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WOMEN IN LEGAL FRATERNITY

Shanmitha Bhogadi



The month of March, once again, provides us with an opportunity to celebrate women and assess our journey so far in our attempts to empower them and grant them their due rights. Women have been one of the most exploited beings throughout the history of humanity, but many socio-political movements which led to multiple policy changes have ensured tremendous progress in improving the status of women in society and maintaining their dignity. Today, we will explore this development in the field of law and look into the hardships of women in law while celebrating those who made it slightly easier for their successors.


“Law is not a trade, not briefs, not merchandise and so the heaven of commercial competition should not vulgarize the legal profession,” said Justice Krishna Iyer in 2009.


The legal landscape in India is not a level-playing field. Since the time of colonization, it has been seen as a rich boys’ club. It consisted of men from wealthy families who could afford to go to England to study law and become barristers. Their sons would do the same and the cycle continued. This led to an environment where the first-generation lawyers, women lawyers and lawyers from middle-class families had to face a lot of discrimination against them. The bias is so ingrained that at often times, it is not even intentional.


India has made tremendous progress from the colonial times to now. Today, we have more women, first-generation and lawyers with diverse background working shoulder to shoulder. However, the gender gap persists. Despite having the hard-won rights of equality at workplace and changes in the courtroom environment, only 15% of all practicing lawyers in India are women. The numbers are no better in the judiciary with only 30% women judges in subordinate courts. The High Courts have at around 13% and the Supreme Court at around 11%. So far, we’ve never had a female Chief Justice of India.


Women face a barrage of unique problems when they choose to pursue law, especially in India. Starting with the basic infrastructure facilities, multiple states have seen cases by women bar associations complaining about the dearth of changing rooms and sanitized washrooms in the court complexes. Due to which they are forced to shed more bucks for making alternate arrangements. This is dangerous not only to their pockets (which is smaller than their male counterpart anyway) but also to their health. This leads to our next issue of gender pay gap. Despite having appropriate education, training and experience, women lawyers are not preferred over their male counterparts and even when they are chosen, they are often paid lesser. The condition is so bad that we don’t even have proper research done in this respect. Another issue that is peculiar to women in law is they are often not considered for certain areas of law like corporate, property and criminal. These are high paying fields but are considered too masculine for women.


Moreover, in the ordinary parlance as well, women in law are often encouraged to take up teaching or try for Junior Civil Judge Examinations as those options would provide them with ample off-time to fulfill their household duties as well. This baseless bias leads to many lost opportunities for women and lost talent for the workforce. Then we have the regular issues of glass ceiling and sexual harassment at workplace. Only around 25% of partners of law firms in India are women but this number is swiftly increasing. There was a near 45% growth in the past 3 years. Things look more promising for the academicians. 41% of all law colleges in India have female heads and the enrolment rate of female students is also close to 50%.Coming to sexual harassment at workplace, amidst these many hurdles and lack of community support, these torch-bearers of justice are deprived of justice themselves.


One factor that could help improve the situation of women lawyers by a great extent is mentorship and networking opportunities. This factor is what helps the first gen-lawyers and junior lawyers in their struggle. As more and more women are opting law as their career of choice, the future looks hopeful for such community building. Also, bigger numbers would ensure tremendous support from within to continue their fight against injustice.


However, this is not to suggest that we do not have any prominent personalities from women in law. We have exemplary lawyers like Cornelia Sorabji, Indira Jaising andMeneka Guruswamy and judges like Leila Seth, Fathima Beevi and Indira Banerjee.


Cornelia Sorabji was an Indian lawyer, social reformer and writer. She became the first female advocate in India but would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923. She was involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, pushed for reforms in the Hindu practices of Sati and child marriage and education of women. However, she was totally against imposition of Western values to Indian society and believed in staying true to her roots. Her contributions are often neglected due to her resistance to mainstream Nationalism and Feminism but she did tread a very unique path for herself and commanded considerable respect in those times.

M. Fathima Beevi was the first female judge of the Supreme Court of India and first Muslim to be appointed in higher judiciary. After her retirement, she worked with the National Human Rights Commission and later as the Governor of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She is also awarded with Kerela Prabha Award and Padma Bhushan.


Indira Jaising, a prolific Indian lawyer, played (and still is playing) a prominent role to help women across the country with their right to property, reproduction, paternity, protection against sexual harassment, religion and many more.


Menaka Guruswamyis a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India, research scholar and lecturer. She is known for having played a significant role in many landmark cases before the Supreme Court, including the Section 377 case, the bureaucratic reforms case, the Augusta Westland bribery case, the Salwa Judum case, and the Right to Education case. Additionally, she has also worked with the United Nations.


Indira Banerjee was the eighth female judge of the Supreme Court of India and was one of the first woman to hold many such prestigious posts. She was also part of the benches of multiple landmark judgements like the Sabarimala, etc. 


Leila Seth was, like Justice Banerjee, a very prolific judge who held multiple important positions. She practiced as a lawyer for many years before her elevation to judiciary. She was a woman of many talents and showed exemplary prowess in diverse areas of law including taxes, Constitution and crimes. She was also a part of the three-member committee headed by Justice Verma, post the 2013 infamous Delhi gang rape case.


These women and many more have trodden the path and made it easier for Indian women after them. In the words of Rupi Kaur, “I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me, thinking, what can I do to make the mountain taller so the women after me can see [the] farther legacy.


Shanmitha Bhogadi

IIIrd Year BA.LLB

Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University

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