Starting with the induction of Cornelia Sorabji into the High Court of Allahabad in 1921 to practice as an Advocate, the legal profession had thrown open its doors to the female population of India. Formally, after the passing of the Legal Practitioners’ (Women) Act, XXIII of 1923 abolishing the bar on women from practicing Law, Indian women were granted the right to take up the legal profession and practice as Advocates in the Courts of Law.
Cornelia Sorabji had pioneered the fight for justice for the ‘’pardanashin’’ women of her times, who on account of their ignorance and lack of formal education could be easily deceived by the legal men or their touts. Their reserve and reticence inculcated by the cultural mores of the times prevented them from exercising their rights over their own properties.
They could not seek assistance from male Advocates in the event of disputes simply because they were men. Though initially only a handful of women joined the profession as Advocates this reformative measure ignited the spirit of pleading for the cause of another before the Courts. Perhaps the realisation had set in; in the pre-independent era that freedom from “slavery” if it was possible could be obtained through educating women and enabling them with skills which would make them decision makers in society.
That the laws could be utilised for obtaining social justice and repressive laws could be overthrown for further development, and that women could do it for themselves and others as well was an eye-opener to the Indian society of pre-independence times. It is the relentless battle by the educated and informed men and eager women of that era that paved the way for women’s entry into the noble profession of Law.
Indian Constitution in independent India has given them the right to equality and the right against discrimination on the basis of their gender from acquiring any education or practicing any profession of their choice. In spite of this right, the Legal profession did not become a popular choice for women, simply because, in order to be aware of these rights the women had to have a basic level of education.And for a female population which was largely illiterate due to many reasons such as poverty, stringent caste restrictions, restrictive social customs, cultural practices condemning the working of women outside their homes,etc.,to name a few, higher education and following a profession were dreams the Independence era had managed to ignite.
Thus, the women of the Indian subcontinent had set out to bridge a chasm that was wider than the chasm that their occidental counterparts had set out to bridge. The daunting tasks of spreading literacy and creating awareness about their rights amongst the womenfolk in a diverse country like India took up a good twenty years. In the meanwhile the Indian Judiciary was active in its encouragement of women who took up the legal profession and went on to appoint the first woman Judge Hon’ble Justice Anna Chandy to Kerala High Court.
Justice Anna Chandy had started her career as an Advocate in 1929 and had been appointed a Munsiff in 1937 thus becoming the first Woman Judge in pre-independent India. These two decades also saw the entry into the legal profession of two eminent lawyers who went on to become Honble Justice Leila Seth and Honble Justice Fathima Beevi Chief Justices of Himachal Pradesh and Kerala High Courts respectively.
The former had been an actively practising advocate in the Delhi, Kolkata and Patna High Courts for more than 15 years and the latter had risen from the position of a Munsiff and had retired as a Supreme Court Judge eventually. Curiously, over the years the representation of women has not increased in the Judiciary corresponding to the initial number of women Judges. The situation is such that there has been a demand of 33% reservation for women in the Judiciary to bring about parity between the numbers of male and female judges.
The Indian legal system is not the same as it had been a decade ago and the multifarious advancements taking place within it due to technological introductions and change in the style of workings would require a period for assimilation after which further advancements may be discerned.
Establishing e-courts in India will certainly improve the justice delivery system, and the resulting convenience of being able to argue online from the Advocate’s office may become a lure to the women Advocates of India to start practicing or teaching on line. The lure of becoming a Judge still holds fray amongst Advocates and lawyers, but the number of female Justices has not increased over the years when compared to male Judges. But slowly and surely, the perceptions regarding the profession are turning around favorably to bring about equality in status, parity in pay and novelty in work culture acceptable to women such that more and more women will choose to enter this profession in coming years, thus, ending the gap between the number of men and women advocates.