Nowadays, the word ‘consent’ is mostly used in a way that’s limited to the idea of sexual consent alone. But what about consent in other aspects of women’s lives – in their choice to pursue education and careers, their choice of partners, or in the larger spectrum of how they want to live? Can sexual consent be fully operational when larger ideas of choice remain unaddressed?
These questions have come up again and again when issues like child marriage, sexual consent and personal life have been debated – right from the 19th century all the way to the present. They reflect how the way we imagine an adult woman is so often confined to someone who is married and has children. And these questions show that there has always been a tension between seeing women as a subset of their community or family, and seeing them as individuals and citizens.
We often think of the law as a solution – but when we look at the discussions about women’s autonomy, we see that the law is really a response and a reflection of this tussle about women’s autonomy. Here are a few quotes from the 19th century to the present that reflect this.
Rukhmabai was married as a child and refused to live with her husband or consummate her marriage, even though a court ordered her to. In response, she wrote some letters in The Times of India. Here is a quote from one, published in 1887:
Judge Pinhey’s judgement in favour of Rukhmabai in the case of Dadaji Bhikaji v. Rukhmabai (1884-88) caused a sensation for the way in which it took into account a woman’s personal choice:
The judgement was seen as a foreign government interfering with personal community laws (since India was under British rule). The Kesari, which had in 1885 insinuated a liaison between Rukhmabai and Judge Pinhey, went on to mock the latter as a maharishi whose judgement had propounded a new dharmashastra.
The age of consent remains a contentious issue and reveals a gender difference. The age of consent for men is 18, while the minimum legal age of marriage is 21; a woman’s age of consent and her age of marriage are today the same, conflating the idea of sexual activity and marriage in a subtle way. But not all have been in agreement with this.
Repeatedly, whether in speaking to doctors or lawyers, the choice to pin down adulthood to a particular age alone has been seen as a tricky business.
This is a thought echoed as much by the Indian judiciary as anyone else. And some judgments have pro-actively ruled to allow for a re-imagination of young adolescent women as citizens in their own right.
In the following case, the Court considered a minor girl’s agency to consent and allowed her to opt out of parental guardianship.