In the last post, I argued that taxing sanitary pads non-trivially disadvantages women, on the ground of their sex, and consequently, violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution. There have been a substantial number of responses to the argument, both in the comments section of the blog, and elsewhere, which have pushed me to clarify and refine some of my thinking that went into the original post. In this post, I shall attempt to respond to some of the points that have been made.
“Sex” is Not a Biological Fact
I should start by clarifying that my original post assumed “sex” to be both binary, and a given, biological fact. We now know that this framing of “sex” is just that: an assumption, or a social construction. Without getting into complex terminological debates about the difference between “sex” and “gender”, it was correctly pointed out in the comments that in NALSA vs Union of India, the Supreme Court has (at least implicitly) accepted that “sex” under Article 15(1) of the Constitution is as much a matter of personal identification, as it is a matter of biology. It was also pointed out that the argument bypasses the rights of transgender individuals.
I accept the thrust of these criticisms, insofar as there exist individuals who do not identify as women, but who also menstruate, and require sanitary pads. For the purposes of this post, however, while acknowledging this reality, I want to continue using “sex” in terms of a distinction between men and women – only for the reason that the argument depends on working within existing law and jurisprudence, both of which are committed to the binary, objective understanding of “sex”. Once we succeed in establishing the case for sex discrimination on the old, classic model, we can then explore how we might extend it to our present, more nuanced understandings of “sex” and “gender”.
The Gendered Implications of Taxation Regimes
At the heart of a lot of comments disagreeing with my argument, I think, lies a sense of unease with running together tax law and discrimination law. We are accustomed to thinking of taxation as a sovereign function, which conceptually depends upon the State having to make discretionary choices about how best to raise revenue, through a system of financial incentives and disincentives. Taxes, ultimately, are guided by economic considerations and an assessment of goods and services, not of people. Consequently, while it is possible that tax might be used as a weapon of discrimination (jizya is a classic example) – and indeed, both the American and the Indian Supreme Courts have noted the possibility of punitive taxation being used to stifle the free press – this is limited to exceptional cases where the State is clearly acting with hostile purpose.
I would suggest, however, that according taxation law a high threshold immunity from the norms of discrimination would be a mistake. On the contrary, taxation gives the State such a powerful weapon to mould behaviour, that we should be specially solicitous of testing a taxation regime against constitutional norms. Goods and services are intrinsically linked to peoples’ conduct, choices, and ways of living. In my last post, I took the example of a tax levied only on crucifixes: while this might be dismissed as a very obvious, and unlikely example, there are other, indirect ways, in which tax regimes can be discriminatory.
An excellent judicial example of this is the judgment of the Canadian Supreme Court in Symes vs Canada. In Symes vs Canada, it was argued that disallowing childcare expenses as “business deductions” under the Income Tax regime was discriminatory on grounds of sex. The Appellant argued that, in view of the fact that women bore a disproportionate burden of childcare within the family, and consequently, were far more likely to need to hire child-carers in order to pursue their business interests, refusing business deductions amounted to sex discrimination. More broadly, the Appellant’s argument attacked the central assumptions of the Income Tax regime, which had been enacted at a time when gender roles were more rigid, and it was presumed that businesspeople would be male. For instance, under existing precedent, expenditures on taking clients out to golf, or to dinner, were deductible as business expenses, on the ground that these expenditures bore a proximate relationship with promoting the assessee’s business. Under that logic, however, paying a child-carer to free up time to pursue business was equally proximate. The only reason why it was not allowed as a business deduction was that the Income Tax regime was founded upon the assumption of a clear separation between the home and the business world, and was unable to envisage a reality in which women would be primed to pursue business while continuing to be burdened with responsibilities of childcare.
We can therefore see how a seemingly innocuous element of tax policy – disallowing childcare expenses as business deductions – was based upon a set of assumptions that were presumptively sex discriminatory. Ultimately, by a 7 – 2 majority (interestingly, the only two women on the bench were also the two dissenters), the Supreme Court rejected the case of the appellant; but it did so on the technical ground that the appellant had not shown that women bore a disproportionate share of the expenses on childcare (as distinct from responsibilities of childcare). What remains important, however, is that both the Majority and the Dissent(s) agreed that the taxation regime could – and often did – impact gender equality in both direct and indirect ways.
Condoms, Aftershave Lotion, Lipstick, Underwear, and Disadvantage
Many of the objections to my arguments took the form of counter-examples: if I was resting my case against taxing sanitary pads on the proposition that only women used them, then by the same logic, (men’s) condoms, (men’s) aftershave lotion, (women’s) lipstick, and (women’s) underwear should also be exempt from taxation under Article 15(1).
I should start by clarifying that there are two responses to this that I am not relying upon. First, I am not relying upon Article 15(3) of the Constitution. As I have argued before on this blog, I do not believe that Article 15(3) provides a carte blanche to the State to pass any law benefiting women at the expense of men. Article 15(3)’s location within the broader anti-discrimination clause clearly indicates that it is limited to saving those laws that benefit women with a view to remedying historical and structural discrimination. Consequently, if the principles of my argument applied equally to sanitary pads and to aftershave lotion, then 15(3) could not be a ground to legitimately deny men the benefits of tax-free aftershave.
Secondly, I am not resting my argument purely on a distinction between essential items and luxury goods. That distinction is important, but – as I shall go on to show – it is better understood as an argument not about essentials/luxuries, but about disadvantage.
In the last post, I had argued that the key to my argument under Article 15(1) is a shift from understanding discrimination law as being about a strict comparison between two classes, to understanding it as being about remedying historical and structural disadvantages. These disadvantages – which could take the form of deprivation of goods and services, or humiliation and insult – were located around the sites – or grounds – set out by Article 15(1): sex, race, religion etc.
I should clarify what I mean by this: I do not mean that we should stop thinking of discrimination as a question of equality. However, the kind of equality that is at stake when we think of discrimination law is – in the words of the South African Constitution – “the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.” The shift is a subtle, but important one: our enquiry is now not whether “X” action applies to “A”, but not to “B” (the strict comparator approach, under which sanitary pads do not raise a discrimination issue because – as a commentator pointed out – men do not menstruate); but rather, does “X” action affect “A’s” “full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms” in a manner that it doesn’t affect “B’s”.
Now if we understand a sanitary pad tax as – effectively – a tax on menstruation, then the applicability of the second framing of discrimination (as disadvantage) should become easier to analyse. It is important to start by noting the well-documented social, cultural, and economic role played by perceptions of menstruation in upholding (unequal) gender roles in society: many societies have viewed menstruation as a symbol of impurity and inferiority; but perhaps more importantly for our purpose, the physiological effects of menstruation have serious economic ramifications upon women’s participation in the workplace on equal terms with men (consider the recent debates on paid menstrual leave, for instance), as well as upon their reproductive health.
I have only set out the form of the argument here: a complete argument would require a detailed scientific and sociological study of the societal affects of menstruation, and the role of sanitary pads in that context. It would also require dealing with an objection raised in the comments, namely, that in view of the fact that only 12% of Indian women use sanitary pads (and the other 88% have to make do with alternatives), in the Indian context perhaps sanitary pads are luxuries: to answer this objection, we would need to consider both women’s testimony, and scientific evidence, on how sanitary pads mitigate the debilitating effects of menstruation
Presumptively, however, I hope that this makes clear the distinction between sanitary pads on the one hand, and condoms, lipsticks, aftershave lotion, and underwear on the other (this is apart from the fact that neither condoms nor underwear is sex-specific): a tax on sanitary pads is effectively a tax on menstruation. It is discriminatory because it entrenches and perpetuates – both materially and symbolically – disadvantages (of different kinds) suffered by women in society because they menstruate. Now if a similar argument can be made for other items, then there is a ground for exempting them from tax as well.
Why Not Article 21?
Many commentators were of the view that Article 21 – through arguments about the right to dignity and the right of access to health – might provide a better constitutional foundation for an argument against taxing sanitary pads. I would, however, prefer to maintain a focus on Article 15(1), for three reasons: first – for the reasons advanced above – I do actually believe that a tax on sanitary pads is predicated upon long-held assumptions that are basically gendered and discriminatory; secondly, an Article 15(1) argument helps us to move beyond the strict comparator bind that we’ve been in for the last six decades, and to think of fresh ways of conceptualising discrimination; and thirdly, I’m hesitant about an expansive reading of Article 21. As I have argued before on this blog, we should be wary of continuing to use Article 21 in a manner that both dilutes the core right (life and personal liberty), as well as risks taking us to a place where Article 21 begins to swallow up other rights under the new judicial fad of “balancing rights”. This does not, of course, take away from the fact that the sanitary pad tax does raise a core issue of access to health (as much as it raises an issue of discrimination), and under existing jurisprudence, Article 21 does include a right of access to health.
Specific and Holistic
One commentator raised an important point: would the tax on sanitary pads remain discriminatory if it was shown that overall, the tax regime as a whole was more favourable to women than men? In other words, what if it could be shown that the burden on sanitary pads was offset by other benefits in the IT Act, so that at the end of the day, women had a smaller overall tax burden?
In my view, I think this argument would have force if we continued to think about discrimination as centred around a strict comparative approach. On the shift to the disadvantage approach, however, it doesn’t matter if overall women are placed better off than men: the tax on sanitary pads – which is effectively a tax on menstruation – causes disadvantage that is of concern to discrimination law, even if that disadvantage is offset by advantage elsewhere. However, I am not entirely convinced of this response.
In conclusion, therefore, I think that despite some nuanced and important objections, the basic form of the argument – that a tax on sanitary pads presumptively constitutes sex discrimination under the Constitution – continues to hold. Whether it actually constitutes sex-discrimination depends upon producing the kind of evidence that I have outlined above, including – and especially – the personal testimonies of women.