Why the Indian ban on alcohol was fueled by women

Wmc News Indian Women Politics Flickr 12618

Last month, the government of the Indian state Uttar Pradesh, led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, publicly opposed the prohibition of alcohol. Even though the Northern India states of Bihar, Gujarat, Manipur, Nagaland, and Lakshadweep have all instituted the ban because they attributed mass unlawfulness in their states to the consumption of alcohol, the Uttar Pradesh government didn’t instate prohibition because officials don’t think it’s “proper” to conflate crime with alcohol consumption — a stance perhaps influenced by the 20 percent increase in revenue the state got from liquor taxes in 2018.

While countering unlawfulness generally is important, it’s also crucial to recognize the impact of prohibition on Indian women. In fact, the biggest advocates for prohibition were Indian women who pointed to the access of alcohol as the cause of their drunk husbands’ destructive and even violent behavior.

Indian men regularly use alcohol 9.7 times more than Indian women; only 2 to 5 percent of Indian women consume alcohol, which is likely impacted by the lack of cultural acceptability of women drinking. Though India’s male population is larger than its female population, women account for 57 percent of those injured by drinkers. Of married women who are abused in India, 82 percent are married to husbands who drink heavily; 90 percent of the wives of male drinkers in rehabilitation have been physically abused by their husbands.

The northern states that have passed the ban have already seen the positive effects of prohibition in their communities. Take Bihar for example. Since the 2016 ban, there has been a significant decrease in petty crime and domestic abuse in the state. Now that families are spending less money on alcohol, the Bihari government has observed an increase in spending on tractors and cars.

The surge of women advocating to legally deny men alcohol, therefore, is a powerful move. This was reflected in the last general election, during which Indian women put their political power to work and turned up to polls at an unprecedented rate. There was a mere 1.8 percent gender gap in the 2014 election, and two-thirds of states observed more women voters in the local elections than men. In the 2015 state elections, 7 percent more women voted than did men, as women lined up to vote for Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar, who promised a prohibition if re-elected.

These shows of political activism and representation are significant, considering that Indian women have long been legally and politically silenced and discriminated against, especially in terms of their status as wives. Marital rape is legal in the country, thanks to section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which gives men the prerogative to treat their wives as sex slaves, noting that “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” Twenty percent of Indian men admit to forcing themselves on their wives. Additionally, a law overturned only three months ago allowed a man who has sex with another man’s wife to be prosecuted by his married lover’s husband but prohibited his own wife from prosecuting him for the same act. When an Indian couple divorces, the husband is legally entitled to all property and is only required to pay his wife a measly fee for tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and child care. Thanks to section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act, when a wife passes away, her widowed husband’s parents — and even his children born to another mother — have the right to her money over the deceased woman’s own parents.

Of course, it’s no accident that Indian law perpetuates sexism — it was designed that way by British colonizers. Before the imposition of British law, most Hindu law in India was unwritten, according to scholars Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi. It also “varied both over time and across cultural, regional and caste boundaries.” The British, however, replaced this system with their own, imposing Western-educated judges to make rulings based on Western legal precedent. Among many other laws, the British outlawed divorce and female ownership of property and rights to remarriage — none of which were previously, formally restricted in India. They then deemed the Indian people “not yet fit for self rule,” and granted women limited rights over time, only when doing so was politically convenient for them.

Luckily, plenty of Indian women are fighting to make sure new laws don’t carry on the misogynistic legacy of British colonization. In addition to fighting for the prohibition of alcohol, this past July women also successfully fought to overturn a law that forbade female workers from ever sitting while working in shops. Under the effect of this law, women working in the conditions mandated, according to the women’s collective that established the women’s union that fought for this legal victory, “are careful not to drink too much because they cannot go to the toilet when they want to. They get urinary infections, kidney problems. They have varicose veins and joint pain from standing.” On July 4, the state cabinet of Kerala mandated work benefits including a minimum monthly starting salary, eight-hour workday, afternoon tea and lunch breaks, and a chair for workers to rest on when needed.

It is only a matter of time until Indian laws better reflect gender equality. The next general Indian election is only a few months away, and it seems inevitable that women will again make their voices heard at the polls and demand that power finally bends in their favor.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Asia, Women of color, Gender Based Violence, Sexism, Women's leadership



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.