Society

India abolishes sexist adultery law in win for women's rights

Infidelity may be grounds for divorce, but it is no longer criminal.

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India has struck down a sexist, colonial-era law criminalizing extramarital sex, in a landmark ruling many are hailing as a win for women's rights in the country.

The Supreme Court abolished the 158-year-old adultery law, known as Section 479, that allowed a husband to prosecute “any man who engaged in sexual relations with his wife,” yet “prevented a wife from prosecuting either her husband or woman in which he was engaged in extramarital relations,” reported CNN.

"It's time to say that [a] husband is not the master of [his] wife," Chief Justice Dipak Misra, read out from the unanimous judgment. "Legal sovereignty of one sex over the other sex is wrong."

The petition was initially brought by Kerala native Joseph Shine, who requested the top court address the validity of Section 497 due to its implicit gender bias.

"It is a big victory for women's status and position within marriage and within families," said Jayna Kothari, an attorney and the executive director of the Center for Law and Policy Research in Bangalore, in the report.

"The adultery offense was used really as a threat against women by their husbands," she continued, adding that it was mainly used where marriages had already broken down and partners moved on.

Family rights campaigners had long championed the controversial law, arguing that it helped preserve social stability.

A coalition led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, had supported adultery remaining a criminal offense, suggesting that it simply be amended to enact equal punishment for both men and women.

But the Supreme Court asserted that it was up to both parties to keep the sanctity of marriage intact, and that while infidelity may be grounds for a divorce it did not constitute a criminal offense, according to the Times of India.

“Section 497 destroys and deprives women of dignity and is destructive of women's dignity, self-respect as it treats women as chattel," the court’s statement read.

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