By Ayshia Zahgeer
Is it our biological destiny to only exist and then to not, that deserves depiction on our epitaphs which don’t bear our names most of the times? Born as someone’s daughter and die as someone’s wife.
What about our survival stories? Where must they be recorded?
Browbeaten and predictably spoken about as many would like to believe, women and their survival stories in personal and professional space bookended by culturally accepted norms, if reality is anything to go by, can never be browbeaten enough.
Law, as a profession for women, was and is still not considered as naturally suited to our abilities. Reasons bordering patriarchal protectionism myths that women need to be “protected” from the rigors and dangers that the practice entails; majorly for not being considered cerebrally capable, assuming that aggression and tenacity is what this profession demands and simultaneously considering them contrary to a woman’s virtues. Both notions misplaced and informed only by a false sense of entitlement.
Not considered a “dignified profession for women”, the discouragement a female law student faces, begin from passive suggestions in classrooms of law practice not meant for women, to the struggle of finding a safe place to start our careers. Once graduated and faced with a myriad difficulties and quandaries as to our next right step ahead, even if some of us decide to go against the tide and start with the practice; gender biases and extreme patriarchal encounters run through our everyday professional experiences. All of this happens while we are looking for ways to navigate social and familial pressures to simply do our jobs. Decision to practice law in Kashmir is particularly met with scoff and scorn and at this stage, it is infact, a response both the genders get. However, when such a desire is expressed by a woman, these comments are coupled up with a range of suggestions bordering ridicule to friendly advices only meaning to demoralise you.
My brief experience of 2 years in the court so far, has comparably been smooth and I often rave about it to friends and relatives. When I say this, I am quickly but consciously reminded of my privilege of never having to worry about looking for a senior because I knew I had to start practicing with my father. All of this does not qualify me to speak about the struggles of this extremely stressful profession.
However, the obviousness of discriminatory practices against women lawyers in the court exist within and beyond privileges which only goes on to amplify one fact that if all women feel secure, safe and are remunerated proportionally for their hard work; then sky really is the only limit. But there is a reason we speak about the glass ceiling visible only to us that weighs our wings down. Hence, a conversation around it especially in the legal profession is long overdue.
Going back in time, the presence of women lawyers in the courts was scanty in Srinagar and almost nonexistent outside of it. However, today, we have more women choosing to practice law than ever before, and it is heartening, how most of them make it on their own and how far, with all the difficulties that mar their journey. One reason for this increase is also in the fact that the number of female and male law graduates across India have almost equaled over a decade. However, this should have ideally translated into more women coming into the practice and more climbing up the ladder and being designated as senior advocates. The reality however couldn’t be further from this.
To begin with, the task of finding a senior lawyer to work with, poses one of the biggest challenges and this is where I have known many female law graduates give up. The challenges are two fold; personal safety /comfort and professional growth. In fact, more often than not one becomes a casualty for the other. Only a handful are lucky to find both and thereafter everyday experiences often run counter to the ideas of a professional life one had harbored.
Institutionally, women are not unwelcome in the courts and a lot of those who practice will vouch for the regard they often receive from the Judges, well-meaning lawyers and clientele; pervasively, there is constant othering. Not only do women lawyers have to work twice as hard to ‘prove’ their worth, but law practice is metaphorically as much as physically/mentally an over hurried profession. By the time various obstacles are overcome, one misses out on work and recognition.
Women lawyers working in Kashmir, particularly face stereotyping in the kind of briefs they get. Even when they’re on an equal footing of merit and experience with their male counterparts; they’re still mostly entrusted with family matters and rarely with anything having to do with other civil and criminal matters.
Two factors that play a very important role in success of any lawyer are ‘networking and self-promotion’, and there is no way that any woman lawyer can afford to do both, without it costing her reputation. It is a tightrope walk to appear sturdy, and avert constant pontificating on character and reputation. We just cannot afford to ride roughshod.
Every single day, is a struggle in trying to find a balance between not being too assertive and strident, and not too soft and docile, in the former case, we are not well mannered and discourteous and in the latter under confident and do not have it in us to be successful.
Going back in times, close to a decade or so, women’s presence in the courts in the valley was few. While some of them made their way up the ladder, at a time and in an environment determined to push them out of the cadre, some simply couldn’t find a harmonious balance between work and life and ultimately quit. (A study by the associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, showed that about a quarter of women do not return to work after childbirth)
Here I try to sum up various accounts narrated to me by women lawyers about their day-to-day experiences in the court these days (*names changed):
The “Good Women Don’t Choose Law” prejudice
According to Advocate Subreen Malik, “An oft- heard statement, ‘Good Women don’t choose law’, is an offshoot of patriarchy and Law profession is not immune from it”. She is now working independently and runs an organization by the name ‘Mehram: Women’s cell Kashmir”, that works for women in distress.
Another female lawyer from North Kashmir has also had the same experience. According to her, two years into law practice, she’s seen less than ten female lawyers “survive” in this unconducive environment for women.
Working with Male Clients and Senior Lawyers
Advocate Mysa*, who has been in law practice for close to 2 years in the Srinagar district court and High Court, opines that, “It’s hard for women in litigation and a dearth of female senior lawyers compels them to work with senior male lawyers and the experience isn’t always ‘pleasant’”
Unequal Wages and Inadequate Facilities
Both Advocate Subreen Malik as well as Advocate Sadiya* from North Kashmir feel that there’s the issue of income disparity as well. According to them, male and female lawyers are paid differently.
Many other female lawyers also complained about the lack of basic facilities such as hygienic washrooms and sitting arrangements for women. According to them, libraries and chambers are still farfetched for lady advocates.
Gradual Improvement in Gender Sensitivity and Work Conditions
On the other hand, Advocate Qurat-ul-ain describes her experience as ‘having been through hell and heaven at the same time’ but reiterates that there is a huge scope for women lawyers in Kashmir and staying strong is the only way forward.
Interestingly, Advocate Ulfat Jan from District Court Anantnag says that she has been respected and her work acknowledged from well-meaning members of the Bar as well as her clients but emphasizes that women still face problems.
Many other female advocates from other district courts have also felt a gradual change and feel that there are considerable senior lawyers and judges who are supportive and gender sensitive now.
As is evident from varying accounts of women lawyers working across the valley, there is a marked homogeneity in the pattern of struggles.
In J&K, given the unique Geo-political realities, a protracted conflict has had an adverse impact on various aspects of legal profession as well. Even then, our share of concerns must not make us lose sight of hardworking, dedicated and feisty women lawyers who wear their resilience as their armor, spread across the lengths and breaths of valley. All of which also goes on to show that we have some genuine allies across the gender divide.
However, we need to reflect on normalizing one gender being permanently ‘othered’. This is because women’s presence in law courts presents a unique opportunity to correct the historic disequilibrium that exists in the representative character of our society. It is a valve through which the re-humanisation of what is today more than ever been seen as an unresponsive institution, can be attained.
*Names have been changed on request for anonymity
- Ayshia Zahgeer is a lawyer practicing in Srinagar
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