Her Lordship

Judiciary as a male bastion is a disservice to justice. Onus is on the institution, not women, to fix this gender deficit

If there is one thing about the Indian judiciary that is beyond contest, it is this: It needs many more women on the bench. In 70 years of its existence, the Supreme Court has seen only eight women judges; no woman has been appointed chief justice. Currently, in 25 High Courts in the country, the ratio of women to men judges (81 to 1,078) speaks of an appalling structural inequality. This needs to be fixed not only to address a representation deficit, but because the equitable presence of women in courts is fundamental to the conception of justice. Therefore, the Chief Justice of India’s comments that the judiciary does not need an “attitudinal” change but “more capable” candidates, and his lament that women advocates invited to become judges often decline the role because of domestic responsibilities strike a jarring note. The CJI was responding to a plea filed by Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association, seeking the court’s intervention to consider more women for appointment as judges in high courts. From universities to the military and Parliament, all institutions are faced with the challenge of designing their systems to reflect greater inclusiveness of gender and caste. The judiciary, which has upheld and expanded ideas of constitutional equality in landmark judgments, cannot be an exception.

The failure to do so can derail justice. As the attorney-general recently pointed out to the Supreme Court, there is a link between the disproportionate domination of men in judiciary and the persistence of patriarchal injustice, like the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s insistence that a victim of sexual assault tie a rakhi to her offender or cases in which judges attempt to settle a case of sexual violence by matchmaking between assailant and victim. As the highest, most pre-eminent court of the land, the Supreme Court shapes governance and politics, and is called upon to intervene in the most contentious contemporary issues. As more women occupy public spaces and push back against constraints that stand in the way of their fullest potential, these contestations will most likely be about gender roles. From the Sabarimala temple entry to same-sex marriage, from marital rape to sexual harassment at workplace, the negotiation between a patriarchal society and changing norms of sexuality and power will play out in courtrooms as much as in the family and the political arena. In these battles, the absence of gender equity in the judiciary will increasingly imply giving veto powers over the idea of justice to an all-male elite.

The judiciary needs to cast a wider net, beyond entrenched networks of privilege and power, in district courts and bar associations. It must realise that women take a longer path to success that is often interrupted by childbirth and childcare. That does not imply that they do not have the appetite for judicial responsibility, but that the institution needs to do what it takes to bring them on board. That is the demand of justice.

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