Glossary of gender-inappropriate terms in law: A step towards gender sensitisation in a profession that needs it

Flagging of inappropriate gender terms in legal references needs to be coupled with the right attitude toward women to create safer work spaces, lawyers opine.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud recently emphasised on the need to introduce a glossary of inappropriate gender terms for better sensitisation among members of the legal fraternity.

The CJI floated the idea during his address at an event marking belated International Women’s Day celebrations. He said words such as “concubine” and “keeps” were used to describe women in judgments of domestic violence and cruelty cases. 

A search for the word “concubine” on the search engine brought up judgments dating as far back as 1924 and as recently as 2023 mentioning the term for women.

The language used in judgments and court hearings can often take away the element of empathy. For example, certain verdicts in rape cases use words like “ravished” to bring out the seriousness of the crime, but can often dehumanise the victim.

And as lawyers underline, the use of such language goes beyond court documents. It all forms part of a culture of bigotry and exclusion that continues to prevail in the legal profession.

Even as lawyers welcomed the CJI's initiative, they highlighted that flagging of inappropriate gender terms in legal references needs to be coupled with the right attitude toward women to create safer work spaces.

Senior Advocate Anjana Prakash says what is more troublesome is the attitude towards women that is reflected in court judgments. 

One can only see it when someone goes deep into a judgment, pointed out Prakash, a former Patna High Court judge.

Senior Advocate Anjana Prakash
Senior Advocate Anjana PrakashADMIN

Prakash underlined different people having different experiences in courtrooms depending on varying privileges. 

There are others who are more vulnerable than those who come from an elite background," she said.

Former Additional Solicitor General for India and Senior Advocate Pinky Anand explained the need to have a glossary of terms considered sexist. This, she said, was a necessary tool to educate some of the colleagues of what was appropriate and what wasn’t.

It is unfortunate that we need this glossary of ‘inappropriate’ terms, but the hard truth is that we do. It is a necessary step towards gender sensitisation in a profession that needs it,” said Anand. 

The move also reflects the change of narrative towards a more gender-inclusive society, she said.

I may add that we also need to address and add to the glossary the stereotypical expressions of patriarchy and notions of gender stereotyping. I think it is time for society to appreciate that dignity, and specifically human dignity, is a catalyst towards exponential growth."

Anand, who has spent over four decades in the legal field, called advocacy a strange profession; one that women were discouraged from pursuing when she was young.

 Pinky Anand, Senior Advocate
Pinky Anand, Senior Advocate

When aspiring lawyers of Anand’s ilk joined the legal profession - considered solely to be an old boys club - they were categorised as “too aggressive” or not befitting “khandani" (traditional) women. 

The comments were the same, very often centred around the male gaze and mostly inappropriate. It is not uncommon even today to hear things like ‘stop looking pretty and get to work’ as if we were asking for some kind of leniency,” said Anand. 

Anand recalled one of her younger colleagues being told, “Madam ka hairstyle dekho, isiliye angrezi mein behas kar rahin hai (look at madam’s hairstyle; this is why she is arguing in English)”, by a counsel from the other side as if the length of her hair had anything to do with the fact that her client was beaten up by the husband. 

Unfortunately, the profession is still considered a mostly male bastion." 

For Anand, the male gaze in the profession and the comments that are passed on women are not just drawing room talk, but a reality that professionals have experienced and continue to go through.

We have all sometimes ignored it. Other times we have protested, but the situation exists. This is not to say, the profession is not changing. It most definitely is, but it’s slow and it’s not very easy to change ingrained patriarchal mindsets of some of us,” she said.

Advocate Urvi Mohan agreed that gender-based discrimination was prevalent in the legal space. She said that a lawyer was a gender neutral term like doctor. But in practice, even in courts, the practice of addressing lawyers as counsel, especially women, wasn’t followed. 

While a male lawyer is addressed as sir or a counsel, the female lawyer becomes a madam. There is no legitimate rationale as to why it is done, because for a doctor, one doesn’t say a female doctor, you say doctor, argued Mohan. 

When she started her career, Mohan, like many young lawyers, sat in courtrooms listening to arguments of seniors to hone her own court craft. 

But she witnessed something else as well.

Urvi Mohan, Advocate
Urvi Mohan, Advocate

What one sees a lot of times is that when a lady lawyer is arguing very assertively, she is loud, assertive, really putting her foot down, not bowing out. The terms used for such lawyers are not ‘assertive’, ‘strong’, but the term would be ‘aggressive’. ‘Why is she being so aggressive?’ You will almost never hear a male lawyer being called aggressive, because when a male lawyer with so much strength tries to put forth the stand of his client, they are always called assertive, or effective,” she recalled. 

Mohan opines that the root of it all has remained so ingrained in the system that terms such as “concubine” or “keep” are not associated with men at all. 

"Therefore, of course if there is a man in a relationship and akin to be a so-called ‘keep’ or a ‘concubine’, those terms will never be used. The rationale is that society believes that the woman is supposed to be ‘kept’ — a notion derived from objectification, infantilisation and taking away her agency. A man could be in a similar position but because he is a man, one never says he is a kept man,” said Mohan.

Once, a client of Advocate Prabhsahay Kaur stressed on taking the legal opinion of a Senior Counsel who was his friend. Forty-five minutes into briefing the client, Kaur was told that none of it would work and she’d have to “work her charm” on the judge.

Peeved by the misogyny, Kaur made her displeasure clear to him in “unforgiving” words. Although she lost a client, she advises those who find themselves in similar situations to never back down.

"Claim your space. This is your place of work as much as anyone else’s and no one should be able to make you feel unsafe,” Kaur tells her younger counterparts.

Advocate Prabhsahay Kaur
Advocate Prabhsahay Kaur

She feels that a glossary on gender was a step in the right direction, as it showed the acknowledgment that language and covert and overt actions in our court corridors resulted in uncomfortable spaces for women. 

Slurs and “loose” language in bar rooms or canteens still startle Kaur, who attributed the same to the “scant regard” towards the presence of women in the space, besides utter unprofessionalism.

Steps such as the one taken by the CJI take us closer to the goal—to make our profession so inclusive and safe that we are no longer ‘women lawyers’ but ‘lawyers’,” said Kaur.

Some of the derogatory remarks against women that Advocate Misbah Solkar has come across were seen in matrimonial cases, where personal feuds were settled by questioning the character of women. 

Discipline is the need of the hour, which is possible only when the judges reprimand the lawyers or litigants to not cross the line," she suggested.

Advocate Misbah Solkar
Advocate Misbah Solkar

Solkar, who practices in the Bombay High Court and trial courts in the city, feels that courts are usually sensitive towards women.

But being being a woman in the legal profession has been tough for Solkar, who said some members of the legal fraternity and public in general stereotype women to be incapable of being tough to handle criminal cases. 

Everyday I go to court with the aim of breaking the shackles of this preconceived notion,” said Solkar.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news