In a hearing on the centre’s controversial farm legislation, against which farmers have been agitating at the national capital’s Singhu Border, the Supreme Court held the observation that women, children, and the elderly must leave the protest site. Chief Justice of India (CJI) Aravind Bobde, who was presiding over the session on Tuesday, said that he was in agreement with advocate AP Singh’s view that these three social groups must be kept out of protests. Justice Bobde’s remarks sparked wide outrage on social media, with many deeming them to be “sexist” against the backdrop of wide female participation protests in recent times have seen, including the farmers’ one. Read our full report here.
History is testament to the fact that women have been catalysts of change in protests and movements across the world. From the 20th-century Suffrage Movement in the United States to the 2020 Shaheen Bagh protests in India, women have traced a consistent chart of actively making their concerns heard in a bid for equality. In pushing them aside with elders and children – communities that can be vulnerable healthwise – didn’t the court hack at the capability and tolerance women possess? Is this tilted observation a result of low female representation in the courts of India? Are mainstream issues still being viewed through a male lens given that the ratio of women to men in the judiciary is painfully poor?
How Low Is Female Representation In Indian Courts?
India has never had a female CJI. This was one of the arguments Attorney General KK Venugopal had put forward in the Supreme Court last year during a session surrounding a case of sexual assault. In 2020, nine women lawyers had filed a petition raising concerns over the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s judgment wherein an accused molester was asked to get a rakhi tied by the woman he committed the crime against. At the time, AG Venugopal has pointed out that instating more women judges was essential in estimating sensitive cases regarding women.
“There are only 80 women judges out of the total sanctioned strength of 1,113 judges in the High Courts and the Supreme Court across India… only two in the Supreme Court,” he said. Women in India still comprise only a meagre 7.2 percent of the total judges. All this, despite appeals made in Parliament for a 50 percent quota and representation of women.
And when women do assume positions on the benches of the highest courts in India, they have to brace for the showers of sleazy insults that come their way. Such as in December 2020, when former HC judge CS Karnan was arrested for allegedly making offensive statements against women judges and wives of other judges via a video on YouTube.
At the national lawmaking level, India in recent times has seen a record high of women in Parliament: a measly 103 female members. When women’s seats are far and few between in places where the country’s most significant decisions are taken, what do we expect, save for the lopsided view that the SC delivered as regards women at protests? Should we let an all-male courtroom make decisions for us and administer our participation in history-making?
The Need For More Women On The Judiciary
Across the world, we have seen that countries, where women are placed in decision-making seats, tend to practice increased sensitivity towards female social issues. For instance, Scotland, led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, recently became the first country to make menstrual products free for all. The impact women and their judgments bring are magnificent. Consider Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the United States, a torchbearer of leading the change towards gender equality in the American Supreme Court.
In India, our history speaks highly of women taking the fore in making India what it is today – from the freedom movement to the feminist discourse on equality. Why then, in 2021, did the SC decimate the capability of women at protests? By seeking to make protests an all-male zone, did it not communicate the idea that women are the “meeker” sex that needs a hand of authority telling them what to do and not do?
Such an observation by India’s top court positions the fight for equality and the realisation of women’s strength in very poor light. If the apex decision-makers themselves consider gender as a basis for protesting, is there hope in the future for women seeking their rights? This potential calamity we’re shuttling towards can only be rectified by amplifying women’s voices – in courts, on the streets, at protests. It calls for a need to bring more women into the fold of the honourable Indian judiciary.
Views expressed are the author’s own.