In a shocking move, the Rajasthan High Court ruled that women can plead the defence of insanity for crimes committed while experiencing Premenstrual Syndrome or PMS. PMS refers to multiple physical and behavioural symptoms menstruating women can suffer from between ovulation and their period. Symptoms of PMS can kick in five to fourteen days before menstruation and usually goes away with the onset of a period. The intensity of the symptoms experienced are highly subjective and can vary greatly from person to person.
The ruling came forth during the trial of a woman which began in 1982, after she appealed her guilty verdict given by a district court in the same year. The accused, a 21-year-old woman residing in Ajmer, was charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder after she pushed three children into a well, resulting in the death of one of them. The court noted that, since the woman was afflicted by Premenstrual Syndrome, she had no control over her actions and the act was involuntary, and since a defendant cannot be convicted if an intention to commit the crime can’t be established, she was acquitted.
To convict someone for a crime, two components are essential – actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus is the criminal act itself and mens rea is the intention to commit the crime with the full knowledge of its consequences and an understanding of the harm it will inevitably cause. In common law, people of unsound mind accused of crimes are thought to be incapable of having a mens rea and since not being able to establish mens rea will lead to an acquittal, the defence of insanity is one of the few defences available to defendants.
Doctors testifying at the trial said women afflicted by PMS could be aggressive and not have control over their actions. A doctor who previously treated the accused stated, “Some women do not remain normal in the days preceding their cycle. They become aggressive, violent and even commit suicide”.
Noting the testimonies from the doctors and various studies conducted in the past about PMS and it’s association with aggression and violent tendencies, the Rajasthan High Court noted that being afflicted by PMS can be a form of unsoundness of mind, thus according the right to anyone who commits a crime while suffering from PMS to claim the defence of insanity.
claims of associations between PMS and insanity mostly comprises of outdated studies driven by sexist and patriarchal influences .
Although a certain cause of PMS has never been established, it is typically attributed to hormonal changes during ovulation. Though PMS presents with various physical symptoms and behavioural changes, PMS has never known to cause psychological impairment in recent times and most claims of associations between PMS and insanity are decades old and mostly comprises of outdated studies driven by sexist and patriarchal influences and a lack of a deeper understanding of psychology and of the female anatomy and sexuality.
The idea of the moody, aggressive, overly-emotional, unreasonable woman on her period is one that is all over pop-culture and is also a stereotype we often use in our daily lives. TV shows and movies are filled with such examples, with men walking on eggshells around their now monster-like partners or female friends because they are menstruating and shouldn’t be spoken to. This is often followed my normalising the ridiculous behaviour and irrational, exaggerated fears of the man around this woman and laughing at how ridiculous, emotional, and angry the women is.
Outside of pop-culture, we see examples of this in our daily conversations. It is not too uncommon for a woman who is angry or emotional to be asked if she is on her period or if she is PMS-ing. We often make comments about how a certain woman must ‘always be on her period’ if she is angry or expresses conflicting views or is stern. We make a habit out of asking crying women if they are on their period, often adding that they are being irrational and that must be the only explanation.
By attributing legitimate emotions or the anger that women feel, to their menstruation and making a mockery out of it, we invalidate what they feel and make them out to be unreasonable for displaying emotions. We collectively attempt to disregard female anger and emotions by using the menstruating status of women as an excuse. Especially since anger in women is always considered as the outcome of an unreasonable, menstruating women’s confusing emotions. We always attempt to delegitimise female anger and make it sound baseless and irrational, no matter how much conflicting evidence there might be to prove otherwise.
Our collective ideas of the unreasonable woman whose emotions and rage are all over the place stem from centuries of sexist association between women and hysteria. Hysteria was a once a legitimate diagnosis of a mental illness, assumed to solely afflict women, until the 1950’s, after which it was no longer regarded as a mental illness. Up until then, women were subjected to forced hysterectomies and were sent to asylums to ‘cure’ it.
Hysteria was associated with the ‘wandering womb’ which was said to wander around in a woman’s body, causing various physical and psychological issues in women. Hysteria and PMS share many of the same behavioural symptoms and a very long history of viewing female emotions that deviate from the patriarchal norm as problematic or even as a form of insanity has eventually brought us to this unfortunate ruling in the Rajasthan High Court.
A ruling like this will only strengthen the stereotypes concerning women and menstruation. The decision isn’t only problematic and questionable from a legal stand-point, but from a societal one, as well. It can be used to further discrimination against women, especially by providing a basis for and adding to the hiring bias women face in the job market.
By attributing legitimate emotions or the anger that women feel to their menstruation, we invalidate what they feel.
Women are hired a lot less than men, with employers worrying they might eventually take maternity leaves or ask for sick leaves during their period every month, but this ruling which identifies PMS as a mental illness will strengthen the notion that men ultimately make better and more economical employees than women, with employers preferring to hire men who are ‘stable’ and ‘sane’.
Apart from this, menstruation has plenty of stigma attached to it. Claiming PMS is a mental illness and women afflicted by it are of unsound mind will only further the discrimination, stigma, and bias that menstruating women are subjected to.
The Rajasthan High Court’s decision comes from a place of ignorance, outdated theories, prevalent stigmas, patriarchal beliefs about women and anything exclusively feminine, and deep-rooted sexism. Apart from the obvious and even the far too nuanced legal consequences, this ruling can threaten the progress being made in eliminating menstrual stigmas, affording women a place in the job market, and our general perceptions of women.
It strengthens stereotypes which can finally prove to be the basis to disallow women the public space to voice their opinions, express their legitimate anger, and ultimately their disapproval. Considering what women feel is unreasonable, makes their actions and voices seem like they come from a place of irrationality, that lacks any reason and all rationale, and this can eventually lead to the voices of women going unheard and legitimate dialogue brought about by them being dismissed or pushed into oblivion.
Featured Image Source: Bonum Lex