New Delhi— In a compelling letter addressed to Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, senior lawyer Indira Jaising has unveiled a poignant narrative of gender stereotyping, bias, and harassment within the legal domain. The letter, which comes on the heels of the release of the 'Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes' by the E-Committee of the Supreme Court of India, calls for a comprehensive reform of the entrenched attitudes that have adversely affected women lawyers for decades. The Mooknayak's request to Ms. Jaising for the letter's sharing was met with swift compliance, thereby offering a comprehensive insight into the nuanced details surrounding the issue of gender bias within the legal domain.
Jaising commended the recent publication of the 'Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes,' describing it as a long-awaited and essential step toward sensitizing the legal community about the deeply ingrained gender biases that continue to afflict the profession. The handbook, developed under the able guidance of the Supreme Court, is expected to play a pivotal role in fostering awareness among judges, judicial officers, and legal practitioners, potentially marking a pivotal turning point in eradicating such stereotypes.
One of Jaising's foremost recommendations is the creation of a list of proscribed words in advocacy, pleadings, and judgments. Drawing a parallel with the Parliament's list of unparliamentary words, she suggested that certain derogatory terms and expressions that perpetuate stereotypes against women should be banned from legal language. She cited examples such as 'hatlot,' 'slut,' and 'keep' that ought to be eliminated from court proceedings. " By way of example, the word ‘prostitute’ is found in The Immoral Trafficking(Prevention) Act 1956 ,section 4 and in the Act, prostitute and its forms are used around 36 times. Hopefully, eventually these changes shall be reflected in statutes in the near future", Jaising wrote.
Jaising raised concern over a recent judgment by the Calcutta High Court that labeled women's use of Section 498A as "legal terrorism." Citing a judgement ( Swapan Kumar Das @ Swapan Das & Anr. Vs. State of West Bengal & Anr., C.R.R. No. – 2455 of 2018), Jaising wrote, " This is a typical example of stereotyping, that is generalizing an issue while the attempt should be to focus on the case at hand. It is not my contention that in a given case, if the law is misused, power of the High Court must not be invoked. But to say that women have unleashed ‘legal terrorism’ by misusing Section 498A is the surest form of stereotyping, leading to the impression of gender bias in the judge. I make it clear that I do not wish to comment on the merits of the case in question but it is important to point out that such comments whether in judgments or made during the course of a hearing by judges are be to avoided if justice is to be done."
In addition to her recommendations for judicial reform, Jaising delves into her personal experiences, revealing the subtle forms of gender stereotyping that women lawyers face from their male colleagues. She recounts instances where comments like "You are an empowered woman, who can put you down" are aimed at belittling women's accomplishments. She advocates for guidelines that will educate male colleagues on how to interact with women lawyers respectfully, without resorting to such stereotypes.
Indira Jaising also shed light on the changing nature of gender dynamics throughout her career. The senior lawyer highlighted that her earlier years in the field were relatively free from gender-based stereotypes. However, as her experience grew over time, she found herself increasingly subjected to such biases, suggesting that her male counterparts might struggle with an empowered woman in the legal arena.
In courtroom settings, Jaising shared instances where male colleagues referred to her as 'delightful,' a comment she promptly challenged and even had recorded in a court judgment as a form of harassment. Interestingly, there exists a dual standard in assessing women's conduct. While women are often expected not to raise their voices, any display of assertiveness is labeled as 'aggressive,' a term rarely attributed to men. " Significantly, at the other end of the spectrum, I get told by my male colleagues ‘Don't raise your voice in court’. I have, on a previous occasion, indicated that pejorative expressions such as ‘she is aggressive’ are used in relation to women and never in relation to men. When it comes to ‘aggression’, I could provide you with several examples of male lawyers who are loud and aggressive in court, but they are considered India’s top lawyers. What could be a better example of gender stereotyping? " the letter reads. This disparity is emblematic of a deep-rooted gender-based stereotyping issue.
Furthermore, Jaising pointed out that some senior male lawyers refer to her as 'she' instead of the traditional 'my learned friend' when addressing opponents. This practice contrasts with their own expectations of being addressed formally, thus unveiling subtle yet impactful forms of gender bias. With these observations in mind, Jaising has made a fervent plea for the court to establish a handbook addressing gender stereotyping among women lawyers. Such a resource, she believes, could provide male colleagues with essential guidelines on interacting respectfully and equitably with their female counterparts within the legal profession.
Indira Jaising, with a remarkable career spanning over five decades, has raised an imperative concern within the legal landscape. Drawing from her extensive experience in representing women, she sheds light on the concerning prevalence of gender stereotyping in legal pleadings and courtroom arguments.
Jaising underscores the critical role of language in perpetuating stereotypes and calls for comprehensive guidelines to govern the language employed in legal pleadings and oral arguments. Stressing the significance of such guidelines, she highlights that pleadings are meticulously read by judges before delivering judgments, and any derogatory language can significantly influence the outcome of cases.
The lawyer, who has been a staunch advocate for women's rights, particularly emphasizes the distressing trend of gender-based stereotyping in matrimonial cases, often presented on behalf of husbands. She draws attention to the academic research of Dr. Pratiksha Bakshi's work titled "Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India," which exposes the humiliating remarks frequently made during rape trial proceedings.
In an appeal to the Supreme Court of India, Jaising urges the establishment of a Model Handbook on Practice Guidelines for pleadings. She believes that such a handbook, if adopted by High Courts and District Courts, could counteract gender bias and ensure a more equitable and respectful legal discourse.
Jaising extends her concerns to address another pressing issue—sexual harassment faced by women lawyers at the hands of their male colleagues in courtrooms and law offices. Despite directives issued by the Supreme Court in the Medha Kotwal Lele v. Union of India (2013) case, which urged institutions, including the Bar Council of India, to declare sexual harassment as misconduct, the implementation remains incomplete.
While acknowledging the existence of a gender sensitization committee within the Supreme Court of India, Jaising underscores the primary responsibility for addressing sexual harassment within the legal profession. She places emphasis on the Advocates Act and the Bar Council of India as the statutes that should primarily address and rectify these issues.
In closing, Jaising expresses gratitude for the evolving efforts toward inclusivity and gender sensitivity within the legal system, signifying the ongoing journey towards a more equitable legal landscape.