It is hard to believe that it has been only a hundred years since women “won” the right to vote in the United States. It was a hard-earned legal right and makes even more poignant Kamala Harris’s nomination as the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. This is historic as there has never been a woman vice president of the United States, that too a black woman. Harris is the third woman to be nominated for the position in all these years.
This indicates that though the USA and other countries including India have a supposedly fair and just legal system, it may not really be so and one has to constantly be vigilant in looking for the gaps where human rights are being denied to people, leading to different forms of inequality.
Seeing Allred is a Netflix film that tracks the life of famous US attorney Gloria Allred who used law to bring about social change. She started off as a labour union leader who was then persuaded to go to law school by her husband at the time. Subsequently, she worked tirelessly over decades to reform various existing legislations and introduce new ones like lifting the statutes of limitations for rape survivors to come forward and seek legal justice, same-sex marriage, right to legal and safe abortion, right of female prisoners to give birth in a dignified manner, child support for mothers and more.
None of this was easy. It has taken years to get far enough to build on and generate awareness about the nuances of the issues at hand and agree with the concepts. For example, in the film, Allred’s law partners say they didn’t quite understand in the beginning how same-sex marriage was even possible. One of them said, “It took me years and years to intellectualise the situation.” And it was ironic because he was finally one of the lawyers who argued the case in favour of Equal Rights Amendment legalising same sex marriage. In other cases it took 20 years for one of their clients to get justice in a case of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Allred’s law partner said she just would not give up and pursued the case till the client got justice.
Gloria Allred is known as a defender of women who are survivors of sexual abuse, violence, and discrimination. When survivors came forward and shared their experiences of being drugged and raped by Bill Cosby, they could not approach the legal system to seek justice because of the statute of limitations defining the period during which one could come forward and make a complaint. Many States in the United States, including California, have a statute of limitation of ten years or less by when someone can report a rape. Allred believed that the statute of limitations did not benefit the survivor and had been put in place to minimise the number of complaints in an already-clogged system. She also believed that survivors had the right to justice even if it was outside the legal system, circumventing the statute of limitation clause. So she perfected the art of hosting press conferences for survivors and using the media to provide them with the opportunity to share their stories openly.
When asked if this was a personal cause for her, she answered in the affirmative. Having been a survivor of rape and abuse herself, she knew full well how difficult it can be for survivors to speak up and put out their stories. She also was fully aware that they may not have the means to take on the legal system on their own, especially if their rapist or abuser was a famous man. But by highlighting their stories on national television and in major media outlets, she was able to spotlight issues of powerful men abusing their position of power. These stories, in turn, inspired other women to come forward and share their own experiences. One of the women who spoke up about her abuse after almost 40 years said she felt “relieved” after doing so. Another said that at the time she was abused, one just went home, wept, and stayed silent. These stories that the women told were powerful and brought many other women forward. For example, the Bill Cosby case initially had only three women complainants, a number which later rose to 40, and finally there was one woman whose rape was still within the time period set by the statute of limitations, and this led to Cosby’s prosecution.
Allred’s story is important because it shows us how an individual used her knowledge, power, and position to challenge the legal system in demanding rights and equality, especially for women and LGBTQ+ people. It also asks us to not take the legal system or our human rights for granted and to constantly strive for a better system.
Closer home, our own legal system could do with some overhauling. I offer just two examples to illustrate this – one of same-sex relationships and the other of domestic violence. Two years ago around this time, Section 377 was read down by the Supreme Court of India. While the law allows for same-sex relationships, it does not yet allow for same-sex marriage or adoption of children by same-sex couples. In cases of domestic violence it has been difficult for women to find the help they need and seek immediate remedial measures. Prior to COVID-19, domestic violence was already a pandemic and during COVID-19 it has been exacerbated. For example, shelter homes are not accepting women because of inadequate health infrastructure and many women share their home with perpetrators of abuse. It still is difficult for women to file a police complaint as it is not an easy, accessible or inclusive process because many women don’t have the means to call for help, go to the police station or get the help they need. Some of it is logistical and procedural whilst some of it is due to socio-cultural conditioning that links honour to such incidents and makes women fearful of seeking help. That’s why my organisation, Red Dot Foundation, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India in May 2020 to declare domestic violence services as “essential services” so that women can find the help they need easily. When the case came up for hearing, the Supreme Court asked us to work with the Government to issue guidelines and standard operating procedures, so now we are trying to put pressure on various Ministries to fast track these changes.
Gloria Allred’s story gives us hope that we can change legislations and make them more inclusive and affirming, as well as accessible, for all people.
Cover Image: IMDB