So I decided to write up all the sorrows I had suffered as the first woman lawyer in Thiruvitamkoor at the Law College and after and relate how I faced all of it with real tantedam, courage, and claim a Veerachakra for it after I left the field, and searched my files, to find an amusing article written by Sri A G Ganguli in the Sunday Statesman of 27 January 1970 titled ‘Portias in Search of Recognition’. It was then I found out about the strange experiences that my forerunner who applied to practice in court after getting her law degree. Reading it, I, who had been granted permission the moment I applied, found my pride waning somewhat. I am going to add some parts of that article here so that my lawyer brethren who followed me and women officers in the department of law and justice at least who are interested may know.
The first woman lawyer who applied to practice was Ms Regina Guha. Seeing her novel application to the Calcutta High Court in 1916, the Chief Justice Sir Lawrence Jenkins set up a special bench to decide the matter and the members included Sir Ashuthosh Mukherjee. He also directed Advocate-General Sri S P Sinha (later Lord Sinha) to gather the opinion among the lawyers and present it before the court. In response, the Advocate General called a meeting of the Bar Library Club to decide on the matter in the light of the fact that in England the problems whether a woman could be permitted to be a lawyer legally, and if so, whether it would be practical according to the administrative policies pertaining to political rule were not yet raised. In the meeting, Sri A Rasul, Bar-at-Law, presented the resolution that lawyers approved of Ms Guha’s application with a strong speech in defense. After presenting all the favourable arguments, he concluded by noting that this will soon be allowed in England and that there was no reason why Indians should stay behind England in such matters. This was approved by Sri S P Roy, Bar-at-Law. But Sri A C Banerjee Bar-at-Law expressed opposition to it. His main argument was that in India, the protection of women was no less than a religious duty for men and to allow women to earn their own livelihoods or to support such moves was not appropriate to masculine honour or decency.
I take pride in that those who opposed women’s freedom and a woman lawyer in our land [the Malayalam-speaking regions] never sought to advance this childish claim. There was another childish argument, similar to this one: that is, if a woman’s application is approved, then without much delay, they would leap forward, like in England, demanding suffrage (will not Mr Banerjee and his followers regret their error seeing that having crossed all these steps, today India’s highest leadership is now managed by a woman, boldly, ably?). But an even more weird argument was advanced by Sri B L Mitter ( Sir Brojendralal Mitter of later times) — do you want to know? If women are allowed to compete with men, he said, it will lead to unjust quarrels. I should not omit the argument raised by a funny lawyer, Sri J Choudhari Bar-at-Law. He shot off a humorous speech amidst much applause in which he argued that though he was not personally interested being an old man above fifty, for younger male lawyers, the presence of and interaction with women lawyers during leisure hours will be quite pleasurable; he also pointed to the dangers inherent in the interaction of young married lawyers with unmarried ones. This irked an unmarried lawyer named Sri I B Sen Bar-at-Law who upbraided him, saying that making such frivolous arguments to prevent the entry of women into a field completely dominated by men is not manly at all. He then demanded that the matter should be thought over seriously; and proceeded to raise two issues in Sri Mitter’s claim about unjust quarrels. He pointed out that the claim referred to the difference in the behaviour of clients and judges on the basis of what they think. He requested the lawyers to reject the argument directed at judges as it was a childish claim insulting to men also. When things reached this far, the Advocate-General who realized that it was impossible to continue the debate, withdrew from his responsibility stating that it was impossible for him to present the view of the lawyers in court on an issue on which the lawyers were so deeply divided. The mover of the resolution, A Rasul, withdrew it and left. Then the Special Court heard Ms Guha’s lawyer’s arguments and ruled that according to the Legal Practitioners’ Act (Act 18 of 1879), women were not allowed to practice as lawyers, rejecting her application. To quote from a portion of the judgment mentioned in the article:
“No trace of women legal practitioners can be found in Hindu or Buddhistic times and though Islamic law may have tolerated the appearance of women litigants in Court and possibly the appointment of women as Judges, there is no trace of women legal practitioners in the Court of this period during the Mahomedan period.”
The mention of Islamic Law brings to my mind a derisive story published by some magazine at the time I became a lawyer: [it said that] Anna Chandy had no reason to claim to be the first woman lawyer Thiruvitamkur and that in an old Sadr Court, a woman of the name Fathima Beevi or so once practiced as a lawyer. The story was that she did not find it profitable at all and so became a trader in karuppatti — palm jaggery. The hint was that Anna Chandy too will have to leave the scene and take up palm jaggery trade. Thank god, Yours Truly’s story did not end this way, but considering the fact that after serving thirty years and being a High Court Judge at a salary of Rs 3500, my pension today is just Rs 807, I cannot help feeling that following the Beevi’s footsteps might have been the right thing to do.
In those days, the condition of women in England was no better. The case ‘In re Bradwell’ [sic.] the judgment says that “Women are generally unfitted for the duties of the legal profession.” In Bobb vs. The Law Society, the Court of Appeal upheld the positive provision of the Common Law which imposed an absolute prohibition against women practicing the profession of law. But as a result of agitation by women, in 1919 the Sex Disabilities Removal Act was passed by the Parliament and women gained the opportunity to enter all sorts of work including the legal profession. Four years later, in India too in 1923, Legal Practitioners (Women) Act Act 23 of 1923 allowed women to practice in courts as lawyers. The article notes that approving of the bill in the legislative assembly, Khan Abdul Rahim Khan argued, “Another thing which has not been brought to the notice of the Hon’ble House is that the ladies as Barristers in Courts will make the Judges and Barristers behave themselves.” I can tell you from my experience, there is some truth in this.
The author also describes an instance of how a woman lawyer taught a judge a lesson. This judge was very interested in defending women’s rights. The Sex Disabilities Removal Act was passed in 1919; soon after, on day, before the judge was going towards the Bench, the Bench clerk let him know that in the first case of the day, one side was to be represented by barrister Miss Poppleton. When the case was heard, the plaintiff side was represented by a fair, slender, good-looking young man with an appealing voice. He had studied the case well, but forgot to advance certain arguments. The defendant’s side was represented by an able-bodied, scowling, belligerent middle-aged woman with a harsh voice. Since her body was completely covered with a gown, the judge cannot be faulted for having thought that she was male. The poor judge thus made a huge mistake. Not being a misogynist, he considered that his duty was to support, as much as he could, the delicate woman lawyer who had to duel with a formidable opponent. His behaviour in court, too, was according to this conviction. And on top, this was a borderline case; so using his judicial discretion, he pronounced a judgment that favoured the plaintiff. When things reached this stage, the defendant’s lawyer sent terrifying looks towards the judge, and declaring in a raucous tone that their decision was to appeal to a higher court and that the judgment should not be implemented, stormed out. Only when he reached his chamber and the clerk told him that his behaviour towards Miss Poppleton was a trifle extreme did he realize his folly. But what was the use then? Regretting that the matter had now gone out of his hands, he sat down, head bowed low.
I was about to add that one may saw quite confidently that the folly that befell the white man will never happen to any judge around here — when I remembered the woman lawyer who had arrived to represent the defendant at the Paravur Sessions Court who somewhat resembled Miss Poppleton in her looks and voice and demeanour, and the simpleton of a Nambutiripad [a Malayala brahmin] who suspected that this was a man in the guise of a woman, out to dupe the court. Though in the case of the judgment produced by the white judge, though Miss Poppleton filed for an appeal citing actual legal reasons, Sri Ganguly describes amusingly some of the arguments she could well have used:
- For that the learned Judge was wrong in presuming that a Portia cannot be a robust, fierce-looking individual with a harsh voice and aggressive Court manners.
- For that the learned Judge erred in his finding of facts as to the identity of the real Portia.
- For that the learned Judge acted erroneously by misplacing judicial chivalry on an imitation Portia.
- For that having regard to the principles of natural justice, equity, and good conscience, the learned Judge ought to have been just to the real Portia instead of being generous to the supposed Portia.
Miss Poppleton fought her case competently and won it, without advancing any of these arguments. The appeal was allowed along with expenses in both courts. And thus the courage and competence of the woman lawyer became evident to the court and the male lawyers there, as must as it was to the client who entrusted the case to her.
The author of this article points out that there is no difficulty in mutual address whether the lawyer are male or female; then he moves on to the complicated problem of how male lawyers should address female judges if indeed they become a reality in India without delay. Should it be My Lord, or My Lady? Like in my case the newspapers thought till their brains were smoked stiff, about the battles that could possibly break out between the rules of grammar and common propriety because of such terminology, he too raises the issue but leaves it without a solution. In this matter, he saw a trouble in addition to that which local folk have already seen. If a woman judge may be addressed by her colleagues as ‘learned sister’, that is quite alright but what will the sisters om the hospital and sisters in the convent feel? Will they be satisfied? Anyway, we have good reason to be proud of Kerala, where we found solutions for all these problems and went ahead to appoint not one but ten judges along with the woman judge and where the practice of law and justice has proceeded very smoothly.