As a lawyer who has experienced the world of Court practice for over 6 years, my cynicism about the institution is a cause for agony. Yes, the delays and uncertainties of the world of litigation bother me, but I can perceive it’s a larger systemic problem we have to work at addressing. What bothers me more, however, is the deep-rooted and pervasive gender bias that marks the institution. It runs through its landscape like an invisible line, to be highlighted once in a while by women lawyers who will all too easily be labeled as shrill and incompetent rebels without a cause.
My first brush with courtroom misogyny was 4 years back. I stood up to argue before a Judge and happened to begin talking at the same time as my male opponent. The Judge stopped my opponent mid-sentence and said patronizingly “let the lady finish” with a bemused expression on his face. Needless to say, I did not share his amusement. Quite unlike the image of the woman in my head who stands up and speaks up against the ogre of patriarchy, I bit my lip, swallowed and went on with the rest of the day like nothing had ever happened. For those who are unfamiliar with the world of Court practice and its hierarchies, lawyers do not question Judges for fear of the effect it would have on their practice. More recently, as I stood behind the senior practitioner I work with, and fed him inputs about the case as he argued, another Judge looked at me and said “you keep quiet”, and turning to him said “you speak”. It was an affront, and not incidental to the regulation of his Court, as I was not even addressing him at the relevant point. As I struggled to articulate what to me was plainly a case of my being singled out for my gender, well-meaning male colleagues and seniors repeatedly told me it was all a part of the game. You have to be tough to survive in the world of litigation, they seemed to suggest. The implicit message to me in their responses was: “Gender bias? Surely, you can’t be serious!” Or worse: “we have more pressing issues to deal with in the judicial system”.
Even as I constantly subjected myself to the rigorous test of whether I was just ‘taking it personally’ or there was a genuine issue staring me in the face, I discovered I was not alone. Stories abound of women lawyers being meted out comments and remarks that have little to do with their work. “Tie your hair, I don’t like women with loose hair in my Court” and “Go wash the make-up off your face” are but a few examples. In a world where Judges’ eccentricities form the stuff of folklore and legend, these stray remarks might not be seen as extraordinary or extreme. But every such remark from a person occupying a public office of responsibility, in an institution where women have to struggle to be taken seriously, deeply undermines the battle. As it is, women are a marginalized minority in the Courts. If you keep aside the kind of tokenism that counts the number of women Judges in the total pool as a measure of progress, you realize that we are not quite there. While the number of women graduating from law schools and entering practice is steadily increasing, the trajectory seems to taper at some point. Enough women are not growing as litigators, to graduate into positions of seniority in the Bar to make the presence of women and their voices count. The telling statistic, for instance, of a total of 4 women designated ‘senior counsels’ in the Madras High Court to the approximately 100-odd male senior counsels bears testimony to this. Other High Courts and the Supreme Court, I suspect, are not dramatically different.
All of these point to the enduring entrenchment of patriarchy in the legal profession. While women lawyers in the corporate space have made rapid strides in breaking the glass ceiling, the same thing cannot be said about their compatriots who work in the Courts. For one, the dominant patriarchal structure still believes that being a litigating lawyer requires most of all, the element of macho-aggression, and while men may be used to seeing aggressive women inside boardrooms, they are still not ready to accept them in public spaces such as the Courts. Equally at play is the underlying message that being a litigator requires dealing with a range of people and issues considered ‘dirty business’ and that women cannot and should not, get their hands soiled. The combination of the need to ‘protect’ women, and the inability to take them seriously has done enough to ensure this is one of the least empowering spaces for women to inhabit. Most of all however, is the all too familiar reluctance of men to make space for women in a world they clearly consider theirs.
The marginalization of women in the field has a larger impact on the influence of women’s perspectives in understanding issues and deciding disputes. The importance of this surely cannot be over-estimated with the Courts today deciding everything from guidelines for women’s safety at the workplace and rape law, to equal pay for equal work. It’s time we become alive to the reality that the gender disparity in judicial institutions needs urgent attention. This must encompass dealing with all forms of misogyny, ranging from the everyday acts of discrimination women face, to the more serious encounters with physical and emotional violence. Else, it will be yet another social and political space lost to women.