'There’s a deep-rooted institutional bias against women in the judiciary'

  • Rebecca M John
  • Updated: Aug 09, 2014 23:32 IST

On July 28, a panel of senior jurists was working on finalising the process of selection and appointment of judges in the higher judiciary. While the panel included names such as Soli Sorabjee, Fali S Nariman and Upendra Baxi, not a single woman was present in the group. It’s a fact that reflects the state of our judiciary, and the gender balance therein. We might take pride in some of our progressive legislations, but to make the legal fraternity truly gender sensitive, we need more women. Why should the old boys club get to decide on future appointments of the judges?

Today, there are many more women in the profession — back in the 1980s, when I started, there were very few of us. But still, in my view, the profession remains a conservative one, where women are in a minority, and the norm is to not take them seriously.

In the judiciary, there’s clearly a lack of accountability and commitment to protect the dignity of a woman — the Supreme Court took 16 years to frame guidelines to protect women against sexual harassment within its own premises.

Inside the courts, there have been several shocking judgments that point to the mindsets of the judges, as evidenced from the language that has been used in the judgements. For instance, last year, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of a man who had killed a boy. The judgment stated that the killing was done with the conscious motive of ensuring that the family lineage couldn’t be carried forward, as the boy was the only son of his parents. This despite the fact that this family included three daughters.

Words such as “concubine”, “keep” and “disgruntled wives” are used commonly, reflecting a deep-rooted institutional prejudice against women.

The case of the Gwalior judge may just be the tip of the iceberg; there may be several such cases that we may not know of, because when women such as the two law interns who complained against senior judges do so, they are viewed with suspicion. In the case of one of them, a defamation suit of 100 crore was slapped by the respondent judge. What is the message being sent across? That if you dare to speak out, you will be crushed? Isn’t that hypocrisy on part of the courts?

In the legal space, gender bias is also reflected when women are asked to dress in a particular fashion by their seniors, and when women lawyers are not given the same opportunities that their male colleagues get. It is very hard for women to get designated as senior advocates, and they have to work harder to be taken seriously. If they turn aggressive while arguing in the courts, they are treated with scorn. They are often made the subject of unpalatable remarks for doing their job well. While men network at evening parties, women are at disadvantage for being unable to do so. So, despite the success stories — which must be celebrated — the glass ceiling still exists.

The case of the Gwalior judge points to the way women are treated in this profession — as playthings. It is an extremely sad reflection of the state of affairs in an institution that prides itself to be independent and fair.

It is important that we apply the same standards to cases of sexual harassment in the courts, as we do to cases outside of the court. In a case such as this, the onus should be on the judge to prove his innocence, and not on the woman who has complained. But what happens is the other way around. That’s the mindset we are fighting against.

(As told to Namita Kohli)

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