I Am Not Sir: Justice Rekha Palli To An Advocate, Why Is The Chair Only For Sirs Still?

justice rekha palli quotes
Sir, Madam-Sir, Ben, are amongst many others not so required honorifics often thrown at women in uniforms and positions of power. If one is to believe that women judges are treated differently, the incident at the Delhi High Court, which occurred today, will change your mind.

The Live Law on its Twitter threads reported a conversation between an advocate and Justice Rekha Palli. The advocate keeps addressing her as “Sir.” When finally she interrupts them and says, “I am not Sir. I hope you can make that out.” To which the advocate says sorry and adds, “It’s because of the Chair you are sitting in.”

Justice Palli, rightfully, says, “Then that’s even worse if after all this time you think the Chair is for Sirs. If the younger members don’t stop differentiating, then what hope do we have for the future?”

Suggested Reading: Why Are We Still Asking For Female Representation In India’s Higher Judiciary?

Immediately, arguments strewed on Twitter. People who support her statement and others who find the idea of Chair as “masculine” confusing. People jumped to the conclusion that Chair in Hindi means Kursi which is denoted as masculine.

To burst their bubble, Chair which is Kursi in Hindi is a feminine term. However, the debate on whether sir is a gender-neutral honorific to be used for a woman in the position of power and uniform still goes on.

Very often, in India, women in power are called sir-madam or ben (sister). To address someone as sir is very colloquial and has a rich history when it comes to the colonial past. In those times, sir was used for referring to Knights, who were given power by the kings. Knights mostly gave the imagery of a man in a shining armour suit.

Justice Rekha Palli: If the younger members don’t stop differentiating, then what hope do we have for the future?

So, the term we picked from English continued in our police force, army, legal and other government offices. The more Hindi-oriented term for it is ‘Shriman’. The reference, however, keeps changing as per the regions in the country. All this was fine and honourable when power chairs and offices were filled with men. While women remained the lower strata of the office power hierarchy.

Once they started rising the ranks and shattering the glass ceiling, a new problem emerged. Other than the fact that a man will now have to listen to a woman’s order, the honorifics that can be used to address a woman officer. The opposite of Sir is Madam, which is derived from the French word Ma dame, which means my lady. But the colloquial British referred madam to the brothel owner and it was found objectionable.

The appropriate glossary was missing for the longest time. So people started calling women sir or sir-madam. Then conveniently making the term a gender-neutral approach to addressing any gender. But why sir? Make it Madam then? or Ma’am? or simply call them by the profession no matter which gender they belong to. For example, if it is a doctor then refer to them as a doctor and so on.

Similarly, when it comes to judges in India, they are called Your Honour. According to Chapter-IIIA of the Bar Council of India (BCI) rules, the form of address in Supreme Court, High Courts or Subordinate Courts is Your Honour or Hon’ble Court in SC and HC while in Subordinate and Tribunal court it is open for the lawyer to address the Court as Sir or any term which holds the same meaning in regional language.

Until recently, even now, the number of women judges in high courts, supreme court or district courts is way low. This was an issue which was also brought to light by the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana. On September 2, he said that very few women find representation at the top. “I must admit, with great difficulty, we have now achieved a mere 11 percent representation of women on the Bench of Supreme Court,” he said.

During an event named Achievement and Challenges of Women at the Bar, ASG Maninder Acharya said, “We need to see a new dawn when a woman law officer or a judge will not be news and there will be a sea of women legal professionals so that the need to prefix the Mr or Ms is obliterated.”

In 2013, the then Jamnagar SP Sarah Rizvi, who is the first woman Muslim IPS Officer of Gujarat objected when the media reporters called her “Ben”, she wanted to be referred to as sir, something that most women prefer. While speaking with TOI, she said, “I don’t want to publicise this issue. But I try to explain to people that women officers should be accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. I don’t object when villagers address me as ‘ben‘. In urban areas, this form of address seems like discrimination.” Ben in Gujarati means sister.

Why do people want to refer to a woman officer as sister and a man as sir? This difference in honorifics is glaring and visible in almost all fields. Women are often called “homely” terms or are simply referred to from a masculine standpoint. This confusion in how people are still awkward and unaware of how to refer women in power positions lays the fact clear on how many women are actually getting there, and how many are still deprived of the resourced to even dream of the position. But one solution that can help cut through the hesitant is to educate oneself on how to address a woman and change their honorifics as progressing time.

The views expressed are the author’s own.