‘Why Don’t You Put On Lipstick And Argue’: Women Lawyers Judged On Looks In Indian Courts
By Sumedha Mukherjee
A specific dress code is followed by lawyers when engaging in court proceedings. But this code sometimes goes to the extent of judging women lawyers’ merit based on how they dress or even style their hair.
Female advocates are blamed for disrupting cases in court or even distracting their male counterparts just due to their appearance. A recent incident in Pune has sparked a debate about how women lawyers are judged on their looks.
A Pune district court had issued a notice directing women lawyers to avoid fixing their hair during court proceedings. This elicited an uproar on social media after advocate Indira Jaising flagged the notice on Twitter.
The Pune Bar Association claimed that it had not received such a notice, and the registrar of the district court refrained from comments. Such a notice speaks volumes about how women keep getting belittled for no good reason.
Justice By Hands Or Hair?
The Pune Court notice read, “It is repeatedly noticed that women advocates are arranging their hair in open court, which is disturbing the functioning of the court. Hence, women advocates are hereby notified to refrain from such act”. Twitter user @NimishJaiswal said, “The power to impede justice lies in your hands (or hair?), ladies”.
Although the notice was withdrawn after two days, it spurred a debate on the general misogynistic atmosphere in court. For instance, to have people take them more seriously, women lawyers often dress down or wear a saree and sport a bindi.
Despite an official dress code, female lawyers say that they face much harsher criticism, and male colleagues often measure their merit based on their clothing and hair.
A Bangalore-based advocate recalled how she was denied adjournment while her male colleague was granted relief on identical grounds.
She was advised later that wearing traditional attire and tying her hair would have helped her. She said, “I didn’t know until then that clothes and hairstyle were a yardstick for tendering respect”.
Another Delhi-based lawyer narrated how her appearance often hinders people’s respect for her. Despite having over 10 years of legal experience, her clients question her merit due to her looks: “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?”
Many senior women advocates have internalized misogynistic views and tend to speak against informal dress codes of younger lawyers.
Mahalakshmi Pavani, President of the Supreme Court Women’s Lawyers Association, said, “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”.
A Delhi lawyer recalled when she had to argue a case before a very strict judge, and she was very anxious before the procedure. When she confided in a fellow senior lawyer, he suggested, “Do you have lipstick? Why don’t you put that on and go”.
Advocate Indira Jaisingh said, “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”.
Women in India still have a long way to go to prove their professionalism in any workplace, be it in a court, corporate house, or other places. Centuries of internalized misogyny are still giving a hard time to women to live respectably. Yet struggles against patriarchy are fought on a daily basis and with utmost vigor, in the hope of a brighter future.