Law & Occasional Order

Rebekah Tilley

Many of us have had to endure the constant barking of a neighbor’s dog for days or weeks on end. We know there is a clearly outlined noise violation law on the books for just this situation, yet we’re unwilling to take action against our neighbor despite our great annoyance.

Why is this?

“Often concepts of good neighborliness in the United States involve not suing over little things,” explained Dr. Srimati Basu, Associate Professor in the UK Department of Gender and Women's Studies. “Not because you are afraid of the law, but because you want to be seen as a certain sort of person.”

Basu takes a unique approach to feminist jurisprudence by examining the ways law exists in the real world rather than merely as an institution. Even regulations that may seem useful for particular groups can be adapted by people for their own ends, ending up with effects very different than intended.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were a number of significant victories in legal reforms worldwide meant to address women’s vulnerabilities that involved strict punishments for domestic violence, the introduction of no-fault divorce and efforts to combat gender discrimination.

“After these reforms took place, the later work involves recognizing that that’s not where everything stops,” said Basu. “People don’t really use the laws on the books in the ways in which they are intended. They adapt them according to culture. Something that I’m interested in is for us to always exercise vigilance in seeing how those categories are defined, how we continue to define things, and also how gender changes in response to the cultural landscape.”

A prime example of the place where law and culture meet is found in Indian inheritance law. In 1956, a law was passed in India requiring the equal distribution of inheritance between both sons and daughters. Yet even now, very few women make use of the law. Basu devoted an entire book to the topic entitled “She Comes to take Her Rights: Indian Women, Property and Propriety.”
“There is some kind some of cultural capital to be gained in saying, ‘I want my brothers to be happy with me,’ or ‘My parents paid for my wedding expenses,’ or ‘My brothers looked after my parents in their old age so they should get the property,’” explained Basu.

Basu’s current project on family law and family violence in India compelled her to spend a significant amount of time conducting ethnographic research in courtrooms, police stations and mediation offices. Through that work she discovered that, despite their unfamiliarity with law and divorce, many women have learned to work the legal system to their own advantage.

“There is a law, and there are ways people use it,” said Basu. “For example, there is a law on the books from the ‘80s that deals with domestic violence. It’s a law with a very bad reputation – even among feminists groups – because it is overused, very imprecise and not used for its purpose.”

Sometimes Indian women use this law to secure alimony or child support claims because it is their only leverage against their former spouse.

Other women have used rape law to insist on marriage from live-in boyfriends. Basu explained, ‘There is a body of case law in which the failure to carry through on a promise of marriage constitutes rape, assuming women are fragile and vulnerable.”

Why the insistence on marriage?

“Marriage is a form of securing property in a certain way,” said Basu. “[The way rape law is often used by women] shows me something about the nature of marriage and law, and the dominant value that marriage seems to have in securing an economic future for women. That is, men secure economic futures through property or livelihoods, but women are expected to rely on marriage itself. Because there is no notion of joint marital property, good alimony settlements or continuing in marriage are divorcing women’s best options.”

One of the lessons in Basu’s research is that one cannot look at gender in isolation from other parts of identity. Gender is merely one way that shapes our decisions and our culture.

“I see it to be important in my scholarship and that of others in our field to convey how everybody – all women and all men –interact with their world on many levels,” said Basu. “They actively make culture; they are not willing to lie down and let the weight of culture knock them over. We need to see everyone in the world as fully fleshed people who embody a lot of contradictions.”


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