New Delhi: “Bangs make a woman appear flippant.”
“You look very sweet and short, does the judge listen to you?”
“Why don’t you put on lipstick and argue?”
A recent notice affixed in the Pune District Court asking women to “refrain” from “arranging their hair in open Court” has led to an uproar. However, the experiences of women lawyers in India show that their ability to argue is often judged on the basis of how they look.
The Pune court notice, dated 20 October, said that this was a “disturbing functioning of the court”. After backlash, the notice was withdrawn two days later. Senior advocate Indira Jaising, who has been a part of several landmark cases like the triple talaq case and first flagged the court notice on Twitter, says that the notice stood out for her because “the general atmosphere of misogyny in courts is so high” and that she sees it as “one more nail in the coffin for women lawyers”. This notice wasn’t an isolated incident contributing to this “atmosphere of misogyny”. Women lawyers often dress down or wear a saree to appear more “serious” about their job.
The Bar Council of India prescribes dress codes for lawyers. For women advocates, this dress code includes a “black full sleeve jacket or blouse, white collar stiff or soft, with white bands and Advocates’ Gowns”, or a “white blouse, with or without collar, with white bands and with a black open breast coat”, or “sarees or long skirts (white or black or any mellow or subdued colour without any print or design) or flare (white, black or black-striped or gray) or Punjabi dress Churidar Kurta or Salwar-Kurta with or without dupatta (white or black) or traditional dress with black coat and bands.” Women lawyers say that their attire in court is judged a lot more harshly than their male counterparts and that their merit and ability to argue are often reduced to their clothing and hair.
“Unfortunately, in our profession, the amount of clothes you have on your body is directly proportional to how seriously people will take you, and that will decide how good you are at your work,” a lawyer handling labour and service law matters in various Delhi courts told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Dressing down to be taken seriously
Pune-based criminal lawyer Vijayalaxmi Khopade says that it was “extremely unfortunate” that the notice was put up, especially when everybody that day was in the Diwali spirit, gearing up for the holidays.
While Khopade is happy that the notice was finally withdrawn, she does feel that women are “judged very harshly” and that “most times, women prefer to dress down”.
Several women lawyers also admit to deliberately dressing down in an attempt to be taken more seriously.
A Bengaluru-based lawyer, with blonde highlights, recalls an incident when she appeared before the trial court to seek an adjournment. While she wasn’t granted the adjournment, a male lawyer, who sought relief on identical grounds, succeeded. She was then advised by a senior woman advocate, who observed the whole episode, that wearing a kurta or a saree and tying the hair would have made the difference.
“I didn’t know until then that clothes and hairstyle were a yardstick for tendering respect,” she says.
Another Delhi-based lawyer, who handles Intellectual Property Rights cases, recalls how a senior female member of the Bar commented on bangs making a lawyer “appear flippant in court”.
“Unfortunately, if you’re a woman with makeup, streaked hair and, god forbid, heels inside the court premises, in my experience, you’re less likely to be taken seriously because the assumptions are you clearly don’t have enough work to keep you occupied or that you’re trying to skate by on appearances alone,” she adds.
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‘Males are males’
While the Pune court notice was widely criticised, some women advocates rue a “change” in the dress code of women lawyers and aren’t entirely dismissive of the notice.
“Probably when you’re setting your hair, it distracts the male who is hearing it. Doesn’t it affect their work? Males are males. They also get distracted, so why give room for these kinds of comments,” senior advocate Mahalakshmi Pavani, president of the Supreme Court Women’s Lawyers Association and member of the Supreme Court’s Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee, told ThePrint. She adds that in any case, the Pune court notice was “uncalled for” and that the conversation needs to focus on more facilities for women lawyers in courtrooms across India.
She also criticises the way women lawyers are now dressing up for the court, asserting that “the Court is a temple of justice and the sanctity and decorum of the place has to be maintained. The place has to be respected and dignity attached to it maintained.”
“This is not the show biz industry or fashion Industry where the woman needs to flaunt herself or showcase her dress,” she says, while adding that this may be because of her “orthodox, traditional, Brahmin upbringing”.
“Hairstyles and different attires are to be reserved for social events and not the courts of law. Apart from that, pants are now ankle length. Sometimes they ride up. They wear tight outfits with low necklines, or short tops or Lucknowi kurtas without any slip inside. Having said that, both men and women have to be cautious of their overall presentation in the courtroom and not turn it into a parade of fashion styles,” she adds.
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‘Do you have lipstick?’
Censure and scrutiny on what women lawyers wear in court often also come from other women lawyers and judges.
In April 2018, Justice Indu Malhotra – the only judge to have dissented in the Sabarimala case – made history when she became the first woman lawyer to be directly elevated as a judge to the apex court. A month later, she expressed her dislike for palazzo pants and 3/4th trousers and said that these do not qualify as “professional attire” for lawyers. Several reports that covered her advice spoke of how other lawyers gave a “thumbs up” to Justice Malhotra’s “tips”. In December last year, Delhi High Court judge Justice Prathibha M. Singh advised women lawyers to “be competent, give up your Bollywood movies, give up your shopping, give up your parlour time”.
The Delhi lawyer handling labour and service law matters also talks about this “internalised misogyny which comes from women”.
“Several senior members of the bar, in the Delhi High Court, have taken it upon themselves to preserve the integrity of other women and morally police them, or sometimes even reduce them to their appearances,” she says, while recalling an incident when she was set to argue a case in the Delhi High Court.
“My matter was listed before a judge who was known to be very strict, and I was representing the government, so I was a little scared because the government hadn’t done what it was supposed to do,” she says.
When she confided in a fellow lawyer who was a few years her senior, the latter suggested, “Do you have lipstick? Why don’t you put that on and go.”
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Proving yourself, before proving anything
Indira Jaising explains that women lawyers are under such intense scrutiny in relation to their dress code that they internalise it and feel self-conscious. She even sees this as a way of putting women down.
“It just makes me angry that women are under the male gaze disregarding merit. Despite the fact that women are in courts in such large numbers now, sexism prevails,” she says.
Another Delhi-based lawyer, with focus on civil commercial litigation, recalls that despite having over 10 years of experience, she often receives comments on her appearance. She talks about interactions with clients, who ask her: “You look so young, do you think you can handle this case?” and “You look very sweet and are short, does the judge listen to you or do we need someone else?” She has also had a much junior male colleague accompany her because her client was not confident of a woman handling the situation.
“We face it every day, in all walks of life–professional and personal. But despite being a competent woman in the legal industry, there is always so much more to prove than just your work.”
“I actually started wearing bindis to court because it made me look older to be taken seriously,” she adds.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)