March 8 is International Women’s Day, but this embodiment of courage for many women eager to brush off gender oppression, asks why we only make a speech on a particular day. What happens with women for the rest of the year? Flavia Agnes, the lady, the activist, the lawyer, the fighter, in conversation with Priyal Dave
THE touch of bright colours, little artifacts, cane baskets and a few old versions of the modern day desktop strike one in the ground floor office in Kalina Market. This is the address from where Flavia Agnes, more popularly known as the women’s lawyer and one of the founders of Majlis which champions women’s rights among other things, operates. One is really lucky to find her here at all, however, as the lady with expertise in marital, divorce and property law is wanted by many organizations across different cities in India and the world, eager to share her acumen in the field. Flavia is just back from Delhi, and has finished two quick meetings, of which one is yet another broken marriage case, and is scheduled to attend a committee meeting, when she manages to squeeze in some time for this chat.
Always dressed in a flattering saree, on this occasion a cream silk bordered in green, and matching jewelry, the lady sits across the table and pours out her thoughts on various subjects.
Women candidates in civic elections…
Well, in due course of time, these candidates, like the 21-year-old from Dharavi, and the others too will see power, experience it and get used to it. They will make the same decisions which, are today made by male candidates, though it will take some time. However, the worry is whether they, as women in power, will do enough for us. Will they ensure the city has basics like toilets, freedom, laws to protect women and safety that is desired in the city? Or will their empathy for women reflect only in a speech on just for March 8 yaar?
Agnes ends most statements with a ‘come on or arey yaar’. According to her, her Hindi gives away quickly the fact that she is a Mangalorean. Born in a small town called Kadri in Mangalore, the zealous lady grew up with her aunt as her parents were settled abroad. In an all girls’ school throughout her life and with four other sisters, Agnes only had her brush with the opposite gender when she was married to her now ex-husband. She speaks seemingly casually about what must have been a traumatic time in her life. “I didn’t know that marriage was all about beating and oppression.” Her book, “My Story…Our Story”, first published in 1984, speaks about the sad time she suffered for years after marrying at the age of . Then she said, “I don’t think I deserve it. I cannot allow myself to be violated.”
Back to the subject...
India as a country for women…
Even Pakistan is better off than us. The reason being they have laws in place for divorce and alimony. They have arbitration centres where women can approach for help and then the matter is taken up in the court. According to a recent UN statistic, India is the fourth most dangerous country for a woman. Even sub-Saharan Africa is better off than we are despite problems like acute hunger and poverty. In our country, there is not even a hand to hold to take a traumatized woman to the court. I have seen girls fainting in the court as there is no one to help them fight their trauma and demand justice simultaneously. We as a women’s centre, are doing that. But who else is there in this field? Are there more Flavias?
During the conversation, ‘Flavy’, as her mother used to call her, looks straight into the eyes, make it rather difficult to take a look at notes. A determined gazer - her eyes reflect the confidence that she gained over the years that not only got her out of her violent marriage but also helped establish Majlis in 1990, a legal and cultural resource Centre for women. In addition to a post graduate degree in Personal Laws and Constitutional Laws from Mumbai University, she authored various books on the subject, and also got an M.Phil degree from National Law School, Bangalore. In her book, ‘My Story…Our Story, she says, she is now known as a women’s rights lawyer and legal academician as opposed to victim-activist, a title which she was adorned with earlier. A hundred books are stacked up neatly in the wall-mounted shelf in one of on the four rooms in the office. But she prefers to pose for the photographer next to the shelf containing books authored by her in her personal cabin.
Ever felt like being born as a man?
No, I wish I was not married to him (referring to her ex-husband). I have never faced any oppression or discrimination as a woman all my life except in my marriage, which is why I say so.
When is history would you like to be reborn?
Umm, I think I have done a good job as Flavia Agnes. However, if I were to be reborn then it definitely would be during the pre-independence time in the 30s and 40s when women were more vocal about their rights and were walking side by side with men. I think the views of women at that time were more advanced than they are now.
Is the law supportive of women?
A lot needs to be changed in the laws for women and also in the attitude of the judges towards women. Like the bill that we have drafted for division of matrimonial property, which has been sent back to the Women and Children department with corrections from the Law department. It will be a good law for women, but I hope it is not stuck and is brought to discussion soon. Also, the judges of both the High Court and the Supreme Court need to be more sensitive towards women and not deny them rights just because of the pressure of morality. In a recent case, a judge referred to a woman as a ‘keep or mistress’, which I feel was in accordance with the moral principles of the society. A man can leave a woman and she gets the tag of a ‘keep’? Why?
Are lower and middle class women vocal about oppression?
Yes, financial stability makes any women more confident in fighting back oppression. As more and more women work, their voices against any kind of violence, especially marital, are becoming stronger. Money gives a woman the power to make a choice. Marriage is not easy to walk out of, because women give bad marriages a chance over and over again due to financial dependence. Also, a married woman is treated like a guest in her maternal house. Her right to maternal property too is not respected in most cases. A job changes the way a woman makes decisions.
For many who feel it takes a lot to be what Flavia is today, here is a sneak peek into her own battle…when Flavia was first beaten by her husband, she did not share it with her mother despite being asked. She also chose to cover the bruises of every other subsequent beating, which continued for several years, by wearing her sarees very carefully indeed, covering the marks.. Flavia, had three kids, in rapid succession and despite all her attempts to be a good wife, her husband refused to be a gentleman…so reflects her book. It was not easy for Flavia, married in her early twenties to walk off. However, she subsequently equipped herself with the knowledge of law not only help herself but also others. She could not let herself be violated.
What is her key message to women today?
“I think we can change our lives, but for that to happen we must come out of the notion that we are powerless or any less than men. It is difficult, but women can walk out of a failed marriage or any other oppression if they believe they have the strength to do so.”