The comments of newly appointed judge to the Supreme Court, Justice Indu Malhotra, who addressed women lawyers in the ladies bar room today, opened up a debate about moral policing and formal dress code. One of the many issues she spoke on was women's attire in court. The senior judge said that women lawyers should be formally and professionally dressed.
Malhotra also spoke on other issues such as how women lawyers can excel professionally, and how they must dedicate time to care for their health. She went on to say that women worked twice as hard as men to achieve the same objective. Eminent lawyers such as senior advocate Indira Jaising and additional solicitor general Pinki Anand echoed her views.
Anand spoke about how women have to multi-task, straddling domestic and professional responsibilities. I guess today the same yardstick applies to journalists.
Only a few days ago, Justice J Chelameswar chided a senior male IAS officer for not being formally dressed in Supreme Court. The officer could address the court only after donning a full suit the next day. I wonder what would have been the case had a female officer been at the receiving end of the judge's remarks.
Mothers often advised daughters what to wear, told them what was "appropriate and proper". These boundaries have been persistently pushed by younger generations. As times change and modernisation and commercialisation revolutionise the dynamics of dressing, a new generation of women is struggling to understand "how to dress".
"Fashion" trends leave us equally confused, with unreasonably priced clothes often taking a toll on hard-earned salaries.
Deepika Singh Rajawat, the lawyer for the Kathua rape victim's family, in the Supreme Court premises. Photo: Reuters/File
It seems to me that the latest wave of feminism has made it a taboo for women to even discuss how to dress and what's appropriate to wear. A new generation of younger reporters and lawyers — including I — visits the Supreme Court every day. Our attire would tell you the story of our struggle with "court fashion".
As a correspondent covering the judiciary, I have two personal anecdotes to attest to this fact. I was once politely told by two senior male journalists (when we were inside the apex court's premises) that the formal, knee-length skirt I was wearing was not considered acceptable attire in the Supreme Court.
Judge Indu Malhotra: 'Women lawyers should be formally dressed.' Photo: Screengrab
I courteously told them what I was wearing was pretty much part of the formal dress code. They were shocked to hear that skirts can be formals too. My seniors then told me that a section of men in Supreme Court is lecherous. I responded by saying that in this environment, they should encourage and support me to be myself as well as help me push the boundaries instead of asking me to dress in a way "lecherous" men don't "notice me".
They smiled at my assertion and apologised two days later, asking me if I had felt bad. After that episode, I wore skirts for one straight week, but avoided the micros.
Contrast this with another experience I had just two days ago, during a recent hearing in the Kathua rape-murder case. I stepped into the visitors gallery where journalists usually stand. Right in the front, a woman stood in a skimpily-clad saree with an almost-backless blouse and a distracting tattoo.
I felt the urge to tell her to be "proper". But was it proper to tell someone else or to police someone? In all fairness, her attire was indeed utterly inappropriate for a formal set-up like the Supreme Court. The woman was a journalist. And she is just one of many. Torn jeans, loud lipsticks, maxis and even pyjamas are a common sight in Supreme Court.
A caveat here: I chose to focus on women in this article. Most male journalists are seen sporting sneakers, jeans, floaters, crushed shirts, and at times even an unkempt beard. That story is for another day.