A pioneer of the Women’s Movement in India, Flavia Agnes has worked on the subjects of gender and legal reform. As a lawyer and social activist, she has played a vital role in raising issues about women’s rights in the legal system. In 1991, Flavia Agnes co-founded Majlis, a legal and cultural resource centre, with the aim of providing quality legal services to women and children. A proponent of legal pluralism, she has played an important role in reforming the Christian Personal Law. Of late, she has been actively engaging in the issues of democracy, socialism and identity politics. Vox Populi got the opportunity to interview Flavia Agnes during her visit to the campus.
Q: There is a prevalent belief on campus that the attempts to uplift women are creating a system with an unfair bias in favour of women. What is your response to this?
Flavia: I don’t think that these beliefs are justified. For a long time systems have been biased against women. There are very few women in IITs and they do not feel welcome. It has been a male-dominated sphere for many years and few people questioned it. Now that systems in favour of women are being created, men should not find it to be unfair. The system has been biased against women for long and can not suddenly become equal. It has to first be biased in favour of women, and gradually, it will create an equal society. In fact, men should be equal partners in this venture to promote equality.
Q: There are people who agree with the idea of gender equality but feel that the manner in which this goal is being pursued forces men to make unfair sacrifices. How would you convince them to be more accepting?
Flavia: People agree with a ‘nice idea’ like equality but have an issue when its implementation affects them. If you believe in gender equality, you must be prepared to make some sacrifices. To ensure equal opportunities for women, we have to create space for them. Previously, there were very few women in politics, so we created 50 per cent reservation in gram panchayats for them. Similarly, we have job reservations for women too.
Q: There is a view on campus that the Women’s Cell is not a neutral body and does not give a fair hearing to the defence of the accused. What would you like to say to this?
Flavia: Yes, any woman can file a complaint against anybody, but the Women’s Cell or ICC are duty bound to conduct a proper investigation and go by evidence. They can not just go by the words of the woman. It is important to understand that a body like Women’s Cell is necessary to create a safe space for women and provide them with redressal mechanisms. In fact, these committees do not comprise only of women; there are male members too. The presence of men on such committees is important in ensuring fairness.
Q: Moving on to some issues in the current political discourse. How, according to you, can we reconcile feminist ideas that conflict with religious beliefs?
Flavia: Let’s take my example. I am a Christian woman, I believe in the teachings of Christianity and I believe in justice. I want my belief system to incorporate justice for women in it. It is a very tough battle. Similarly, let’s look at the Sabarimala Case. The women devotees didn’t ask for entry into the temple. They wish to seek Lord Ayyappa’s blessings and not anger the lord by enforcing their rights. Young lawyers went to the Supreme Court with the petition, not the devotees of Lord Ayyappa. I believe that reform must come from within. Members of a community must demand justice for themselves. It won’t work if other people raise these demands on their behalf.
Q: How do you see the condition of women improving in Indian society?
Flavia: Change is inevitable. It will come gradually, in an organic manner. Changes in socio-economic situations and migration of people bring about a change in attitudes. You cannot have radical changes being enforced from the top. You cannot bring about social reform with the stroke of a pen; it has to come from the ground.
Q: In the light of the #MeToo movement, where do you think the current feminist movement is headed?
Flavia: Recent developments like the #MeToo movement have provided women with a confidence and a language to speak about the crimes committed against them. When the system doesn’t resolve the complaints, people will shift to alternate systems like social media. These alternate systems have broken a wall which prevented issues from coming out in the open. Now, issues like consent and workplace sexual harassment are a part of the public discourse and are shaping the feminist movement. If women did not speak, no one would be talking about such issues.
A prolific writer, Flavia Agnes has provided incisive analysis of many social trends and legal reforms including domestic violence, gender justice and human rights. Flavia Agnes is an active blogger and is very vocal on several issues of social importance. Among her many publications is her autobiographical book ‘My Story Our Story … Of Rebuilding Broken Lives’ in which she writes about the hardships and struggles she faced in her life.