A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways. The Court, exercising parens patriae jurisdiction is concerned with the welfare of a girl of her age… Her marriage being the most important decision in her life, can only be taken with the involvement of her parents”. So said the Kerala High Court in May 2017, as it annulled the marriage of Shafin Jahan with Hadiya, who had converted to Islam and moved away from her family. The following year, as it reversed this ruling — criticised widely for the paternalistic mindset it betrayed — the Supreme Court observed, “The High Court has lost sight of the fact that she is a major, capable of her own decisions and is entitled to the right recognised by the Constitution to lead her life exactly as she pleases.” The Hadiya case is one of several examples cited in a first-of-its-kind handbook on combating gender stereotypes issued by the Supreme Court. The handbook is a welcome, much-needed step towards raising awareness among the legal fraternity about the adverse impact of stereotyping language in judicial decision-making. These can, Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud notes in the foreword, not only affect the outcome of a case, but also promote harmful ideas about women, indeed all individuals across the gender spectrum, ultimately undermining “the transformative project of the law and the Constitution of India, which seek to secure equal rights to all persons, irrespective of gender”.
By underscoring the importance of the right words — not “devoted wife” but wife, not “career woman” but woman — the Court lends its institutional heft to the growing global understanding of the damage done by the stereotyping embedded in and perpetuated by language. For example, a 2020 study at Carnegie Mellon University found that the cultural stereotyping in 25 languages about women being more suited to the domestic sphere, undermined gender equity efforts in STEM careers. And it is not just women’s educational and employment prospects that are put at risk by stereotyping language. There are also implications for their safety and well-being and the larger pursuit of justice, as the Supreme Court makes clear in its handbook, where it cites rulings on cases of sexual violence to show how assumptions about a woman’s “loose moral character” have affected judicial reasoning.
To insist on using the right words is not to indulge in mere semantics — this is what the Court, which has all along taken the lead in expanding and guarding the space for women at home and work, has unambiguously signalled. It is now for the lower judiciary to take its cue from the apex court.
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