There are two aspects to every experience–the factual and the emotional. The logic and the lyric. The objective and the subjective. And one cannot be a fair judge of the experience unless one pays attention to both these aspects, especially when the experience is one of human rights violation. Unfortunately, the existing legal system only hears facts and has no time for the emotions of the wronged. It is to make up for this flaw that Dr Corinne Kumar, founding member of the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC) and Bengaluru-based NGO Vimochana, started the World Courts of Women close to three decades ago. By organising large-scale public hearings, she wanted to give wronged women across the world a platform to tell their stories–their full, tearful, heartbreaking stories–before justice was meted out to them.
In an exclusive interview with Soulveda, Dr Kumar talks about the ever-rising violence against women, her experience of fighting for a universal cause and the memory of the veiled Pakistani woman that keeps her going.
Could you tell us about the World Courts of Women? How was the idea conceptualised?
Two decades ago, when my fellow activists and I at Vimochana were involved in crisis intervention, we observed that violence and injustice against women were never seen as a violation of human rights. Lawyers told victims of dowry harassment and domestic violence to tone down their testimonies by swallowing their trauma and merely stating facts. As a result, the court never saw these cases for what they really were and it seemed like we were constantly losing. We thought this was unfair as rationality is only one part of our consciousness, while intuition forms the other. And by stripping the victim’s testimony of the emotions and the history, the legal system almost delegitimises women themselves.
I started World Courts of Women because I found that the existing legal system was insufficient when it came to dealing with violence against women. Such instances weren’t just escalating, but also intensifying with time. And women of all countries, races, classes and castes were victims of this violence. We have been organising public hearings across the world for the past 25 years.
What is the objective of these courts? What kind of work goes into organising them?
The courts urge women to tell their story, to share their testimony in the language of suffering. Our goal is justice. And the way to justice is not through punishment, revenge or retribution. But by restoring the dignity of those affected.
Each court takes a minimum of two years’ preparation. We pick a topic or theme given the political climate at the country at that time–like poverty, sexual violence, trafficking, nuclear issue, refugees, etc. We arrange a public, yet safe venue for the benefit of the women. We bring on board civil society organisations, NGOs, activists, academicians, lawyers and artistes. We let the voices of the marginalised and wronged women be heard. In some cases, we organise interventions and mediations. In countries like Japan, we seek the help of the legal system to get redressal for the victims.
This is such a large cause and one that needs ceaseless dedication and grit. How do you find the strength to keep it going?
The very first court we organised was in 1992 in Lahore, Pakistan. We couldn’t do it in a public space, so we booked a hotel and 500 women turned up. I specifically remember this one woman, Mehbooba. She walked in, completely covered in her niqab, and spoke about the violence she suffered at the hands of her husband. “He had been abusing me for a long time. One day, he said the words ‘talaq talaq talaq’ to me and threw acid on my face,” she said and dropped her niqab. “You may wonder why I am letting you see me like this. But I want you to remember this moment. This is the first-time women have sat with me, spoken to me like this and listened to me.”
Twenty-five years later, I still remember Mehbooba’s disfigured face. Every time organising a court became so hard that I came close to giving up, I would think of Mehbooba and it would get me going. I would say to myself, “I am doing this for Mehbooba.”
“Look at the dark side of modernity. Go back to the roots and learn about where most of our current issues originate from.”
Tell us about one such court that stands out in your memory.
In 1992, we did a court in Japan with the military sexual slaves of World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, over three lakh young girls of 12 to 17 years of age were kidnapped and imprisoned in the brothels in the Japanese military encampments across Asia. These brothels were called Comfort Women Stations. When the Japanese army began retreating, they didn’t have any use for these women anymore. So, they made many of them dig their own graves and stand next to them before they shot the women dead. A lucky few were put in buses, trains and trams and sent away to various parts of the continent. These women had been left to fend for themselves in absolute poverty. Nobody returned to their own country because there, raped women were treated worse than the dead. They lived like this for 45 years.
At the court held in Tokyo University, one such woman stood up to speak about her trauma. As the audience waited in silence, she let a few moments pass. And then, she whistled a bar of music. “This was the song that the soldier who used to rape me whistled as he crossed the bridge to the brothel every night,” she said, and returned to her seat. It was chilling.
We took the testimonies of these women to the United Nations Commission of Human Rights. But every time the subject came up, the Japanese delegation walked out. After three years of persistence, they decided to stay and hear us out. They granted funds worth $20,000 for each Comfort Woman.
Over the years, what do you feel the courts have accomplished? What are your hopes for the future?
More people are beginning to talk about these courts. They feel the need for a better justice system. The courts also start a dialogue on human rights and raise awareness about the violations women face across the world. Our goal is to get victims of abuse and injustice to begin saying, “Let’s go to the women’s court.” Maybe it won’t have the desired effect the first few times. But eventually it will.
In a world where misogyny and crimes against women are so rampant, where every woman constantly suffers indignity, do you think there is hope for change?
Day by day, it seems like nothing has changed. But I can tell you that I have observed fantastic change over the past 40 years. Violence is taking newer forms–cybercrime, rape as a form of ethnic cleansing and so on. But the voices of resistance are getting louder. At a recent event, I was in conversation with young girls from rural India and they told me that they don’t intend to get married. They saw marriage in their society as a form of bonded labour and they were not about to submit to convention. Things like this signify a larger change that is taking place in our society.
What is your message to individuals and organisations that are working towards gender equality?
Look at the dark side of modernity. Go back to the roots and learn about where most of our current issues originate from. Learn about racism, colonialism and slavery. By drawing from history, we can strengthen our feminist agenda. Moreover, it is important that as women, we seek equality and not sameness. We need to fight for the right to a life of dignity despite our differences.