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.”