A ‘Wonder Woman’ Moment in the Indian Judiciary

A ‘Wonder Woman’ Moment in the Indian Judiciary

M Rishi Kumar

It’s a coincidence that in the same year Wonder Woman broke the glass ceiling when it stomped on the box-office record of another super-hero movie, Iron Man, history was created at the Madras High Court when the First Bench was an all-woman bench of Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice Bhavani Subbaroyan.

In the Madras High Court’s 135 years, it is a first.

It took seventy years since independence, in the male-dominated world of higher judiciary, for the four chartered and oldest high courts in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras to be headed by women.

To trace the first instances of women in the judiciary, one must go way back to Greek and Roman mythology. Themis, one of the wives of Zeus, was the Greek Goddess of Justice. She was considered the embodiment of divine order, law, and custom. Dike and Astrea, her daughters, are also considered as Goddesses of Justice and have often been depicted carrying scales in folklore.

Of a later origin is Justitia or Lady Justice, who was the Roman Goddess of Justice. Justitia is often depicted with a set of scales typically suspended from her left hand upon which she measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. She is also seen carrying a double-edged sword in her right hand, symbolizing the powers of Reason and Justice.

Even modern day representations of justice in courts around the world is of a lady justice carrying a sword and scales, who is blindfolded to symbolize fair and equal administration of law, without corruption, avarice, prejudice or favour.

As per Indian mythology, goddess Bagla Mukhi Devi is enshrined at Pitambara Peeth in Datia, a small town near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Legend has it that the blessings of this deity are especially solicited by those in the judicial stream to deliver justice in a free and fair manner.

Despite these historical references, as per a recent survey on gender diversity in the Supreme Court of India and High Courts in the country, it is highlighted that only 10.4% of the judges are women. The issue is more telling in the fact that out of the 27 judges of the Supreme Court of India, currently there is only one woman Judge, Justice R Banumathi.

Path breaking concepts in women’s rights have been addressed in the past by benches of which women were a part. Justice Sujata Manohar was part of a three judge bench in the landmark case of Vishaka, where for first time the sensitive and increasingly common problem of sexual harassment at workplace was dealt with. A significant contribution must have been made by her in helping her brother judges in developing an understanding of an area of law which was res integra and till then had been neglected, as no statutory law for penalization of sexual harassment at work place existed.

Justice Ruma Pal, through her judgments in A Jayachandra and Vinita Saxena, extensively elaborated on the concepts of ‘mental cruelty’ in a marriage and ‘cruelty as a ground for divorce’.

Greek philosopher Socrates, who is renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics, once said, “Quality of a Judge: hear patiently; answer courteously; conceive easily and deliver quietly”; without in any manner specifying the importance of the gender of a Judge.

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