Never of a woman: An account of stark realities existing in a patriarchal society

An account of the lived experiences of prejudice against female lawyers.
Women lawyers
Women lawyers

“We want you to be one of the speakers at the seminar on the subject 'Gender Bias in Legal Profession'.” The voice at the other end was the firm and insistent voice of Anita Castelino, one of the four founding pillars of Interactive Session for Lady Lawyers.

Anita, along with her co-founders Sonal, Sharmila Deshmukh and Mamta Sadh, were instrumental in evolving a platform for women lawyers in the Bombay High Court. A platform where issues could be discussed, problems deliberated and solved, and where mentoring programmes carefully crafted to nurture young women are held. Anita wanted me to speak at the seminar on gender bias. I readily agreed.

Finally, the day of the seminar arrived. There were about six or seven speakers. I was the second last speaker on the list. And by the time my turn to speak ultimately arrived, a lot had been said on various forms and nuances of gender bias. The female footprint in the legal profession, which was belated, had been spoken of. The stereotyping of women at the Bar had been commented upon. As I rose to speak and walked towards the lectern, I decided to steer clear of the few points that I had jotted down. On a spur of the moment, I thought of defining gender bias in the legal profession, with a concrete illustration. What then was a gender bias in this noble profession?

My mind veered to a call that I had received some years ago. A call in the Bar room from one of my attorneys, at around noon that day. He spoke of how important an international banking division portfolio was to his law firm. He sought my help for a personal matter, that of an Assistant Manager of a bank. He requested me to appear for the father of this Assistant Manager on short notice. The appeal, I was told, arose from a partition suit, and most of the documents were in Marathi. It was providence that I was free at 2:45 pm that day. In those days, most of the benches in the High Court took up urgent ad-interim matters at 2:45 pm.

About a quarter of an hour later, from the corner of my eye, I saw a file of persons navigating their way through the chairs which had been strewn carelessly in the aisle of the Bar room. In the congregation that was making its way towards me, I could very easily identify a young man dressed in a full sleeved shirt with a tie as our Assistant Manager. At his heels, a man in a turban with a wrinkled visage wearily trudged on. As they came closer, I could see the perceptive brown eyes of the old man. He seemed to be soaking in the din of the Bar room, the chaotic parleys of the monochromatic-attired individuals. At close quarters, his face, wizened by age and wrinkles, seemed to have a story of its own: of harsh manual labour, of sunburnt skin, of resolute character.

The group halted in front of me. The Associate from the law firm mumbled some incoherent introductions. Suddenly, with an agitated tone, the old man beckoned his son to his side and while pretending to confide, actually loudly expressed his displeasure about engaging a woman counsel. The old man spoke in a rustic tone, in vernacular Marathi. Obviously, the Associates from the law firm were greatly embarrassed.

However, the old man, without any compunction, in very coarse voice, berated his son for getting him a lady counsel, when there were so many competent male lawyers who could defend his case. I addressed him as “Ajoba” in Marathi, which translates to “Grandpa” in English. My switching to Marathi seemed to surprise him. Much to his chagrin, I told him that he had absolutely no option, as the matter was to be taken up by the Court shortly for urgent relief, and that if he so desired, he could alter his counsel on the next date. With great disapproval and disquietude writ large on his face, the old man seemed resigned to his fate.

He slumped into a chair diagonally opposite me and patiently heard his son explain to me the case. I looked up the papers and having taken instructions, requested all of them to meet me outside the court room at 2:45 pm. As directed, all were present outside the court room. After a brief discussion, we trooped in to await our turn for the hearing. I noticed that the old man had remained at the back of the court room. After a while, our matter was called out and was vehemently and vociferously argued for over an hour and a half.

After the judge passed the order, all of us turned and walked towards the door at the rear end of the room. As I stepped outside the door, the old man hurried to me with febrile excitement. I tried my best to interject, to tell him the outcome of the case, but he just wouldn’t relent. Without any pause and breathlessly, the old man exclaimed how pleased he was. His dithyramb that his lawyer had spoken so very emphatically and vehemently, and that too in English, to counter the lawyers engaged by his brother, continued. I once again feebly tried to tell him the result of the afternoon’s deliberations in court. Strangely, the man wasn’t interested; in a loud booming voice, he expressed his utmost satisfaction that the “other side” had been trumped. Ultimately, his son had to interpose and convey to him that we had indeed succeeded. At that, the old man abruptly stopped his loquacious tirade, gave me a pleasant smile and immediately put his hand in his pocket and brought out a bundle of notes. He said that he wanted to pay me immediately and that he wouldn’t want any haggling in terms of the professional fees. I was extremely amused.

The Associates from the law firm were aghast and horrified at his action. I told him that I preferred fees differently. I asked him if he would answer a question I would put to him, sincerely and honestly, for that would be my professional fees. His lean fingers rose, adjusted his turban and he nodded in agreement, while once again requesting me to take the professional fees proffered. I asked him to truthfully tell me, why he had been upset with engaging a woman as his counsel to represent him. The old man looked at me intently, sighed and replied,

“Well I have nothing personal against you.” He closed his eyes and continued,

“You know, when one thinks of engaging a lawyer, only a man’s face and figure comes to mind, never of a woman.”

Deepa Chawan is an advocate practicing at the Bombay High Court.

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