Courting gender sensitivity

The Supreme Court has finally set aside the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s gender-insensitive order that asked a molestation accused to get a ‘rakhi’ tied from the victim as a condition for grant of bail. It has issued 12 commandments to judges requiring them to desist from misogynistic and patriarchal stereotypes that undermine the importance of women and demean their existence and role in society. The list of forbidden expressions is long. From commenting on their dress, behaviour and describing motherhood as their duty to past conduct of rape survivors and consumption of alcohol and tobacco by them — the top court has drawn a strong list of comments that judges need to avoid.

Realising that misogynistic comments by judges had almost acquired the proportions of an institutional crisis, the court has mooted an institutional response by directing the National Judicial Academy to develop within three months a gender sensitisation module for training of judges, standing counsels and public prosecutors with the help of sociologists, psychologists and gender studies experts. It asked high courts to formulate a module on judicial sensitivity to sexual offences to be tested in the Judicial Services Examination. Similarly, it asked the BCI to consider including courses that should be taught in the LLB programme and to mandatorily include topics on sexual offences and gender sensitisation in the syllabus for the All India Bar Examination.

The court has sought to assert judges’ role as thought leaders in society. One is reminded of its 1997 verdict in the Vishaka case in which it laid down guidelines to check sexual harassment of women at the workplace that have since been replaced by a law enacted by Parliament. But this time around, the directions are meant to address gender insensitivity among judges. While the court must be appreciated for the progressive order, gender bias remains an institutional problem in the Indian judiciary — often described as a male bastion. There is just one woman judge in the Supreme Court against a sanctioned strength of 34. The situation in the high courts is also dismal. This needs to change. The sooner the better.

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