Last month, for the first time in history, four High Courts — the Madras High Court, the Bombay High Court, the Calcutta High Court and the Delhi High Court — were headed by women Chief Justices. Even as headlines celebrated this achievement, others bemoaned how the representation of women in the higher judiciary remains low. Only 10 percent of the total number of judges across 24 High Courts are women.
In 1989, Fathima Beevi, a judge from the Kerala High Court, made history when she was appointed as the first female judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court since it was established in 1950. According to the website Live Law, Beevi was also the first Supreme Court woman judge in any country in Asia. That wasn't all, she was also the first Muslim woman judge to be appointed to any position in the higher judiciary in India.
Born in Pathanamthitta in what was then the Travancore State in Kerala on 30 April,1927, Beevi studied law at Trivandrum's Law College. She was only one of the five women students in her class in the first year, a number that dropped to two or three by the second year. Yet, Beevi was already on her way to making history. In 1950, she became the first woman to top the Bar Council of India's exam.
In the same year, she enrolled as an advocate, starting her career in Kerala's lower judiciary. Over the next three decades, she served as the Munsiff in the Kerala Subordinate Judicial Services, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, the District & Sessions Judge and a Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, before being elevated to the Kerala High Court as a judge in 1983. She was appointed as a Supreme Court judge in October 1989, six months after retiring from the Kerala High Court.
After retiring from service in 1992, Beevi served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission. In 1997, she was appointed as the Governor of Tamil Nadu, a stint that was filled with controversy and ended in her resignation in 2001.
Since Beevi's appointment in 1989, only five more women judges have been appointed to India's apex court. Also, there have been only two periods when it has had more than two sitting woman judges at the same time. Currently, there is only one sitting woman judge in the Supreme Court, Justice R Banumanthi, out of a total of 29 judges. A report in the Mumbai Mirror pointed out that the situation is equally grim in the country's 24 High Courts, where only 68 out of a total of 632 judges are women.
Last year, in an interview with the Week, Beevi spoke of the need to elevate more women to judgeships and even consider reservation to increase the number of women in the higher judiciary. "There are many women in the field now, both at the bar and in the bench," Beevi said. "However, their participation is meagre. Their representation is not equal to men. There is a historical reason also for that... Women took to the field late. It will take time for women to get equal representation in the judiciary."