Why ‘To Be or Not To Be a Lady Lawyer’ Is a Dilemma I Fight in Court & Life

My vocation has been put on trial even when no one asks a doctor regardless of gender if they're “still a doctor."

6 min read

“Are you still a lawyer?”

"Yes...," I manage to say between gnashed teeth and controlled eye-roll.

This question which I find offensive on so many levels has been thrown at me not only by the “we-always-know-better” relatives but also clients! I have wondered why. But then again, I have always known…

The reason unfortunately not only has to do with my gender but also my vocation. For instance, no one asks a doctor regardless of gender if they are “still a doctor."

But the ease of pass to becoming a lawyer, at least as was the case three decades back when I applied to law college, combined with being a woman who also chose the “what the hell were you thinking?” safe but feministic nightmare of marriage and children, could translate into justifying this obnoxious query.

So let me break down the two possible reasons.


Just Another Rite of Passage of Being a Lawyer in India

Remember that Cable TV mechanic who used to come to your home not so many years ago? Over a cup of chai or a glass of nimbu pani he would tell you that he had passed his LLB from Meerut and was now fitting cable TV in the neighbourhood. Or, even the clerk at the Delhi water board office, who would have an LLB degree collecting dust in his Godrej almirah locker (if he bothered to collect it from the university) but chose the comfort of a sarkari job.

At one point, say in the 1980s and 90s, procuring a law degree in India was like getting a driver’s licence. Easy. You could have a bachelor’s degree in any field and still trudge on to LLB with an afterthought and a yawn. Without inclination or, I dare say, any motivation. In the good old days of Nehru, Gandhi, and Tagore, going to England to pass the Bar was a badge of pride and honour. Come the 2000s, with the advent of fancy law colleges and entrance exams for LLB, the profession is once again acquiring its lost sheen.

But for us in-betweens who were neither lucky enough to be born in the early nor the late 1900s, LLB was up for grabs for anyone who wanted to become a professional but did not want to work for it. And because becoming one was so easy, the post-becoming treatment was, and still is, neither granted nor thought worthy of commanding respect. And this lack of respect, either for one's self or the profession, seeps through each nook and cranny of every court in India.

When Mediation in Court Isn’t All Too Courteous

Cut to a very recent mediation hearing in one of the NCR district courts. I was representing a European bigwig and the other side was from a small town in Western India who had made a killing having appropriated the European trademark of my client and even selling their products to and fooling the Indian government. Anyway, I go to court and get a stay order against these small-town smarties. Why mediation then? Well, because the small-town smarties have no case and want to “settle” by paying some money. How much money, is what the mediator has to decide.

We are made to register at the mediation cell and then asked to go to the allocated mediator’s chamber. The mediator is your typical district court lawyer. Smart, but not your suits-prototype smart, ha! All's per usual until our mediator’s guest comes in. He is just another lawyer from the neighbouring chamber, inquisitive about what is happening in this one.

He sits in the chair right next to the mediator and starts participating in the discussion. Without a “by your leave." As I look on aghast, his phone rings, loud and shrill. He answers it right there—all of us privy to his conversation. Yes, we are all still sitting in the room.

My European client’s Indian counterpart is there too. He does not find this out of place. After all, he is an Indian. And that is the tragedy of it. We do not find such unprofessional behaviour out of the ordinary. After all, we are lawyers... This complete lack of respect for the profession and how we run it mirrors disdain and disrespect in those who look at us.

When Bhajans Become Serious Legal Business..

On yet another day of hearing, our mediator sits shortlisting a speaker that would pair with the smartphone as a gift for his bahu’s birthday. “My bahu loves bhajans,” he tells all of us, painting a pious picture of a bahu who no doubt would also be pressing her in-laws' feet with loris playing softly in the background.

Four more people enter his chambers, now all testing the volume of the two speakers he needs to choose from. And as the speaker belts out “aaya aaya atariya pey koi chor” as far removed from any bhajan, in varying degrees of volume, I try my voice to be heard above the din wondering what the hell I was doing in that chamber being nice to the court-appointed mediator, discussing confidential terms of the settlement with four more strangers in the room all equally contributing to the mediation as they are to the choice of speaker for the pious bahu.

Who, then, would take this profession seriously? Being a part of it for 30-odd years, I still manage to get shocked by shenanigans such as the ones in the mediator’s chamber. But that is because I am not a regular court lawyer.

For most days of the week, I sit in my comfortable office dealing with posh overseas clients. But it is in the courts in India, especially below the high courts, where one would probably find the justification for the question, “Are you still a lawyer?”

Gender Bias Guide ‘Choices’, Even Professional Pursuits of Most Women

How many women you know have some form of academic degree, but are not using it? How many of these are LLB degrees? I personally know of at least five classmates from law college who chose to get married and not pursue their law careers. I am told that it is a woman’s choice whether she wants to stay at home or go out and work. My question is, does a man have the same choice?

If the answer to this question is negative then the woman’s choice is not a free one. It is more social conditioning than choice. And for those of us who have made the impossible choice of getting married and having kids and still continue to “be a lawyer,” of course will have eyebrows raised at them. Because you cannot have it all. Heck, you are not supposed to have it all. That is the lesson which is instilled in us since childhood. And God forbid if you want to throw in a few hobbies in the mix. You are doomed, girl.


Can Casual Sexism Please Stand Up!

Cut to a police station in West India (again!) a few years ago. I am there chasing some counterfeiters of an internationally famous mobile phone. I have been authorised by my client to file a police complaint on their behalf and I am sitting in this police station under whose jurisdiction the fake mobile phones are being sold.

“Husband’s name?” Huh? “Aap married nahin hain madam? Toh father’s name?” But what does it have to do with my complaint? I am there in my capacity as a lawyer.

“Madam, you are known by your husband or your father. You are lady, na.” As I count to ten and give away my husband’s name, the next question throws me off completely, “Casht?”

I do a double-take. Did this person just ask me about my caste in the 21st century while I was making a professional complaint? “Husband casht madam,” he adds for a good measure lest I forget. I have had enough. “I don’t know,” I tell him. It’s a lie but I will be damned if I get into this caste business on a professional assignment. And I will never forget the parting shot. “Madam, you are married, you have children… You should be sitting at home, not coming to a police station at night. Not safe, madam.”

Do I need to wonder why then anyone would still ask “Are you still a lawyer?” Because every single day, for the past 30 years, I have had to tediously work to answer in the affirmative.

(Dahlia Sen Oberoi, a gold medallist from Delhi University, is a leading intellectual property rights lawyer. Also, a dancer, writer, lecturer and yoga teacher, Dahlia has recently turned author with her first book 'ASHRAMED; From Chaos to Calm.')

(This was first published on 25 December 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in the run-up to International Women's Day on 8 March.)

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