Four years ago, when I was suspended from the Calicut Bar Association following a Facebook post regarding the “eve teasing” faced by me at workplace, I didn’t know that I was confronting an organised patriarchal system within the judiciary. Judiciary is a power centre in which women have only meagre representation, both at bar and on the bench. As a young junior lawyer, straight out of law college, I was not in a position to fight it out.
What started as a casual Facebook post written by me on my personal FB page describing the experiences in the bar association hall and court premises turned out be a systematic attack against me by the members of the Calicut Bar Association, mostly men. Some of them took the screenshot of the Facebook post and distributed the copies of it among the members of Calicut Bar Association, portraying it as an attack on the dignity of the Bar which needs to be nipped from the bud. What followed was a targeted attack on me and total isolation in the bar. Though I felt happy over the fact that I provoked a whole community of misogynists by writing a few words on Facebook, the consequences of it exposed to me the embedded patriarchy and its ugly hands.
Stench of patriarchy
When I entered the profession of litigation, as a beginner, the major hurdle was to work in a misogynistic environment rather than the professional competition. A junior female lawyer will be judged on the basis of her looks, complexion, along with the general prejudices based on caste and religion. Some of the bar members would suddenly become matrimonial agents and will assess if she is a “marriageable material” and based on that, they would determine the half-life period of a female lawyer. On the other hand, junior male lawyers are judged based on their passion, competency and necessary skills for the profession, and they will be given free advices for their career growth and development.
Initially, when a male colleague praised my looks, I took it as a compliment even if the audacity in his voice made me uncomfortable. But when I heard the experiences of others, I realised the innuendos involved in it and that this was only the tip of the iceberg. A female colleague of mine was told by her male colleagues that she could manage to get orders from court in her favour as she had a beautiful smile. We were supposed to be rejoiced by listening to these kinds of remarks. These unwarranted comments were counted as fair compliments.
Beyond verbal abuses and objectification of our bodies, many of us have faced with overt sexual assaults. Foot groping is a common form of sexual assault faced by women lawyers in the court halls. They take advantage of the fact that women would not speak up due to fear of loss of reputation, which is considered to be of high priority for women to remain socially acceptable. The legal community, that continues to be extremely hierarchical in addition to being encumbered by antediluvian moral codes, works like a well-connected and rather oppressive family, in which it is taken for granted that no one would speak up against the elders.
Suspended for speaking up
When I came out with my experiences of workplace sexual harassment, what they lost was that confidence. The responses were quick and the bar association imposed a hasty suspension without giving me a chance to be heard, violating the fundamental principles of natural justice. Further, I was asked to apologise and when refused they even threatened that I had only seen the eve teasing part of it and they can do more than that. This all happened in a public meeting in the presence of all the bar members where they even tried to physically assault me.
When I opposed the suspension, and contended that the behaviour of the male colleagues can amount to workplace sexual harassment, which was clearly conceptualised through Vishakha guidelines and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, I was told that the Bar association hall and premises will not come under the ambit of the “workplace”. As per 2013 Act, places visited by the employee during the course of employment and even the inside part of a vehicle in which she is transported come under the ambit of “workplace”.
Though the law had expanded “workplace” beyond traditional offices to non-traditional workspaces as well, Calicut Bar Association was not ready to accept that the bar association hall, which a lady lawyer visits every day during the course of her employment, is indeed workplace. The lack of gender sensitisation and complaint mechanisms forced me to file an FIR at the police station.
Where does a woman lawyer go to complain?
Suppose a woman lawyer gets assaulted in the court hall or in her advocate’s office, where does she make a complaint? This is what has happened in the case of the lawyer in Tis Hazari court in Delhi. She was harassed and assaulted in the court hall and it was her resistance and long battle fought by the lawyers that culminated into the present historic order of the Supreme Court that direct the high courts and district courts to set up sexual harassment complaint committees as per the mandate of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and also the guidelines contained in the judgment of Vishakha Case (1997) 6 SCC 241, within two months.
Time will tell whether this order is going to be implemented by all the subordinate courts in its letter and spirit. Even if it gets implemented, it cannot be presumed that the committees constituted will serve justice for women in a highly patriarchal and hierarchical workplace. Gender sensitisation efforts should be initiated and mere representation of women in the committees will not make them gender sensitive. Despite all these doubts and concerns, in a system where it is difficult for women to find a space, the order of the Supreme Court is a hope and it stands for the dignity of the women community of the Bar.