Can a woman get away with murder if she has premenstrual distress? The Rajasthan High Court seems to think so.

On August 1, the Jaipur bench of the Court acquitted a woman accused of murdering a child on the grounds of insanity because she had been suffering from severe premenstrual stress syndrome. The woman had earlier been convicted by a trial court. But the High Court bench of Justices Mohammad Rafiq and Goverdhan Bardhar allowed her the benefit of Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, which pardons offences committed because of psychological disorders or “unsoundness of mind”.

In their judgement, Rafiq and Bardhar observed that the “although the law has not much developed in India as to the Premenstrual Stress Syndrome being set up as the defense of insanity, the accused has a right to plead... such defence to show that she was suffering from ‘premenstrual stress syndrome’ when the crime was committed”.

They added that in her condition, “the offence that she committed was an involuntary act on her part, inasmuch owing to this fact, she was labouring under the defect of reason or was suffering from psychological disorder or unsoundness of mind”.

Premenstrual stress syndrome, commonly referred to as PMS, describes the mood disturbances, cramps, bloating, anger or depression that women may experience in the days leading up to their periods. PMS is caused by the monthly hormonal changes associated with menstruation, and can be particularly painful and aggravating for some women.

But menstruation and PMS are also frequently used to stereotype women as overly emotional, moody and irrational. This stereotype has its roots in historical associations between women’s menstrual cycles, hysteria and insanity – sexist associations that linger today even though doctors stopped classifying “hysteria” as a psychological disorder in the 1950s.

By allowing a woman to plead insanity on the grounds of PMS, the Rajasthan High Court has bought into these stereotypes and set a disappointing precedent for criminal cases dealing with women offenders. Unsurprisingly, the judgement relies on poor research and medical evidence that is dated and prejudiced.

Outdated research, weak arguments

The accused in the Rajasthan High Court case is a woman named Chandra Lajnani from a village in Ajmer. In 1981, she was accused of kidnapping three children and pushing them into a well. Two of the children survived, while one died. In 1982, a trial court in Ajmer convicted her of murder and attempt to murder and sentenced her to life imprisonment. Lajnani then appealed to the High Court, which took 35 years to finally arrive at a verdict. For a large portion of that time, she was out on bail.

In the High Court appeal, Lajnani’s lawyer VR Bajwa made two contradictory arguments at the same time. First, he claimed that Lajnani was innocent – that she had not pushed the children into the well and that the charges against her were fabricated. Simultaneously, he claimed that Lajnani was “suffering from the mental disease known as premenstrual stress syndrome” at the time of the incident, which made her “aggressive” a few days prior to her period. Bajwa argued that “if it is found that she committed the alleged offence”, the trial court should have factored in her disorder and acquitted her on the grounds of insanity.

While the High Court held that Lajnani had indeed committed the offence, it decided to let her off on the grounds of insanity.

A large portion of the High Court’s judgement is dedicated to the question of whether severe PMS can be considered a form of temporary insanity that can lead a woman to inadvertently commit a crime. To arrive at an answer, the court relied on the statements of three doctors who had treated Lajnani on different occasions, and on a number of research papers it found online.

The three doctors quoted in the judgement had similar observations – they stated that PMS can lead some women to become aggressive, irritated, violent and/or suicidal. One of the doctors claimed he had visited Lajnani on three occasions to treat her for a “psycho-neurotic disease” that caused her to become “violent to the extent of reaching madness”. However, the same doctor told cross-examiners that he was not an expert on menstrual diseases.

The research papers that the High Court judgement gives credence to are just as questionable. An Indian study from 2004, for instance, finds a “substantial link between PMS and behaviour alterations”, but the study was conducted on just 96 women, none of whom were actually accused or convicted of any crime. This research paper is based heavily on a landmark British study by Katharina Dalton, who found a “highly significant” relationship between menstruation and crime. While the High Court judgement quotes from this study, it fails to mention that the study was conducted nearly 60 years ago, in 1959, and that participants included women who had been accused of “crimes” like alcoholism and prostitution.

The High Court does take the trouble to quote a research paper published as recently as 2015, on a website called “UK Essays”. But this research paper comes with a prominent disclaimer that it is the work of a student and not a professional – a point that the judgement fails to note.

A history of hysteria

If the evidence cited in the judgement does not appear too credible, why did the Rajasthan High Court so easily buy into the idea that PMS can have a causal link to insanity?

The answer probably lies in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts, which claimed that a woman’s uterus could influence the health of her whole body. The uterus came to be blamed for all kinds of symptoms in women – depression, anxiety, irritability, insomnia – and eventually gave rise to the term “hysteria”, which is derived from “uterus”. For centuries, hysteria was diagnosed as a mental illness that affected women alone; a go-to diagnosis for anything that male doctors did not understand about women’s health. In the 1800s, hysteria was one of the most common reasons given for admitting women into asylums.

In the 1950s, the American Psychiatric Association declassified hysteria as a mental health disorder. However, despite the robust feminist critique of linking hysteria with women and their wombs, the gendered stigma around the term continues. Even today, the term “hysterical” is often used to describe emotional women, and it is almost never used to describe men.

By acquitting Lajnani on the grounds of PMS-induced insanity, the Rajasthan High Court seems to have regressed back to the ancient tropes of the “mad woman” and her hysterical uterus. The fact that this judgement has come from a High Court and not a lower court makes it even more troubling.