The Vicious Cycle of Sexism in the Indian Court System
After sexual harassment allegations against the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi came out, he reported other Supreme Court (SC) judges asking if they could have an all-male staff, the Times of India reported. This was apparently to ward off any sticky situations such as the one Gogoi is currently embroiled in, the report says.
On 19 April, a former junior staff member of Gogoi’s office sent a formal complaint to 22 judges stating that he inappropriately touched her, and then later sabotaged her career and harassed her family when she refused his advances. Gogoi then chaired a hearing to address the accusations against himself, a grossly unethical move the other justices should have disparaged. Instead, they stood in solidarity with him, backed him in his claim that the woman is out to dismantle and discredit the Indian judicial system, and now seem to be launching full throttle in the opposite direction than they were supposed to move toward, asking that no women should work for them.
While the Supreme Court has since declared that an internal investigation into her claims will soon be underway, the court is also entertaining Gogoi’s accusation by enlisting the chiefs of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Intelligence Bureau and the Delhi Police to investigate his claim of conspiratorial conduct against the woman, Scroll.in reported. This followed a claim by a lawyer, Utsav Singh Bains, who submitted an affidavit saying a fixer tried to bribe him to frame Gogoi in a sexual harassment scandal.
While both sides’ claims are now being investigated by several judicial institutions, it is clear that the initial responses from Gogoi and other judges have been inadequate and expose an inherent distrust of women. Executive Committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association even said that the initial proceedings were in violation of the law, Scroll.in reported. The subsequent request for an all-male staff, which the CJI said was proving difficult to fulfil because of 60% of SC staff being women, further shows how the SC judges are more concerned with maintaining their comfort and upholding their ill-informed notions, than ensuring fairness.
This, apparently, is the culture inside the Indian judiciary, from the SC to the lowest courts inside individual states. Female lawyers are constantly seen through the lens of their appearance and marital status, which informs judges’ and their fellow lawyers’ attitudes toward them, The Wire reported. For example, when a female senior lawyer made a blunder while speaking in court, she was asked by the judge if she had had a busy morning in the kitchen. Another lawyer was admonished by a judge for showing her bare neck in court, even though her attire was fully in compliance with the rules of the court. Female lawyers are told to come back with a senior (meaning male) counsel to argue their case in court; they are snickered at by their male counterparts while presenting their arguments, and are often kept out of social circles that otherwise greatly benefit the men in them, The Wire reported. These attitudes show an ingrained disrespect toward women in Indian courts. No surprise, then, that a woman going against the CJI would be treated similarly.
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Such attitudes make it difficult for female lawyers to do their job, which in turn creates a perception of incompetence that makes it difficult for them to acquire clients, The Wire reported. This also obscures their work and prevents them from being included in high profile cases that can take their careers forward. As a result, the ratio of senior female to senior male counsel in Indian courts is severely skewed: 17 to 403 in the Supreme Court, and 8 to 229 in Delhi High Court, The Wire reported.
The article also relays accounts of successful female lawyers whose success is attributed to their female wiles than their lawyering skills, by colleagues. It’s as if everybody knows the system is skewed against women, and believe there is no way they can be successful without using their sexuality and looks to get favors. To top it all, The Wire reported female lawyers feeling like they would sabotage their careers if they spoke up against such micro aggressions in the workplace.
While the toxic environment served up by the Indian judicial system for women is nothing new – most professions maintain similar environments for their female employees – it is particularly egregious in an institution that is enlisted with the responsibility of setting legal standards for conduct in society. Not only is the culture cultivated in the Indian court system preventing women from rising through the ranks, even the most prominent judges of the land are unapologetically calling for women to be removed from their professional vicinity. The solution to ending the extremely gendered, discriminatory workplace practices against women, is to eliminate the practices, not the women affected by them.
“Just as language echoes the times and culture of the period, it also has the power to influence the thoughts of a nation and mould the culture of a society,” according to an open letter Indira Jaising, the first woman additional solicitor general, wrote to the CJI on International Women’s Day this year. “The judiciary must consciously eliminate derogatory tendencies towards women in our (spoken and judicial) language.
The symbol of justice may be a blindfolded woman, but none of us will settle for tokenism or symbols.”