In her farewell speech made three days before her retirement, outgoing judge of Kerala High Court PV Asha noted that only three women including her have been elevated from the bar to be judges of the court in 64 years. The first woman lawyer to be elevated as a judge of the High Court was KK Usha, in the year 1991. It took another 23 years for the second woman judge to be appointed as a judge from the bar and that was PV Asha. After her, another lawyer Anu Sivaraman, was made a judge in 11 months.
"It was in 1956 that the Kerala High Court was established. It took 35 years for the first woman judge to be appointed from the bar, and another 23 years for the second woman judge. KK Usha became the Chief Justice later and retired in 2001. I became judge in May 2014 and Anu Sivaraman in March 2015. In between, I have heard the names of several women who were expected to be elevated but somehow that never materlised,â€ť Justice Asha tells TNM.
Last year the name of lawyer Parvathi Sanjay was floated to the Supreme Court collegium that was interviewing lawyers of the bar to be elevated as high court judges. However she was not included in the list the collegium recommended to the Union Ministry of Law.
Advocate Parvathi says that everyone is looking forward to a time when there is more representation of women on the bench. â€śThere are a lot of women lawyers who are 100% committed to the job and competent in all respects. It is only fair that we get equal representation at the bench. It is not because of any quality issue that the number is so low. We have had very talented senior women lawyers. But the rest is not in our control. All we could do is practice well and do our work properly. But I am sure a lot more women lawyers will be elevated soon. There is a lot of cry for more representation.â€ť
Justice PV Asha also observed in her farewell speech that there are many competent young women lawyers in the bar. Advocate Jayashree Manoj who has an experience of over 20 years in the bar makes note of it. â€śMerit and quality should be the foremost criteria for appointment as judge to the higher judiciary. Of course it is a saddening fact that there is an inadequate representation of women among judges in the higher judiciary. Since independence till date, only eight women judges are appointed in the Supreme Court out of a total 247 judges," she says.
It is also important to have women in judiciary to attain â€śa more balanced and empathetic approach in cases involving women, especially those of sexual violence,â€ť points out Advocate Jayashree. She quotes the speech made by Supreme Court judge DY Chandrachud during the retirement of Justice Indu Malhotra. Having a more diverse judiciary ensures that diversity of perspectives is fairly considered and the same instils a high degree of public confidence, he had said. "A more representative judiciary brings new perspective to rights of marginalised communities. A more inclusive judiciary representing a cross-section of the society is the need of the hour. Having a woman judge in the bench will help to understand the specific problems faced by women," Jayashree adds.
In her opinion, the present Collegium system of appointment of judges to the higher judiciary should be made more transparent and more accountable.
From the few women judges they have had, lawyers also notice the significance of having someone like PV Asha hearing a case. Surya Binoy, a woman lawyer in the High Court for six years, says how Justice Asha will be missed a lot since she was one of the rare judges who heard all arguments patiently, no matter how junior the lawyers were. â€śAnd she is the kind of judge who will take up the issue of gender disparity with the bench. It would matter to her. She has often gone beyond the statuteâ€™s language for the sake of gender equality because of her commitment to the issue,â€ť Surya says.
Awareness on gender equality is something that has only begun to dawn on the male-dominated work force in courts, she says. Surya recalls the late US judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was only the second in the country to be Supreme Court associate justice after Sandra Day Oâ€™Connor. â€śTheir presence empowered each other and one does not feel like an imposter. Sometimes thatâ€™s what it comes to â€“ you feel like you have occupied a manâ€™s space and you try to fit into their shoes, behave like how men are expected to. But with more women now becoming part of the work force, it is changing.â€ť
The norms have been set in a way that those who do not come from privileged backgrounds find it hard to cope. â€śEven among privileged women, many take big gaps on their marriage or on having children. This is the kind of job that men without responsibilities at home would find comfortable. Personally I have family support and yet I struggle to have a work life balance. In that sense, work life balance seems more a womanâ€™s need than a manâ€™s,â€ť Surya says.
Everyone is so used to the ways of men in court that even the squeaky voice of a woman lawyer will appear disappointing. â€śThese are the norms â€“ shouting men with their base voice are considered powerful and aggressive. Men are taller, so even the stature seems to matter when all these things should not. And then there are the jibes thrown at you like they are thrown at women in all professions â€“ why arenâ€™t you at the kitchen or why are you leaving work so late when you should be home. This is why Justice Ashaâ€™s presence mattered. She symbolised these struggles and aspirations of women in a big way.â€ť