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'It Was A Crime That
I Was Born A Woman'

By Indira Jaising

15 February, 2006

While on the one hand, the judges sympathise about violence against women, on the other hand women lawyers are disrespected in the very temple of justice.

Navratna Chaudhary, while appearing in the court of Justice S N Dhingra on January 7, 2006, was told by the judge that he knew how women lawyers make it, implying thereby that they use immoral means.

The lawyer who is fairly senior at the bar was shocked by his words. She requested the judge not to use words which would outrage her modesty. Promptly came the reply, "You have no modesty to outrage."

There are several witnesses to the incident, including male lawyers with more than 40 years experience at the bar.

Apparently, Justice Dhingra was called by the chief justice of the Delhi high court for an explanation.

It appears that though he has admitted that some unpleasant exchange of words did take place, he denied using specific words attributed to him by Chaudhary.

What could have led a well-respected judge to say things like this?

I can only think of the fact that he was outraged by the ongoing strike by the lawyers in Tis Hazari who are protesting against the bifurcation of the court.

Whilst I don't agree with the lawyers' strike, the judge must know where to draw the line.

It is one thing to be angry against striking lawyers and deal with them professionally; it is another thing to disrespect women at their place of work.

In an amazing show of solidarity, women lawyers have approached the chief justice of New Delhi high court with three demands.

1. That a departmental inquiry should be conducted against the judge for misconduct in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines. (A judgment related to sexual harassment at the workplace.)

2. That the chief justice of the New Delhi high court should grant permission to prosecute Justice Dhingra.

3. And, that contempt of court action should be taken against the judge because when Chaudhary sited a judgment of the high court, the judge refused to look at it because he claimed he didn't recognise such judgments. They also demand that pending the inquiry, Justice Dhingra should go on leave.

While it was the Supreme Court that laid down the guidelines to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, the courts themselves have always taken the view that this judgment doesn't apply to them.

There have been cases where women judges have been harassed by male judges.

In Rajasthan, a Dalit lady judge has been demanding justice at hands of the judiciary for being sexually harassed by a male judge.

The battle promises to take on an all-India character. Women lawyers are now demanding that a committee for sexual harassment should be set up in all courts across the country.

At the heart of the controversy is the issue of great importance to women -- the right to be treated with dignity at the workplace.

The incident illustrates that woman lawyers are not taken seriously.

On the contrary, they are viewed as women who have no business to be in the courtroom and are not considered as professionals.

It is indeed a sign of backwardness in thinking among the legal establishment.

With what confidence can a woman litigant expect justice from the court?

While on the one hand, we continue to pass legislation to 'protect' women on the other hand, at the ground level, women are discriminated against for being women.

As Chaudhary told me, "It was a crime that I was born a woman and a further crime that I decided to become a lawyer."

Today, she is deeply disturbed woman. The only ray of hope is that women lawyers from Tis Hazari have rallied around her and are determined to carry this issue to a logical conclusion. The Delhi Bar Association and the witnesses have stood by her.

On Monday, between 12 and 2 pm, women lawyers will demonstrate outside the New Delhi high court.

I have decided to join the dharna because the issue raised goes beyond Navratna Chaudhary.

They pertain to the accountability of the Judiciary in this country.

Indira Jaising is a New Delhi-based constitutional expert.









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