At a get-together in Delhi which was full of lawyers, I overheard this conversation:
A: Do you know of this (woman) lawyer who’s recently become quite famous?
B: Yes, I have. Why?
A: Well, you know how she’s getting all this coverage and fame? She’s sleeping around.
B: C’mon, how can you possibly know that?
A: Someone told me. And when I met her she was adjusting her attire provocatively.
At a different get-together three months later where the gentlemen in conversation weren’t present, another person spoke about the same lawyer, this time to me:
C: Is that woman your friend?
Me: I know of her, but we aren’t friends. Why?
C: Boss, all her success is happening because she sleeps around. She even dresses provocatively and uses her body language to attract men.
The fascinating thing about these two conversations was that even the words used to describe the woman’s alleged bearing were the same. I knew for a fact that C had never met A or B. So I said “Have you considered that she may just be dressing or acting like she wants to and it is you who are objectifying her? Maybe it is you who feel that if a woman is dressing or moving in a certain way it is obviously for someone’s pleasure and not because that’s how she wants to be? That a woman can have multiple partners only to “get ahead” in life and not because that’s her choice?
C said I was misunderstanding him and that even the quality of the woman’s work was poor, citing how he had witnessed some of this “substandard” work. I found it surprising that criticism of the woman’s work was not the main argument but a supporting claim. Besides, there are plenty of incompetent lawyers who are famous men, why isn’t anyone talking as much about them?
The practice of law is a profession that is extremely hostile to women. Litigation is perceived to be this adversarial contest where victory goes to the person whose style is aggressive, who can shout the loudest, and so on. Women, on the other hand, are generally perceived to be incapable of this aggression. This also surprises me, because most men don’t tire of making jokes about how terrified they are of their wives.
You will be hard-pressed to find a woman lawyer who hasn’t been patronisingly told that this profession is not for them and they should join a company as an in-house counsel. Or clients who when they are recommended a female lawyer don’t ask “Will she be able to argue?”
You will also hear the ‘arranged marriage’ crowd advising bachelors to avoid marrying a lawyer at all costs since she will know too much about her rights, and presuming how an aggressive successful lawyer must be in a terrible marriage because she can’t be coy or submissive. A very senior lawyer I met once proudly told me that he did not “let” his wife practise law because most women lawyers were “loose”.
Despite all these obstacles, when women still choose to pursue law and somehow succeed, the perception is that their success must be because of reasons that have nothing to do with their competence.
Since late 2014 there has only been one woman judge in the Supreme Court, whose total strength after the recent elevations will be 28. Five judges have been recently promoted; not one of them is a woman. As per a report of the Department of Justice cited by legal news website livelaw.com, across the high courts in the country, there are 67 women judges out of the total working strength of 646.
A friend whom I was speaking to recently wondered: Shouldn’t competent judges be chosen regardless of their gender? The truth is, the numbers cited don’t reflect a lack of competence, they only reflect overwhelming prejudice and hostility.
But, why do we need more women judges? Patricia Wald, a former appellate judge in the US and justice on the International Criminal Tribunal for what was once Yugoslavia, was in 2012 quoted by Americas Quarterly, a policy journal of Cornell Law School, as saying: “Being treated by society as a woman can be a vital element of a judge’s experience… A judge is the sum of her experiences and if she has suffered disadvantages or discrimination as a woman, she is apt to be sensitive to its subtle expressions or to paternalism.”
Therefore, by appointing more women judges, institutions are only improving the quality of justice. And no institution which is so thoroughly unjust as to leave out women has any business believing that whatever it is doing is anywhere close to the idea of dispensing justice.
This article was first published in the Mumbai Mirror