Anitha Shenoy, Advocate on Record, Supreme Court. "With so many women in the Supreme Court, life is much easier."
She is winning the argument. The courtroom as a traditional male bastion is adjourned.
Anitha Shenoy is a lawyer of her time. An advocate-on-record at the Supreme Court, she is one of two state counsels for Karnataka. In her own practice, she handles headlining public interest cases, such as the ongoing trial of Dr Binayak Sen. Or she takes on pro bono clients who repay her in kolhapuri chappals and bags of bitter gourd. Other times, she makes 'decent money' from private clients. She has a four-year-old daughter. In her chambers, she sits under a picture of goddess Saraswati and seems to have as many hands.
But she isn't alone. "There are so many women who are competent and completely committed to their practice," Shenoy told Outlook, "We've reached the stage where we know we're getting there. Now that there are so many women in the Supreme Court, life is much easier for us."
In 1921, Cornelia Sorabjee was admitted to the bar, prompting a revision of the law that excluded female practitioners. Three generations and several pathbreaking careers later, a groundswell of young women is surging into the rough-and-tumble of the legal world (see box). More women are law students, practising advocates, judges and partners in corporate law firms than ever before.
Not too long ago, it was a very different story. "What has happened in the last ten years has been dramatic," says Kamini Jaiswal, a Supreme Court advocate who has been in legal practice for over three decades, "In the sixties and seventies, there were very few women lawyers. We went through really tough times, not only with the Bench but also with our colleagues at the Bar." Kamini speaks as a veteran, someone who was able to withstand the hostility that the male legal establishment poured on young women interlopers. "To sustain yourself you had to have a thick skin," she says, "I saw a lot of lady lawyers who didn't, who permanently lost their balance."
There were the inevitable efforts to undermine her reputation. "If you were a young working lawyer, you were treated as a woman of easy virtue, firstly by your clients and seniors," recalls Kamini. "Once you began to prove yourself, the talk shifted to insinuations—'What's going on in that barsati?' But there has been tremendous change—mostly because of women's strength in numbers."
Strength in numbers. It is a constant refrain from the young women advocates, in their late twenties and early thirties, who have entered the practice in the last decade.
"Just the bodily presence of women, I think, changes things," says Srimoyee Ghosh, a human rights litigator who opened an independent practice in Delhi last year. "The Bombay Family Courts is a fantastic experiment in how women's movements have made a difference to the culture of a courtroom. It's less formalistic, has more women judges and tonnes more women lawyers. "
"At one time, in fact, we were an 'all girls team' and outvoted the boys," says Kiran Khanna, a managing associate who handles mergers and acquisitions for a Bombay firm. "Corporate firms are certainly not chauvinist."
Courtrooms, however, sometimes still are. For all their mothballed conventions and antique atmosphere, the courts can be far from chivalrous. In 1997, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement referred to as Vishaka, mandating all employers to institute sexual harassment committees. But the Supreme Court Bar Association itself never formed one. In the same year, a study conducted by judges found that 65 per cent of women lawyers were often subjected to, or had often observed, sexual harassment from colleagues. Senior advocates still have a bit of a reputation for making sexual advances on female employees. "Some of my friends have faced sexual overtures from their seniors," says Anitha evenly. "It eventually forced them to leave their employment."
Last year, a Delhi High Court judge interjected while a young lawyer was in the middle of her arguments, saying he "knew how women lawyers make it"—implying that it was not by their intelligence or determination. Almost every young woman advocate recalls receiving patronising or inappropriate remarks from a judge (for obvious reasons, these statement were off the record). "The Bench still has a very sexist attitude," Kamini says. "They make rules for private workplaces to protect you, but in the courts there is no protection at all. It can be exasperating or humiliating, depending on how you choose to take it."
"Legal institutions are inherently patriarchal," says Aarti Mundkur, a founding member of Bangalore's Alternative Law Forum. "There is a feeling of being under a gaze in the premises of the court. Women friends who work in criminal law practice, especially, tell me about experiencing sexism. But you learn to deal with men in court the same way you deal with men on a bus. You find ways to tackle it and you go on."
It's encouraging to established lawyers that the face of discrimination has become less ugly in their tenure. Meenakshi Arora, who has been practising in the Supreme Court since 1985, notes, "the barriers are more subtle and hard to distinguish". Anitha has an example of subtle discrimination: clients pay her husband, also a lawyer, on time, "but they always try to shortchange me. My female colleagues have the same experience."
"I can confidently say that one cannot find a more gender-neutral territory than my chamber and the court precincts," says Aparajita Singh, a Supreme Court advocate. As junior to Harish Salve, she worked on some of the highest profile cases in recent years, such as the Uphaar cinema trial and the AIIMS reservations matter. "A client comes to you for your competence," she shrugs. "He is not bothered by your gender."
So, increasingly, young women lawyers are preoccupied only by the issues that bother young women everywhere.Such as what to wear. In Kamini's early career, judges referred to her as "the lady in pants". Ten years later, Meenakshi Arora was told she would never have clients until she switched to saris. Today, she says, "every second woman wears trousers," but the question persists. Even swanky corporate lawyers sometimes have to think twice. "There have been some hysterical moments involving older conservative male clients, whose experience of anyone with a Mrs tag implied a much older woman in a sari," says Kiran, "as opposed to someone younger in a designer suit!"
These barriers were scaled by hardy pioneers of the older generation; now they are being flattened by the march of the optimistic younger one. "There is no gainsay in saying that we have so few women judges, because there have been so few women advocates all along," says Meenakshi "With the number of advocates that this generation has, they may break through those last barriers."
But they are now encountering a barrier that may never be easy to overcome—raising a child while pushing your career. Some branches of law, such as corporate practice, make life easier for mothers. "The love for law coupled with being a corporate lawyer permits me to be a mother and a working woman," Kiran says. "Balancing both is easier than it would be for a litigator."
Anitha is discovering that herself. "It's really hard to be a driven lawyer and a mother," she sighs. "You can't have a social life—you can't even be much of a wife—and I can't give my daughter a lot of time." Reflecting for a moment on her brutal schedule, she adds, "A lot of the presently successful senior women lawyers aren't married, or they haven't had children. If the present lot do make it and we can meet the challenge of raising children as well, that might be our greatest achievement."