Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives

By Rebecca J. Cook | Go to book overview

Chapter 20
Equality in the Home: Women's Rights and Personal Laws in South Asia

Sara Hossain


Introduction

Every state in South Asia is bound by the norm of equality and non- discrimination between men and women as defined by international human rights instruments. The norm of equality is also reflected in domestic law, in entrenched and justiciable provisions of national constitutions. In its domestic application, however, the norm is severely impaired by unjustifiable deviations in the sphere of women's rights within the family.

The application of the norm in South Asia is asymmetric. It subjects relations in the public sphere, the world of political participation, employment, and education, to minimum standards of equality. In contrast, it relegates the private sphere of the home and the family, to an arena "beyond justice," regulated by variable sets of norms.1 Rights within the family are determined by personal laws, based on religious traditions, customs, and practices. These personal laws sanction discrimination between men and women and between members of different religious communities regarding their rights to marriage, divorce, maintenance, guardianship, custody, adoption, and inheritance. They violate fundamental rights to equality and are inconsistent with the secular basis of most national constitutions in South Asia. Campaigners for women's rights have vociferously demanded the replacement of personal laws with uniform civil laws based on principles of equality. Piecemeal judicial and legislative reforms have partially mitigated the grossly discriminatory impact of personal laws. In contrast, the state's

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