Your Honour, Denying Alimony to a Divorced Woman is Injustice

It is deplorable that a Mumbai family court recently equated maintenance with extortion, writes Nishtha Gautam.

Updated
Women
4 min read
Many financially independent women, who routinely foot family bills, are seen to smirk at the concept of alimony as a perpetuation of gender stereotypes. (Photo: iStock)

A Mumbai family court has rejected a woman’s plea seeking maintenance from her husband, telling her to start looking for a job instead. The court order has opened a can of worms as far as the laws pertaining to matrimony are concerned.

The court ruled that “A lady who is fighting a petition filed for divorce cannot be permitted to sit idle and put the burden on the husband, demanding alimony from him during the pendency of the petition. Section 24 (relating to maintenance) is not meant to create an army of persons who will sit idle waiting for a dole to be awarded by her husband.”

The ruling is problematic at multiple levels. At first blush, it implies that seeking alimony is akin to extortion. It also seems to nag the estranged wife with -- why should your husband maintain you while you seek dissolution of marriage?

Snapshot
  • A woman’s socio-economic status in the Indian society must be considered.
  • Post marriage, earning of a woman in India do not belong to them.
  • Stigmatising the very idea of alimony sought by “working women” and then denying the same to them is economic injustice.
  • Difficult for estranged wife to furnish proof in case of Indian economy (tax and black money).
  • Husband can evade alimony citing economic status.
  • In most cases wives don’t earn at all or earn lesser than the husband.
  • Usually the women face disenfranchisement upon seeking divorce.
  • The bill for amendment in marriage laws, which was cleared by the cabinet in 2013 has lapsed since.
  • A woman’s share in parental property is often spent in marriage.

Additionally, with expressions like “sit idle”, the ruling casts aspersions on the woman’s intent towards achieving economic self-reliance.

Alimony Measure of Equality

This case, like many others in the past where alimony was denied to women, needs to be studied in the light of women’s socio-economic status in Indian society.

(Photo: iStockPhoto)
(Photo: iStockPhoto)

Many financially independent women, who routinely foot family bills, are seen to smirk at the concept of alimony as a perpetuation of gender stereotypes. What needs to be remembered here is that the concept of alimony establishes woman and man as equal partners in a marriage.

Assets acquired in the course of a marriage belong to both of them and, therefore, in the event of a divorce need to be shared equally. In India, however, there are several impediments to this division: from psychological to systemic.

Is Alimony a Dole?

Women’s demand for alimony has been stigmatised to deny them their due. Using words like “dole” creates a negative image of alimony which self-respecting, self-reliant women are deviously encouraged to steer clear of. Is alimony really a dole, an act of charity? Does it not seek to compensate women for the time spent in unpaid labour during marriage?

Globally it has been established that a woman’s career takes a beating due to marriage. In India, the situation is even worse due to various socio-economic factors.

Even if women are “allowed” to pursue their careers post-marriage, in many a case their earnings do not belong to them and rarely do they have a say in a family’s financial decisions.

Karishma Kapoor and her estranged husband Sanjay Kapur are engaged in a bitter divorce battle. (Photo: PTI)
Karishma Kapoor and her estranged husband Sanjay Kapur are engaged in a bitter divorce battle. (Photo: PTI)

In such a scenario, first stigmatising the very idea of alimony sought by “working women” and then denying it to them is economic injustice.

The onus to prove the husband’s financial status is on the wife and it further deteriorates their chances of getting a fair deal. In an economy riddled with tax non-compliance and black money, it’s extremely difficult for the estranged wife to furnish proofs.

Downplaying his economic status, the husband can easily evade alimony. The “system” or the lack of it, allows him that.

Alimony is a Gender Neutral Concept

Alimony is a gender neutral concept. Indian courts have ruled in the past in favour of husbands as well. In 2014, a woman was ordered to pay alimony to her physically challenged cricketer husband who once played with Sachin Tendulkar. Why we do not hear of more such instances should be a lesson in itself.

In most cases wives don’t earn at all or earn lesser than the husband. Besides, it is usually the women that face disenfranchisement upon seeking divorce. They are the ones that are forced to leave the marital house.

Saif Ali Khan had to shell out half of his fortune as alimony to Amrita Singh. (Photo: <a href="https://twitter.com/ChamkeeliTrippy/status/667625478048645120">Twitter</a>)
Saif Ali Khan had to shell out half of his fortune as alimony to Amrita Singh. (Photo: Twitter)

The bill for amendment in marriage laws, which was cleared by the cabinet in 2013 but has lapsed since, sought to address this problem by recognising women’s equal claim to the marital house, inherited or acquired by the husband.

Again, it was criticised as extortionism without realising the gender specific tribulations of divorced women. Their share in parental property is often spent in marriage only a small part of which can be legally reclaimed, if at all. Thus, they come back as added financial burden to the father/brothers.

Unsurprisingly, laws aiming at safeguarding the interests of weaker sections of society are criticised by imagining worst case scenarios of misuse. It is scarier, however, when similar patriarchal ideology becomes the guiding factor in court judgements.

(The writer is Associate Fellow (Gender) at Observer Research Foundation)

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