In K Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017), a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and that, at its core, it means the “right to be let alone.” But the right to be let alone when, where, by whom, and in relation to what?
As conceived in Anglo–Saxon jurisprudence, the right to privacy initially focused on protecting “private” spaces, such as the home, from state interference on the belief that “a man’s home is his castle” and he exercises sovereign power within that space (Peter Semayne v. Richard Gresham 1604). Subsequently, court decisions expanded this right to protect intimate relationships, such as the family and marriage, from state intervention (Griswold v. Connecticut 1965). More recently, the right to privacy has been understood—including in the Puttaswamy case—as protecting individual autonomy by preserving a person’s bodily integrity, as well as her autonomous decision-making capacity.
In this conception, the right shields from interference a person’s fundamental personal decisions and information (K Puttaswamy v. Union of India). Such protection enables a person to determine “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey 1992) and facilitates the exercise of liberty “free of social expectations … enable(ing) individuals to preserve their beliefs, thoughts, expressions, ideas, ideologies, preferences and choices against societal demands of homogeneity” (K Puttaswamy v. Union of India).
What are the implications of this judgment for women’s rights? As Justice D Y Chandrachud’s plurality opinion acknowledges, feminist legal theory has had an ambivalent relationship with the right to privacy. In what follows, I argue that the right to privacy as conceived in the Puttaswamy judgment has the potential to transform the landscape of the legal regulation of women’s lives.