Women lawyers share equal space with men
“I think there's more support today. I think there's better understanding today. And there's a better appreciation for the fact that if any community is going to prosper, if any community is going to be seen at its best, the women in that community have to be viewed as equally as important as the men,” said American lawyer Anita Hill in an interview to CNN in June 2005.
A majority of the women lawyers practising in the Madras High Court Bench here too share similar views. Though small in number compared to men, the women advocates have created a niche for themselves. Some of them fly between Chennai and Madurai frequently, some drive down from other districts regularly, some have migrated here and the others are locals.
U. Nirmala Rani, younger daughter of Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders R. Umanath and Papa Umanath, has been travelling all the way from Tiruchi for the last four years to argue cases in the High Court Bench here. Personally, she does not feel discriminated or differentiated on the basis of her sex either by the judges or fellow male lawyers.
“But as a gender specialist, I can certainly say that this profession is a male bastion. The role of a lawyer is to make arguments and counter arguments in courts. On the contrary, a woman in this patriarchal society is not expected to argue or even put forth her points publicly. She is always expected to be submissive and humble rather than being assertive.
“Since a lawyer's role is contradictory to the gender stereotypical traits of women, they have to face so many problems. Their marriage prospects are being affected because people think a lawyer girl will often indulge in arguments and drag them to court or police stations in case of domestic dispute. The number of women lawyers and judges is less because of this kind of mindset,” Ms. Rani says.
She points out that generally woman lawyers are not elected as presidents of bar associations other than the ones that are meant exclusively for women. The situation was no different even with the Bar Councils. “This is not because women do not want to participate in such activities. It is because there are no congenial circumstances and enabling environment for their participation,” she adds.
Another lawyer S. Srimathy opines that women advocates have to put double the effort to become successful as they are late entrants, compared to men, in the profession. “It is only after the 1970s that more number of women began to take up law as a profession. So, we have to work hard and prove ourselves. It is a challenge and we are taking it up bravely,” she asserts.
She does not find any kind of hesitation among litigants in approaching a woman lawyer. “Especially in matrimonial disputes, litigants prefer to approach a woman lawyer because they think that only we would give them a patient hearing and a right solution to their problems. The quantum of fees is also no issue. Many litigants do not even bargain if we quote them a reasonable fee.”.
Ms. Srimathy enrolled herself as a lawyer in 1989 after completing her graduation in law at Tiruchi. She practised in income tax and excise laws in Chennai and then in New Delhi for two years before her marriage. There was a break in practice after her marriage until she decided to settle down at Madurai, her husband's work place, and pursue her career in the High Court Bench.
Asked if such breaks in the profession due to matrimonial reasons are a disadvantage to women lawyers compared to their male counterparts, she says: “I think it is a common phenomenon for any woman professional. A woman can pursue her career only if she gets an understanding life partner and leads a happy married life.”
J. Anandhavalli, secretary of Women Advocates Association (WAA) in the High Court Bench, says that 140 women lawyers are its members. Of them, about 60 to 70 lawyers are practising actively in the High Court Bench while others are practising mainly in lower courts. The association wants representation for its members in appointment of judges and designation of senior counsel.
“As of now, there are no senior counsels among women practising in the Madurai Bench. We would certainly like to see some of the women here being designated as senior counsels,” she concludes.