341f5f12%22. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Ziya Us Salam, ‘Hasty Cremation of Hathras Gang-Rape Victim Raises Doubts about Administration’s Role’ (Frontline, 23 October 2020). https://frontline.thehindu.com/social-issues/hasty-cremation-of-hathras-gang-rape-victim-raises-doubts-about-administrations-role/article32751174.ece. Accessed 30 December 2020.
Reader’s Editor, ‘Khairlanji: The Crime and Punishment’ (The Hindu, 23 August 2020). https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/Khairlanji-the-crime-and-punishment/article16149798.ece. Accessed 30 December 2020; Anand Teltumbde, ‘Khairlanji and its Aftermath: Exploding Some Myths’ (2007) 42(12) Economic and Political Weekly 1019.
The final version of this interview has gained immensely from the editorial inputs and suggestions by my colleague Ankita Gandhi.
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Sircar, O. Feminist lawyering, violence against women, and the politics of law reform in India: An interview with Flavia Agnes. Jindal Global Law Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41020-021-00133-w
- Feminist jurisprudence
- Law reform
- Clinical legal education
- Violence against women
- Access to justice