How have you coped with gender issues in a profession that was an exclusive male preserve?
There were many gender issues, first of all nobody wanted me to join the profession cause they thought it was a male preserve, and later on when I started practicing I wouldn’t get much work, because people said that I am a woman and I would not be able to handle it. When I did get work, quite often the lawyer who briefed me had difficulty in trying to explain to the client why he would give work to a woman. In fact there is one case where he had sent a brief to me and I worked really hard on it cause I knew being a woman I had to work much harder than a man to impress, and, then he didn’t pay me for months. And then I thought to myself why is he not paying me? Then when he met me, he told me, that the client said that he wanted a male opinion. He had told the client that Leila is a young lawyer, she has come first in England, she’s very bright and she has given her opinion, but he said no I want a male opinion. So then the matter was sent to a very senior lawyer, and the senior lawyer kept the case for a couple of months and returned it after some time, and all he said was I endorse the opinion that Leila has stated. The client had to pay ten times the amount he had to pay me, for one line stating that he supported my opinion. So it was quite difficult, yes.
You have observed in an article that the interpretation of law is untempered by any sympathy for the suffering of others. Can you elaborate?
This was an observational statement in connection with Supreme Court judgment on homosexuality. The Delhi High Court had passed a judgment toning down Section 377, saying that if you are consenting adults it would not be a crime, but the Supreme Court set it aside, and I said that they were not at all understanding, that there should be something for people who were that way or the parents of people, how hard it was for them. They were totally unsympathetic and totally non-understanding of people who were not like them, and I thought it was quite unfortunate that the court had no compassion or understanding or willingness to understand the feelings of other people.
There has been a lot of talk about the necessity of law to consider marital rape. Do you see this turning into something substantial in the near future?
You talk to poor people or you go to the villages, I have many people telling me that their men come home drunk and abuse them in a way. They tell me that once you get married you have given up all your bodily integrity, and, all your women’s right, in one way. If you don’t feel like having sex one day or you feel unwell your husband can have sex with you or force you to have sex. It’s like saying once you’re married you have given consent and that consent you cannot retract. But now in many countries or most countries it has changed, in America, England, Canada, or Australia the law has changed. I think it is time that it would change in India. I’m very sorry that after the Wadhwa Committees strong recommendations they didn’t change the law, but time will come and it will change and it has to change, because we have the right to equality and if you teach people the right to equality and you teach people that you don’t extinguish legal or sexual autonomy of a woman after marriage then things will change.
When I joined the Bar I was one out of two women in the whole of Patna High Court now when I go to Delhi there are so many women practicing, so there is a change and the change has come about cause you have hope.
What fascinates you more: gender issues, children and their concerns or grandchildren?
Well you know I think gender issues definitely concern me at the same time I’m very concerned with grandchildren, as they are the future of this country. My grandchildren are both girls, so gender and grandchildren are collected for me in that way, as I feel that gender issues will bring about equality and equality is extremely important and justice is extremely important. That’s why I have written a book for children on the preamble of the constitution, teaching them that they should have justice, liberty and equality.
Do you feel like the law is biased towards women?
The constitution has a provision that says you can make laws that are favorable for women, as they are not exactly equal, as women have been sub versed for all these years. But basically I think it’s not only the law, but the implementation of law is very important. So until and unless the police, judges are implementive of the law for the in defensive, nothing will happen, people have to gain the sense to understand, how the law is. So I think sensitization of the police, sensitization the judiciary, and even sensitization of people around you is very important. So discussions, seminars, talks make people aware that men and women are equal in every sense of the word and they must have equal rights.
You are an eternal optimist. You have observed that one cannot live without hope. Please comment.
I think being an optimist is essential in today’s world, as if you are not an optimist you will be too down. Being an optimist means having things to happen. I’ve seen a lot of change of law in favor of women; women have got inheritance rights in ancestral property, in self-acquired property. When I joined the bar I was one out of two women in the whole of Patna High Court now when I go to Delhi there are so many women practicing, so there is a change and the change has come about cause you have hope. Cause if you have hope you have everything, if you don’t have hope you have nothing. I have seen a lot of laws come in my lifetime that I thought would not have, the RTI, Right to Information, the Panchayati Raj which has given women the right to be a chair person. So hope is important, as hope keeps everybody it also gives you push to do and change things.
Brief Bio: Leila Seth
Leila Seth was the first woman to top the Bar examinations in London in 1957. She was the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state in India. In 1995 she was appointed as a one-member commission to examine the death in custody of Rajan Pillai and to suggest improvements in medical facilities of prisoners. She was also one of the three members of the 2012 committee (known as the Justice Verma Committee) which was constituted in the aftermath of the horrendous rape in Delhi of the young woman known as Nirbhaya.