Gender bias forcing women lawyers to leave the profession
While women have made inroads into all branches of the judiciary, the number of women lawyers practising in the Madras High Court bench here numbers less than 200.
According to J. Nisha Banu, president of the Women Lawyers’ Association, 183 women practise regularly in the High Court bench. “Around 100 more women lawyers appear in cases occasionally. Eight out of 10 women law graduates find it difficult to survive in the legal profession and stop their practice after a few years,” she says.
“A woman lawyer’s job is not easy. It is not a 9-to-5 job. We work in the court from 10.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Then we go to our office where we do the research work and preparation for the next day’s case, that might go till 10 p.m. The first few years of legal practice can be very difficult, particularly for women from rural areas,” she says.
Women from rural backgrounds find it hard to break free of tradition and social norms. “The women law graduates from rural areas face restrictions at home. After they get married, their families do not understand the nature of the legal profession, leaving them with no option but to quit their practice,” Ms. Banu adds.
Those who manage to withstand the difficulties of the initial years must face a new set of challenges later on.
“There are very few independent women lawyers in Madurai. Most of the women lawyers practise in law firms headed by men. There is a steady increase in the number of women lawyers in Madurai and conscious efforts are being made at all levels to encourage women,” says A. Rajini, an advocate. However, she adds that there is subtle gender discrimination in the firms.
“There is a general perception that men are more intelligent. Women are thought to be ignorant and that is the basis for the discrimination,” she says.
Some women advocates allege that there is a more serious form of discrimination against women inside the court halls. “There are only a few judges who treat men and women lawyers alike. Sometimes when women begin to argue their cases, they face unwarranted questions,” says advocate D. Geetha.
“Are you a ‘Ms’ or a ‘Mrs’ is the first question one particular male judge asks any woman advocate who appears in his court to argue a case. I have asked him in what way that question is relevant to the case. But he would not allow any woman to argue her case without getting an answer to that question. Such questions are never asked of a male advocate. And when such incidents are discussed in the corridors or bar associations, it makes one feel uncomfortable,” Ms. Geetha points out.
Another woman lawyer, who did not want to be quoted, recounted an incident of discrimination she encountered in a court room recently.
“I was arguing a particular case, defending a corporate client against a family. The judge asked me how I could fight a case denying relief to a family when I am a woman. Because I am a woman, am I not supposed to argue my case and defend my clients?,” she wondered. However, the discrimination ends in the court hall and does not reflect in the judgements, the women are quick to point out.
Ms. Geetha says she has been practising as an advocate for the past 24 years. “But I haven’t gained the recognition my male counterparts have got just because I’m a woman,” she says. “When I started my practice, there were very few women advocates. Today, more women are entering this profession but the social and professional constraints prevent women from continuing as lawyers,” she says.
Women advocates also admit that practising law may not be lucrative in the initial years. “When you work for extended hours and the job does not provide much economic support, the families are generally not supportive of the career. The families should understand and extend their support. Or else, the number of women who practise law in Madurai will continue to be a cause for concern. Further, the number of women judges in the judiciary is not sufficient. There are only seven women judges, as against 37 male judges in the Madras High Court,” Ms. Geetha points out.
Woman litigants have a different experience. They face no discrimination while pursuing their cases. “Any case I have filed so far has only gained me respect in the judiciary. I have faced no discrimination,” says S. K. Ponnuthai, district secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association.
Ms. Ponnuthai has fought social issues in court — against discrimination of Dalits in Uthapuram, sexual abuse of school students in Pothumbu near Madurai, to name a few.
A woman member of the judiciary said, “There is a steady increase in the number of women lawyers in Tamil Nadu. We are making efforts to improve the ratio of women judges in the lower courts.”
The member, however, denied reports of discrimination inside the court hall. “Many women stop practising law after marriage. My advice to them is to work hard and with dedication in the initial years. Women advocates are doing a commendable job these days. We want them to stand out,” the member stressed.