Oh, what a year to be a woman! IWD 2023: CJP lists some advocates who paved the way for women’s rights Standing against patriarchy, these lawyers chose to make courtrooms their battle ground

08, Mar 2023 | CJP Team

Revolutions do not happen overnight; it takes years and years for positive changes to be implemented and progress to be made. Similarly, these revolutions and movements are not the result of a single person’s efforts, but of collective resistance and solidarity. India has always followed a patriarchal structure, a hierarchical power relationship, in which men are dominant and women are subordinate. Women’s subordination is visible in many ways, both in the private and public spheres, where women are denied rights and access to many things that men take for granted. Patriarchy, as a concept/tool, aids in the critical understanding of women’s status in any society. Thus, while men in India were born with all the privileges and rights, the women of India had to fight for their basic rights, right to vote, right to education, right of autonomy on their own bodies, etc. 

For centuries, they have been purposefully denied opportunities for growth in the name of religion and socio-cultural practices. Even Mahatma Gandhi, a self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights, had urged women to stop fighting for voting rights and instead concentrate their efforts on ‘helping their men against the common foe’ in 1920. On the social-political level, women faced denial of freedom even in their homes, suppression, persecution and unnatural indoctrination, unequal and inferior status, rigid caste hierarchy, and even untouchability. Religious tradition and social institutions have a significant impact on the role and status of women.

Despite this, as more efforts were made to oppress women, an increasing number of Indian women’s movements emerged, paving the way for intersectionality and catapulting gender violence into national discourse. Long before the #MeToo movement, and decades before the Indian government enacted any laws to protect women from violence, Indian feminists fought for women’s right to exist unmolested and unscathed in public and private spaces. Even today, as we celebrate international women’s day, our struggles remain the same, the battles even bigger. But we are not fighting alone, for there are people of all genders who are standing against the oppressive forces, fighting for the rights of women. 

When we think of feminist icons in India, the first name that comes to mind is Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar, the great fighter and deep thinker, has made significant contributions to the cause of women’s liberation, rejecting Manu’s definition of women. He recognised women’s equality and worked to secure it legally at a time when few others did, beginning with opposing oppressive customs such as sati, child marriage, and widow remarriage restrictions.

While Babasaheb paved the way for women rights, the journey has been a long and tiring one, and the fight is still going on. Even today, as India has entered its 75th year of Independence, atrocities against women bodies and autonomy have intensified, and so has the fight to break the cages that women are kept in. While some of these fights turn into movements and are fought through protest and dissents, such as the Shaheen Bagh women protest against CAA-NRC or the Pinjra todh movement against discriminatory curfews in hostels, some are fought in the court rooms. 

In recent years, we have seen the courts issue several significant celebrated judgments in cases relating to the women rights, such as the right to privacy, equal rights for daughters in coparcenary property, eligibility of women army officers in in commanding roles and permanent commission, ban of two finger test as medical examination, right of adult women to choose prostitution as her vocation, etc. All of these cases have aided people in seeking justice and maintaining their faith in courts as defenders of the rule of law. To achieve these victories and to break the anachronistic and outrageous norms that have long protected patriarchal tenets and kept women on the hem, a few advocates have withstood all hardships and threats that were thrown at them. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we have highlighted a few of these advocates, and other women fighters, who have not been deterred from achieving justice for women by anything or anyone.

1. The Sabarimala Temple Entry Case

A group of five women lawyers — Bhakti Pasrija, Prerna Kumari, Laxmi Shastiri, Sudha Pal and Alka Sharm — filed the petition demanding women of all age groups should be allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple in 2006. The lead petitioner in the case was Indian Young Lawyers’ Association, an organisation that works for the welfare of lawyers and public, which was setup in 2003, and has Naushad Ahmad Khan as its president. While the case was being heard in the Supreme Court, Khan had told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he has received more than 700 telephone calls, including some calls from international telephone numbers, and these callers are (trying to) force him to withdraw the petition. Bhakti Pasrija was the general secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association.

The Sabarimala Temple, considered Lord Ayyappa’s abode, is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Pathanamthitta District of Kerala’s Western Ghat mountain ranges. The temple is well-known for its unusual religious practices—devotees perform a 41-day penance, foregoing worldly pleasures, before visiting the temple. Devotees regard Lord Ayyappa as a celibate deity. To protect celibacy, women in their ‘menstruating years’ (between the ages of 10 and 50) were traditionally barred from entering the temple. 

The Indian Young Lawyers Association petitioned the Supreme Court in 2006, challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s prohibition on women entering the temple grounds. The Association argued that the custom violates the Right to Equality under Article 14, as the practice is ‘derogatory to the dignity of women’. Freedom of religion under Article 25 states that ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’. The exclusion of female devotees is a violation of that right.

On September 28, 2018, a 4:1 majority ruled that the Sabarimala Temple’s prohibition on women was unconstitutional. Justice Indu Malhotra was the lone dissenter. Following the judgment, Kerala saw sporadic incidents of Hindu Right wingers indulging in violence. In the name of protecting the ‘celibate god’ Lord Ayyappa from ‘women who are impure by menstruation,’ the Hindu Right vandalised vehicles and attacked women.

Bindu and Kanaka Durga were the first two women to enter the temple in the year 2019. Bindu considers herself a Dalit activist. She has also worked as a lawyer. As an activist and lawyer, Bindu was used to dealing with criminal cases, cops, and even violence. But her life has never been the same since she entered the temple. She had been threatened, abused, and repeatedly targeted by cyber-attacks.

Case name: Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v State of Kerala)

2. The lawyer behind the amendment to the right to abortion act

On September 29, 2022, the Supreme Court of India delivered a landmark judgement on 29 September, ruling that all women, irrespective of their marital status, have the right to abortion between 20-24 weeks, interpreting the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTPA), to include unmarried and single women whose pregnancy arise out of a consensual relationship. The Supreme Court, in its latest abortion verdict, read down the mandatory reporting under the POCSO Act if the minor and their guardian request so, ruling that a doctor is permitted to withhold the name and identity of the minor girl in the information given to the police and called for a “harmonious” reading of the MTPA and POCSO.  

Behind the Supreme Court’s landmark decision granting unmarried and single women the right to abortion up to 24 weeks was Amit Mishra, a 36-year-old lawyer, who had refused continued to fight after the Delhi High Court denied his 25-year-old client permission to terminate her pregnancy this summer. For Mishra, the judgment, which has been hailed as a significant step forward for reproductive rights and personal autonomy for women in India, is a significant achievement. Mishra stated in an interview that the above-mentioned judgment is truly a historical judgment because it advances our society, and the court considers the nature of sexual assault against a woman by her husband. It gives women the right to terminate a “forced” pregnancy and refers to such violence as “marital rape,” at least in the context of the MTP (Amendment) Act, 2021. He also emphasised the urgent need for awareness programs, with a special emphasis on remote areas, to educate people about changing laws and how to use them to seek justice.

Case name: X v. Principal Secretary, Health and Family Welfare Department, Govt. of NCT of Delhi and Another

3. The Kathua Rape Case lawyer who received death threats

Deepika S Rajawat, who fought the Kathua victim’s case, had discovered that she had received threats from her own Jammu colleagues. Rajawat, aged 38, is the chairperson and founder of Voice for Rights, an NGO that works with disadvantaged women and children. During the course of the case, she accused Jammu Bar Association president BS Slathia of threatening her and demanding that she stay away from the case. In her reply to the threats, Rajawat had told the media that “I am not scared, but I am not feeling safe either. Protestors (lawyers) are trying to put pressure on me so that I don’t fight for justice. But I will continue to fight victim’s case. I have full faith in the police investigation.”

The Kathua case involved the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl who went missing in the new year of 2018, only to have her battered body discovered almost three weeks later. According to investigators, the child was kept unconscious for several days after being confined to a local temple. The charge sheet alleged that she was “raped for days, tortured and then finally murdered”. They went on to say that the child was targeted because the men wanted to terrorise the Gujjar tribe into leaving.

The Jammu Bar Association was protesting the police, accusing them of holding prejudice against and conspiring against the district’s Hindus. The lawyers had asked for an investigation into the victim’s rape and murder case. Several of them attempted to prevent the police from submitting a chargesheet against the seven Hindu accused in Kathua’s chief judicial magistrate’s court.

In June 2019, a special court in Pathankot sentenced three of the six convicted in the rape-and-murder case to life imprisonment, while the remaining three accused, all police officers, were sentenced to five years in prison. Vishal, the seventh accused, was acquitted by the court.

4. Aparna Bhat and her fight against domestic violence and acid attacks on women

Aparna Bhat and her fight against gendered violence and acid attacks on women

Aparna Bhat is a fiery, quietly committed Supreme Court advocate for human rights who has primarily worked on cases involving violence against women and children apart from representing survivors of the Gujarat 2002 carnage. It was on Bhatt’s petition that the Supreme Court had banned the over-the-counter sale of acid and took measures to compensate and rehabilitate acid attack survivors.

Bhat had frequently discussed the importance of prohibiting the sale of acid in India. When lawyer Aparna Bhat first met Laxmi Agarwal in 2005, she was 15 and had undergone two surgeries in two months following an acid attack that had nearly charred her face and neck. Bhat not only joined Agarwal’s fight for justice, but she also filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in 2006, asking for a ban on the sale of acid, a case she fought for 11 years against successive governments.

While working on Agarwal’s case in 2005, Bhat advocated the passage of law specifically dealing with acid attacks. Until then, acid attack cases were frequent, and treated as sporadic crimes; perpetrators were frequently granted bail because often judges failed to see these as endemic and appreciate the extent of the victim survivor’s trauma. Bhat took the radical position of showing Agarwal’s face to the judge so that they could understand the extent of the young girl’s suffering. Aparna Bhat, who was only merely 35 at the time, persuaded Agarwal, who was only 16, to remove her dupatta and show her face to the judge.

Bhat had then stated in an interview that she chose this profession to help those in need. She went on to say that she wanted to fight for those who don’t have access to things, not for those who have it easy. She has been, since 2002 also taking up the 2002 survivor cases on behalf of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). She also represented, for CJP, children and women from Assam, denied inclusion in the NRC register and also Adivasi women battling land rights. When journalist and activist Teesta Setalvad was arrested in a false case of conspiracy and fabrication of evidence related to 2002 Gujarat riots, human rights advocate Aparna Bhat was part of Setalvad’s legal team that finally obtained interim bail for Setalvad from the Supreme Court in the case.

Case name: Laxmi v. Union of India and Ors. 

5. Bilkis Bano, Adv. Shobha Gupta in their fight against injustice and prejudice

On November 30, 2022, Bilkis Bano herself had approached the Supreme Court to contest the premature release of the 11 convicts who were given life sentences for the crime of gang rape and mass-murder during the Gujarat Riots in 2002. A writ petition has been filed by her, through Advocate Shobha Gupta, to the Supreme Court of India. On August 15, 2022, as India was celebrating her 75th Independence Day, these convicts had walked out of jail and were felicitated with garlands by their family and friends. 

Bilkis Bano’s fight is enough to send chills down one’s spine. During the communal violence that engulfed Gujarat in February- March 2002, in a particularly brutal attack, 14 members of Bilkis Bano’s family were killed, including Bano’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter whose head was smashed on a rock! On March 3, moving from one village to another, the group were spotted by gangs of men in two cars hunting for Muslims. At the time she was carrying Saleeha, her three-year-old daughter, in her arms. She recognised the men, mainly from her own village, who rushed towards her. They tore the child from her arms and smashed her head on the ground. The child died before her mother’s eyes. Three men gangraped the pregnant Bilkis. Her sister and cousin sister were also raped. One of them had given birth only the day before. The baby was with her. Every single one of the group of eight was killed including the baby. Bilkis, who had lost consciousness, was left for dead, but she survived. Thus began her fight for justice against the ones belonging to the majoritarian Hindu community. 

6. Seema Kushwaha- the lawyer who fought for Nirbhaya, Hathras rape victims

Seema Kushwaha, a young lawyer from Uttar Pradesh, was still studying when she decided to take up the Delhi gang-rape case in 2014. But even before that, she had joined the fight for justice – attending candle-light vigils and protests. In 2014, she was appointed Nirbhaya’s counsel, and she demanded the death penalty for all four adult convicts. Seema Kushwaha began working as a legal advisor for Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust on January 24, 2014, which the victim’s parents created to help women victims find shelter and legal help. 

The Nirbhaya rape case refers to a case in 2012 when a 23-year-old woman was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi. All four adult convicts (Pawan Gupta, Akshay, Vinay Sharma and Mukesh Singh) were hanged at Tihar Jail on March 20, 2020, approximately 8 years after the heartbreaking and traumatising event. Kushwaha was also the counsel on the Hathras case, which was about the gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in September 2020. Dealing with the Hathras gangrape and murder case, Kushwaha had said that this is an example of how Dalits continue to be oppressed. 

Case: Mukesh v. State For NCT of Delhi 

This list of lawyers and activists are not exhaustive. Many before us have come and fought this battle against Brahminical patriarchy, and even given up their lives for this cause. On this International Women’s Day, it is essential to realise the contributions made by the ones that came before us, and pledge to keep this fire raging. 


Not a Dalit Women’s Day in India

Dalit and Muslim women grapple with the triple burden of caste- community, class and gender

Dalits and Adivasis suffered violence and discrimination even in 2021

Struggle of women social reformers, Savitribai Phule, Fatima Shaikh recalled:  International Women’s Day

Remembering Fatima Sheikh, the first Muslim teacher who laid the foundation of Dalit-Muslim unity

Asma अब भी जिंदा है! (Ab bhi Zinda hai!) Asma is still Alive!

Nirbhaya & Bilkees Bano: Different Parametres for Justice?



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Go to Top
Nafrat Ka Naqsha 2023