Ayshia Zehgeer

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A WOMAN LAWYER IN KASHMIR

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A WOMAN LAWYER IN KASHMIR
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Not considered a “dignified profession for women”, the discouragements 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.

Is it only our biological destiny to exist and then one fine day to not, that deserves depiction on our epitaphs, that don’t bear our names, most of the time?

‘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 not still 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, and majorly for not being considered cerebrally capable, assuming, that aggression and tenacity are what this the profession demands, and also 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 discouragements 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, and all this while we are looking for ways to navigate social and familial pressures to simply do our jobs. The decision to practice law in Kashmir is particularly met with scoff and scorn and at this stage, it is an equal response both the genders get, however, what compounds this, is when such a desire is expressed by a female, these range from various suggestions bordering ridicule to friendly advice only meaning to demoralize you.

Law, as a profession for women, was and is not still 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, and majorly for not being considered cerebrally capable, assuming, that aggression and tenacity are what this the profession demands, and also simultaneously considering them contrary to a woman’s virtues. Both notions misplaced and informed only by a false sense of entitlement.

My brief experience of two-years in the court so far, has comparably been smooth the one I often rave about to friends and relatives, I do not think I could have had it any other way. I always start on that note, whenever I sit to discuss about it, because I have personally never alluded to the alluring idea of ungratefulness. I loathe the very basis of looking at the negative side of any situation. 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, never worried about being rebuked, reprimanded, although I have had my share of it, never had to worry about having to manage a ride back home, or how much I make for a day, although I went days without making anything, and whether all the days slog is worth it. All of this and more does not qualify me to speak about the struggle part of this extremely stressful profession. However, the obviousness of discriminatory practices against women lawyers in the court exists within and beyond privileges. I worked hard and sat on the files for hours without sleep, but all of that is self-serving. It doesn’t take away from my easy start and only goes on to amplify one fact that if all women feel secure, safe and are remunerated proportionally for their hard work, than 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, and I think a conversation around it, against it in the legal profession is long overdue.

The obviousness of discriminatory practices against women lawyers in the court exists within and beyond privileges.

Going back in time, say close to a decade or more, and presence of women lawyers in the courts in the valley 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 increase in the numbers is also that fact that the number of female and male law graduates across India, have almost equaled over a decade, which should have ideally translate into more women coming into the practice and more climbing up the latter, i.e., 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 addition, more often than not one becomes a casualty for the other. A handful only are lucky to find both , 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 and also well-meaning lawyers and clientele, but pervasively, there is constant ‘othering’. Not only do women lawyers have to work twice as hard to ‘prove’ their worth, but law practice, metaphorically as much as physically/mentally, is an over hurried profession, and 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. Therefore, mostly they are entrusted with family matters, and rarely anything to do with other civil and criminal matters. This despite them being on an equal footing of merit and experience as that of their male counterparts, they will not be preferred for those matters, in the first place. 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.

Women lawyers working in Kashmir, particularly face stereotyping in the kind of briefs they get. Therefore, mostly they are entrusted with family matters, and rarely anything to do with other civil and criminal matters. This despite them being on an equal footing of merit and experience as that of their male counterparts, they will not be preferred for those matters, in the first place.

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 to be successful. Going back in times, say close to a decade or so, women’s presence in the courts in the valley was few and far between, 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 and work and life, and ultimately quit. (A lot of studies happen to show 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 of their day-to-day experiences in the court. What makes up their perspective of being a woman lawyer and what does the idea of practicing law entail in personal and professional life. With most of them requesting a name change for the narration.

1) Advocate Mysa (name changed) has been in law practice for close to 2-years and mainly in the Srinagar District Court and High Court as well. She says, ‘It’s hard for women in litigation as they have to face, lawyers, judges, clients most of who are male”. She also says because there are very few female senior lawyers, there isn’t much choice left other than to work with senior male lawyers and the experience isn’t always “pleasant”. From manipulation to having to face ire and discomfort, she believes to be able to feel safe and secure.‘You must know or have someone from your family work in the court.’

2) Advocate Barin (name changed) has this to say ‘after completing law degree when a lady lawyers enters into the court she faces multitude of obstacles”. She enumerates such obstacles as work load, which is disproportional to what you get paid for with under or no appreciation from the senior. Dealing with mostly male clients and colleagues can be difficult and workplace harassment. However, she highlights the positives of being a women lawyer as awareness of ones rights, sense of independence, exposure and assertiveness, and of being able to help to women in distress.

3) Advocate Qurat-ul-Ain, started her practice close to 5 years back and describes her experience as ‘having been through hell and heaven at the same time, worst part about the experience she believes is facing judgments and labels. However, she remained undeterred and did not let any discouragement dampen her spirits. She also there is a huge scope for women lawyers in Kashmir, and staying strong is the only way forward.

4) Advocate Subreen Malik , ‘Good Women don’t choose law’, an oft-heard statement is an offshoot of patriarchy and the legal profession is not immune from it.” She joined the Bar in the year 2012, when she describes women’s presence in the court as “marginal”. She describes her early experience in the court as somewhat uncomfortable given constant glare we are under, she also highlights income disparity, of how male and female young lawyers are paid differently, and women lawyers made conscious of any equal treatment they might receive. Sometimes the burden of work and other responsibilities weigh down women and it tells upon their work. She practices independently today and has many women related cases registered with her and is often appalled at how there is no institution in place to address systemic oppression women face. She also runs an organization by the name ‘Mehram: Women’s Cell Kashmir’, that works for women in distress.

5) Advocate Fatima (name changed) is not a first generation lawyer from her family. She comes from a known legal background. She opines, ‘If one is focused on work, one gets respect and recognition.’ She also goes on to say that as someone from a known legal background she started on her own, without letting her identity get in the way of her work. She believes apart from a few instances of over hearing, court staff comment on young female lawyers, she has not come across any other such instance. She says while still new in practice she got to hear questions like ‘Where is your senior? While presenting her case and she did not think of it as a pointed question because of her gender. She says respecting every single individual in the court will in turn get one respect and support from all quarters. She however does add a note of caution and says this might not be true for all women advocates and they may not experience same helping atmosphere despite being brilliant at what they do.

6) Advocate Zahra (name changed) as a young lawyer practicing in one of the district courts in North Kashmir, describes her journey of 2-years in law practice as good yet full of odds. The picture she paints is quite dismal and disappointing. She says that not only have less than 10 woman advocates been able to ‘survive’ in the district court where she practices. She also says she has faced constant threats of not “being allowed to practice’ by the members of bar, if she continued to speak against the lack of basic facilities such as proper washroom and sitting arrangements for woman advocates. She adds ‘library and chambers nowhere exist for lady advocates’, ‘Complaining would mean expulsion from the court’. She says, ‘however there are some Hon’ble Judges and some senior members of the Bar, who guided and motivated me, and helped me through tough times.”

7) Advocate Sadia (name changed) started her law practice on a positive note in another district court in North Kashmir. However she speaks about constant judgments and scrutiny of character in court premises, and lays emphasis on the absence of ‘fair wages’, not paid proportionally to work and lack of basic facilities such as washroom, library and furniture for female lawyers. She speaks about an uncomfortable atmosphere at work. ‘We can’t walk, talk or work freely”, and that the atmosphere in the court is only representative of what women face in the society.

8) Advocate Ulfat Jan, practice in District Court Anantanag, from her experience she says she been respected and her work acknowledged from well-meaning members of the Bar and clients. She says she has been appreciated and encouraged by Judges and some lawyers alike. However, that was not the case in the beginning and she did face mocking and was not taken seriously. She was successful in securing bail in one of the considerably difficult matter, while receiving appreciation from the presiding officer and some lawyers, she faced scrutiny and questioning from members of the bar and she also goes on to say that despite hard work, a woman will always face such problems.

Are the experiences of Young Kashmiri women lawyers practicing outside state any different?
Speaking on this is Advocate Hafsa, who graduated from the University of Kashmir and went on to practice in Delhi. While her decision of working outside was met with stigma back home, she says ‘working in Delhi as a lawyer is not easy the work culture in completely different in comparison to what we know or have seen growing up back home, this includes working crazy hours and getting paid peanuts, yet it didn’t crush my desire to excel in the field even though, I am a first generation lawyer from my family”. She considers herself fortunate for having worked in the chamber of two most competent lawyers who never discriminated against her in any respect. However her unpleasant experiences mostly are either from the court premises of the Delhi High Court or other District Courts, where she says her Hijab was met with uncomfortable glances and she also had to face ‘terrorist jibes’ cast at her within court premises, Post Pulwama incident. She also recalls an incident of objectification, based on her skin color. Therefore, she sums up “struggles for us working outside our twofold, constantly targeted for our identity as Kashmiri by the locals, and subjected to slander based on gender by our own”

Another Kashmiri lawyer Advocate Mariyah Mukhtar having briefly worked in Delhi expresses her satisfaction at the overall environment, work and otherwise. She believes her skills were honed by working under a very committed lawyer in Delhi, and that even in her brief experience she got an opportunity to present cases in the court. She believes other than ideological differences, positives of working in Delhi override the negative. She also speaks about being objectification, which according to her did cause her anxiety.

As is evident from varying accounts of women lawyers working across the valley and a few of them outside, there is a marked homogeneity in the pattern of struggles.

As is evident from varying accounts of women lawyers working across the valley and a few of them outside, there is a marked homogeneity in the pattern of struggles.

Our state given its unique geo-political realities, a protracted conflict has had an adverse impact on various aspects of legal profession as well. While we have our share of concerns, some of which are spoken and some remain unspoken, in a profession that valorizes thick skin and sees courtesy as weaknesses, what must not be lost sight of, are 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 go on to show that we have some genuine allies across the gender divide.

There shouldn’t really be a barometer of ‘gendered presence’ in courts or for that matter any workplace, or for one gender having to rely on magnanimity of the other for safety, but unfortunately there still is, and because one gender’s presence in places of work, still needs to be discussed or even mentioned, the fact that there is an intuitive sense of insecurity and incidents of harassment, that are real and nor imagined, goes on to show that we are not yet geared to accommodate gender diversity at places of work. Few, but not enough people, are willing to accept this reality.

Law practice is inherently demanding and stressful, and all of us happily and willing pay that ‘mental tax, because we so dearly love our work and it doesn’t have to stop being that, we however need to reflect on normalizing one gender being permanently ‘othered’. Nothing other than merit and competence must be the indicators of any hierarchy at work.

Women’s presence in law courts presents a unique opportunity to correct the historic disequilibrium that exists in the representative character of our society. A valve through which, while not compromising on professional competency, rehumanization of what is today more than ever before seen as an unresponsive institution, can be attained.

*Ayshia Zahgeer is a law graduate from university of Kashmir and practices in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not reflect the stand or policy of Oracle Opinions.

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