International Women's Day 2022: Eight Indian women who broke the legal profession's glass ceiling

This Women’s Day, we celebrate some of the most trailblazing and iconic female lawyers and judges India has produced.
International Women's Day 2022
International Women's Day 2022Mithan Jamshed Lam, Cornelia Sorabji, Anna Chandy, Violet Alva, Fathima Beevi, Leila Seth, Indira Jaising, Indu Malhorta

The legal profession in India has and continues to be a gentleman's club of sorts, given the abject lack of representation of women in the field.

With just 12.5% representation at the Supreme Court of India and a similar percentage of women judges at High Courts across the country, there are simply too few women in the judiciary, a sentiment recently echoed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana.

The situation at the Bar - especially in State Bar Councils - is even worse. A study revealed that only 2.04% of the elected representatives in these bodies are women.

However, things are changing for the better, and Indian women today are better placed to excel in the profession, those who have walked the arduous path believe. And the stories of lawyers and judges who blazed trails through the exclusionary system have definitely inspired subsequent generations of women to don the robes.

On this International Women's Day, we celebrate the journeys of eight such women judges and lawyers who have left an indelible mark on the legal profession.

1. Cornelia Sorabji

Cornelia Sorabji was a barrister, social reformer, writer, and among other things, a trailblazer. The first female advocate in India, she was also the first woman to graduate from the University of Bombay, as well as the first woman and Indian to read law at Oxford University.

After graduating in 1894, Sorabji spent a year as an apprentice at Lee & Pemberton, a firm of solicitors in Lincoln's Inn Fields. She then returned to India and worked as a 'Lady Legal Adviser’ to the Court of Wards and as a legal advisor to women (specially purdahnashin women) and children in provincial courts for many years.

Sorabji is estimated to have helped over 600 women and orphans fight legal battles during her years of service, often for free. She would later write about many of these cases in her book Between the Twilights as well as her two autobiographies, India Calling and India Recalled).

She was also awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal in 1907. Her crowning achievement came in 1921, when she was finally admitted as a pleader by the Allahabad High Court, breaking the glass ceiling for the first time in the Indian legal field. She would later practice at Calcutta. However, due to male bias and discrimination, she was limited to preparing opinions on cases rather than pleading them in court.

She had a progressive family who encouraged her to study. She wrote in one of her books, "there was an invisible circle drawn around [our family]...which made it untypical of the Indian home of the period."

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022Cornelia Sorabji, The Hindu

2. Mithan Jamshed Lam

Mithan Jamshed Lam was the first female Indian barrister and the first woman to be allowed to practice law at the Bombay High Court. She was later appointed as the Sheriff of Bombay, the first Indian woman to be conferred the post.

Lam worked at the chambers of Bhulabhai Desai, where her colleagues envied her work. She was later appointed as a Justice of Peace and as a special Executive Magistrate by the Maharashtra government.

While in London, she pursued a legal education and a Master's degree in economics from the London School of Economics. In 1923, she had the distinction of becoming one of the first ever women to be called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn, as well as the first Indian woman called to the Bar in Britain.

3. Justice Anna Chandy

Justice Anna Chandy was a barrister, feminist, writer, and politician. She completed her legal studies in 1926 at the Government Law College in Thiruvananthapuram and became the first woman in Kerala to hold a law degree. Chandy began her legal career as a barrister in 1929, specialising in criminal law. Her work in fighting criminal cases earned her widespread acclaim. She was a well-known feminist of her time and started a magazine called Shrimati for advocating women’s rights. In 1930, she entered politics by running for Travancore state's representative body. She was met with hostility by both the press and her opponents. She ran again in 1932 and was elected for a two-year term.

Chandy was appointed as the country's first female judge (munsif) in 1937. In 1948, she was promoted to the position of district Judge. When she was appointed to the Kerala High Court in 1959, she set another historical precedent by becoming the first woman to hold the post.

Her remarkable career sparked hope for the inclusion of women in the workplace. She spoke up against established norms and helped pave the way for future generations of women to pursue careers as lawyers and judges.

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022Justice Anna Chandy, theBetterIndia

4. Violet Alva

Violet Alva was an Indian lawyer, journalist and politician. She was married to Joachim Alva, who was also a politician, lawyer, journalist, and Parliamentarian. The couple is fondly remembered as the first Parliamentarian couple of India.

In 1944, Alva became the first woman advocate in India to have argued a case before a full High Court bench. In the same year, she started a women’s magazine called The Begum (later Indian Women). In 1947, Alva served as an Honorary Magistrate in Bombay, and from 1948-1954 she served as President of the Juvenile Court. She was also the first woman to be elected to the Standing Committee of the All India Newspaper Editors Conference in 1952.

In 1952, Alva was elected to the Rajya Sabha, where she made major contributions to family planning, animal rights in research, and defence strategy, notably in the naval sector. In 1957, she was made the Deputy Minister of State for Home Affairs. Alva was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha in 1962, making her the first female to preside over the Rajya Sabha in its history. She held the office for two consecutive terms.

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022Violet Alva, Feminismindia

5. Justice Fathima Beevi

Fathima Beevi was the first woman judge of the Supreme Court of India. Her father urged her to join a law college as he had big expectations from her. Proving him right, Beevi topped the Bar Council exam in 1950, and was also the first woman to get a Bar Council gold medal. She began her career as an advocate in Kerala.

Her gradual rise from the lower judiciary to the top court of the country is a fascinating tale. She was first appointed as a munsif in the Kerala Subordinate Judicial Services in 1958. She climbed up the ladder and was promoted as a district & sessions judge in 1974. 

In 1980, she was appointed as a Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and was elevated as a High Court judge in 1983. In 1989, she made history by becoming the first woman to be elevated to the Supreme Court.  After her retirement in 1993, she served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission (1993–1997). She was Governor of Tamil Nadu from 1997-2001.

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022 Justice Fathima Beevi, feminismindia

6. Justice Leila Seth

Justice Seth was the first female judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to top the London Bar exam. Apart from this, she was also the first woman Chief Justice of a High Court.

She initially practised before the Patna High Court for ten years, handling a large number of suits involving income tax, sales tax and excise and customs, among others. After shifting her practice to the Delhi High Court, in January 1977, she was designated as a Senior Advocate.

Apart from being a trailblazer in the legal field, she championed the cause of decriminalising homosexuality in India, and openly critiqued the 2013 Supreme Court judgment in Suresh Kumar Koushal. In an interview with Bar & Bench, she spoke about the sexuality of her son, noted author Vikram Seth.

"The first time I got to know, I wasn’t familiar with the whole idea. I love my son and thought he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and he was bisexual, so I just accepted it. But I was afraid for him; somebody could have made a case against him because it is a criminal act, so I was worried.

I mentioned it in my book. He said, “Put it in, it will give courage to other parents.” It’s a brief paragraph, but it describes how its difficult to accept in the beginning, but how you must. And you will lose them if you don’t accept it."

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022 Justice Leila Seth, Businessstandard
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“Sexual orientation should not be ground for discrimination” Justice Leila Seth

7. Indira Jaising

Indira Jaising was the first woman to be designated Senior Advocate by the Bombay High Court, and the first woman to be appointed as an Additional Solicitor General for India. She was also the first Indian woman to be elected to the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Speaking about her experience of breaking barriers as a woman lawyer, Jaising told Bar & Bench,

"Today, I feel good when young women lawyers call me and tell me that they are inspired by me and my journey through law. I had no women lawyers to inspire me, but certainly judges like Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice PN Bhagwati pointed the way to social justice through law. More important than being first is the daily search for justice. Then everyday becomes a first."

On the concept of 'feminist lawyering', she said,

"It doesn't mean that I am only espousing the cause of women, and I am only doing this because I am a woman. Feminism and biological sex should not be conflated with each other.

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022

8. Justice Indu Malhotra

Justice Indu Malhotra was the first woman to be directly elevated to the Supreme Court from the Bar. In 2007, she became only the second woman to be designated Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India, close to three decades after Justice Leila Seth.

Over the course of a career that lasted more than three decades, she served in some important positions including as member of the Supreme Court Gender Sensitization and Internal Complaints Committee, member of the Supreme Court (Middle Income Group) Legal Aid Society, and Trustee of Save Life Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to preventing fatalities in road accidents.

A quantitative analysis of Justice Malhotra’s time at the Supreme Court, along with the important judgments she passed during her tenure, can be accessed here.

In a 2014 interview with Bar & Bench, Justice Malhotra spoke about gender bias in the profession.

“To tell you the truth, I do feel there is a certain element of gender bias when it comes to becoming a Senior Counsel. The corporates and the clients normally would prefer a male Senior to a woman Senior, so there is discrimination at that level. But slowly, these perspectives get eroded over a period of time. If a person is effective and the client gets relief, then those barriers break through. But it takes time, it takes a lot of hard work and effort.”

Women's Day 2022
Women's Day 2022

Areeb Uddin Ahmed is an Advocate at the Allahabad High Court and legal correspondent at Bar & Bench. Afreen Alam is a final year law student at Jamia Millia Islamia.

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