01 January 1970

Ms, Mrs, Kumari, Shrimati: Do Prefixes Violate Women's Privacy?

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Ms, Mrs, Kumari, Shrimati: Do Prefixes Violate Women's Privacy?

Does this violate the woman’s right to privacy? Did she consent to reveal her marital status on sundry official documents and in official communication while the identity of men remains marriage neutral? 

Women march with a banner preaching diversity.
Women march with a banner preaching diversity. Getty Images

Men's names are usually prefixed with a 'Mr' that does not betray their marital status whatsoever. However, the array of prefixes used in front of women's names in Indian society reveals a lot more about their relationship status than they bargain for. This could be done by attaching Mrs. Miss, Km. (Kumari) or Smt. (Shrimati) before their names. Kumari is often used to denote an unmarried woman while Shrimati is used for married women. 

Does this violate the woman’s right to privacy? Did she consent to reveal her marital status on sundry official documents and in official communication while the identity of men remains marriage neutral? 

Armed with a set of such arguments, Varanasi-based Pratima Gond recently approached the Supreme Court. Gond, an assistant professor of Sociology at the Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Banaras Hindu University, in a Public Interest Litigation prayed before the court seeking instructions to cancel prefixes such as Mrs, Kumari, Miss, and Shrimati before the names of women in all public and private documents as well as from their class 10 and 12 educational mark sheets and certificates. In her petition, Gond argued that the use of such prefixes before the name of women in public and private institutions, circulars, certificates, notifications, letter application forms and all other official communication denoted the marital status of women and was therefore unconstitutional due to breach of the right to privacy, which was a fundamental right provided in Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. 

“There are various ways of identifying a married woman in India...their sindoor, mangalsutra, etc. I’m not talking of their personal domain or personal choice to flaunt that but of the compulsion to declare that status in official communication, both private and government,” Gond said. 

To back up her contention, Gond also cited a 2017 circular issued by the Bombay High Court directing the practitioners to not use prefixes like Mr, Ms, Mrs, or M/s in the title of legal proceedings. 

On May 15, however, the Supreme Court dismissed her petition saying that there cannot be a general order to remove the prefix from women’s names. “…it depends upon the choice of a person whether to use a prefix or not to use the prefix,” said a division bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Ahsanuddin Amanullah in the order. 

Gond, though disappointed by the order, has not given up. She will pursue the matter further by filing a review petition. “The court says it is a matter of right to choose. But I don’t want to use it. What about those who violate my right to choose,” she asks. 

Gond illustrates this concern through examples from her own life. While securing an electricity connection, she had listed her name as Pratima Gond, wife of Arvind Gond. However, in the electricity bills received by her, her name is mentioned as “Shrimati” Pratima Gond. In her bank loan documents too, officials added “Mrs.” before her name. “It happens everywhere. My high-school and intermediate-level mark sheets all list me as Kumari. I got married after I completed class 12. And they already named me as ‘shrimati’. In 2016, when I already had two children, I got my caste certificate made. I didn’t use any prefixes. But they listed me as a Kumari,” Gond narrated.

In this context, she asks, if an external person or entity violates her right to choose, what remedy does she have to get it protected? The option to choose between Kumari and Shrimati or Mrs itself is discriminatory, she feels. Men don’t need to reveal their marital status. The prefix Mr. does not reveal much about a man’s personal life. But the woman’s prefix is a giveaway.  In a patriarchal society like ours, these have social consequences. 

“When I raised this matter, many questioned me saying that these were just ways of addressing people. But I say these are not just references. They create our social identity. If a woman above a certain age is unmarried and referred to as a Kumari, people attach a lot of gossip about her life. ‘Why is she still a Kumari? Something must be lacking in her.’” 

Then, there are questions on what prefix should be used for divorced women or those widowed. Or for people identifying as LGBTQIA. “If tomorrow the same-sex marriage law is passed, and two girls get married, what column will they fill? What prefix will be used for them,” asks Gond. 

At the heart of Gond’s prayer is the idea of tackling violence against women through language and cultural practices. Physical and emotional violence against women is often talked about. But what about the cultural violence against them? What nurtures and empowers that violence? “It gets its power from the violence of language. Bhashai Hinsa,” says Gond. “Galis (abuses) are targeted at female body parts. Women face character assassination. Cultural violence works at the root of other violence. We need to talk more about cultural violence.”