Stereotyping of women and attributing roles to men and women based on their gender has to change for ushering in women empowerment and preventing discrimination against women, Supreme Court judge Justice Indira Banerjee said on Saturday.
She was delivering the Keynote Address at an interactive session titled, ‘Breaking the Bias – A Constitutional, Legal & Policy Lens’, held in light of Women's Day 2022 to reflect on the legal & policy nuances towards achieving gender equality in India.
Justice Banerjee was introduced as the 8th woman judge of the Supreme Court, a fact which she was quick to comment on.
She pointed out that that even though the Supreme Court and other constitutional courts in India currently have the highest absolute number of female judges historically, the percentage is almost negligible.
She said that a question that is put that troubles her is "Why, after 72 years of the Constitution, do we need women's empowerment?"
"Equality means no discrimination, equity means fair treatment, empowerment means infusing women with power. It is the power to take decisions with regard to their own life, subject to the provisions of law. It contemplates positive action with respect to preventing discrimination," Justice Banerjee said.
The only solution for the same according to the Supreme Court judge, is not just for the law to evolve but for the collective mindset of individuals to evolve as well.
"To prevent discrimination and violence at home against women we have a law in place. But from the inception, we have to sensitize the parents to welcome the girl child, educate the girl child. If there are women is positions of power, a lot of these issues will go away. The stereotyping of women, the roles attributed to men and women - that mindset has to change. Laws can only go so far," she said.
She also recounted her own personal experience dealing with bias as the third girl child in her family, a junior lawyer, the only female judge of the Madras High Court for 4 years of her term, and a judge of the Supreme Court.
Additional Solicitor General of India, Aishwarya Bhati concurred with Justice Banerjee's views on the importance of changing patriarchal mindsets, starting at the home.
She also stressed on the importance of placing responsibility on society to let women flourish and not just on women to ensure their own safety and security at all times.
"You can't empower a woman. I think that's a misnomer. Don't meddle with a woman's safety and security, allow her to blossom in the best manner possible," Bhati said.
Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra mused over the very aspect of referring to someone such as Justice Banerjee as a "female judge" rather than just a judge.
She quoted Sheryl Sandberg who said "In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders"
Coming to the legal, judicial and policy making side, Luthra commented on the need for lawyers, judges and politicians who are not always the daughters and wives of powerful persons before them, but to pave the way for women to occupy positions of power on their own competence.
Advocate Karuna Nundy commented on the different expectations of behaviour from men and women such as men being called assertive, when women would be called aggressive.
Pertinently, she spoke of the power of symbolism and how the mere presence of Justice Ruma Pal (retired judge of the Supreme Court of India) and the fact that she was an excellent judge, meant that people looked at women in the profession in a different way
Nundy also tipped her hat to those she termed as "champions within the gates" that open the door for women in the Supreme Court and in general.
"They say there should be more women in the Supreme Court and in positions of power. Women to a greater extent will take down the structures of patriarchy, not just in legal profession but also in the world at large" she concluded.
Advocate Tanvi Dubey, pondered over the hesitation that women have to join the legal profession. She, along with the other panelists, discussed that along with a patient approach, it is highly necessary for women to mentor other women.
Women and Child Development Minister, Government of Maharashtra, Yashomati Thakur, elaborated on some of the policies that are currently being formulated regarding women's empowerment in Maharashtra.
She spoke of the one of the pioneers of the Indian feminist movement, Savitribai Phule, who was married off to her husband Jyotirao at the age of 10 in 1840 when child marriage was still a common practice in India. However, the couple broke the norms of the day and worked to end caste and gender discrimination and even opened a modern Indian Girl's School in Pune in 1848.
"Every house should have a mother like Savitribai Phule and a father like Jyotirao", Thakur said.
The panel discussion was also opened up to questions from the audience but due to paucity of time, only a few were taken up and briefly commented.
Karuna Nundy, one of the lawyers who appeared for the a petitioner in the Marital Rape case in the Delhi High Court answered a question regarding her arguments on constitutionality. She said that initially she thought the whole question of marital rape would be low hanging fruit but that the proceedings before the Court were strongly opposed by men's rights associations.
"When you take away a woman's right to say no, you also take away her right to say a joyous yes," she said.
Geetha Luthra answered a question regarding media discussions on matters which are sub-judice and opined that while a judgement like the one in the Nirbhaya case would not have been possible without the reaction of the media and the public, with the advent of social media commentators, we might be letting the freedom of press affect justice delivery.
Regarding cyber bullying and the harassment of women, especially Muslim women, though apps like bullibai and sullibai, all panelists concurred that while it might not be an easy task for social media platforms, it is upon them to take more responsibility, rectify and prevent the circumstances which breed such activities.
Virendra Sharma, Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom; Chair of the Indo-British APPG Virendra Sharma chaired the event. He is one of the MPs who introduced the Child Marriage Bill in the UK Parliament which was voted in on November 19, 2021 which would make all forms of child marriage illegal in England and Wales.
Sanam Arora, founder of NISAU UK & Strategist to the Investment industry, moderated the discussions.