I often refer to my friend, Indira Jaising, as the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of India. Indira has systematically dismantled gender discrimination in all three ( Hindu, Muslim, Christian) personal law systems in India and developed new jurisprudence and legislation on anti- discrimination in India.
The arc of Indira’s legal career spanned the political and social movements of the 20th and 2ist centuries, and in each political upheaval, whether it be during the political excesses of Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster or the Gujarat riots, Indira bent the arc of justice to protect those unfairly disenfranchised by law and political power.
Two decades ago, my friend Titi Liu, a classmate from Harvard Law School, asked me what I thought was the most important challenge that the Ford Foundation could address in Asia. I told her that Indira Jaising of India should convene for the first time, Asia’s leading women lawyers working at the cutting edge of law reform. So, we brought together Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir who were working on addressing honor crimes and forced marriage in Pakistan, Guo Jianmei working on the first domestic violence case in China, Bing Guanzon working on the anti- violence against women law in the Philippines, Mu Sochua, the author of the anti- violence against women law in Cambodia and writing a law on land grabbing against women in Cambodia, Sapana Malla, an author of the constitution of Nepal and Savitri Goonesekere, CEDAW Committee member and architect of several gender equality policies in Asia, for a first ever transnational conversation of women lawyers in the region. Indira led a conversation that unpacked every single law and policy that discriminated against women in the Asian region, a conversation that is on going between and across nations in the Asian region which has led to new laws and policies, new transitional justice institutions and new forms of remedies and redress mechanisms. Indira soon belonged to the Asian region and was appointed to the CEDAW Committee and to several UN high level bodies. At each appointment, women applauded because Indira would take on every unpopular cause and challenge every venerable institution, including the UN. On a daily basis, she reminded us that one case won in a court of justice was worth all of the rhetorical flourishes of UN Conventions. At the same time, she reminded us that one individual case could make new law and change the lives of generations of women. She taught me that law was the noblest profession of all.
Today, Indira is recognized by Fortune as one of 50 great leaders of our time. I am grateful for this recognition, and grateful for the time she spent at Penn Law as a Bok Visiting Professor, but to women of the Asian region, her story is still unfinished and unwritten, she still has to continue to strive to change laws and lives and the history of the legal profession.
Rangita de Silva de Alwis is Associate Dean of International Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School