The handbook makes a big point: words are powerful. They can change how people think and act. The judges in India need to understand that old ideas about genders are deep-rooted and can affect how they make decisions.
‘Mistress’, ‘prostitute’, ‘Chaste woman’ are some words that are commonly heard in courts’ corridors. It is not because the judiciary chooses to defame women but because our legal system is the reflection of our society. However, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud has decided that this won’t be the norm anymore. The Supreme Court on August 16, 2023 has released a handbook on combating gender stereotypes. This 30-pages long handbook will ‘assist judges and the legal community in identifying, understanding and combating stereotypes about women’.
CJI wrote, ‘I sincerely hope that this Handbook is widely read by all members of the legal profession in India to ensure that legal reasoning and writing is free of harmful notions about women.’
Eradicating the status quo, rebuilding narratives
This small book contains a glossary of gender-unjust terms and suggests better alternative words for judges to use when they’re writing their decisions. The handbook identifies common stereotypes about women, many of which have been utilised by courts in the past and demonstrates why they are not true, and how they may distort the application of the law. But the book is not trying to say the old decisions were bad, it’s just showing how we can do better in the future.
The book makes a big point: words are powerful. They can change how people think and act. The judges in India need to understand that old ideas about genders are deep-rooted and can affect how they make decisions. By consciously avoiding the use of stereotypes in decision-making and stereotype promoting language, the judiciary can foster an environment where gender equality is upheld and respected, as per the book.
Even though this book mostly talks about ideas about women, it also states that it is important to realise that stereotypes impact individuals from across the gender spectrum. It says, ‘Judges must be vigilant against all forms of gender biases.’
Words that may not be heard in courts soon
The handbook says that instead of using words such as ‘seductress’, ‘whore’ or ‘woman of loose morals’, the word ‘woman’ has to be used. Same for ‘chaste woman’, ‘career woman’ and ‘fallen woman’. ‘Concubine / keep’ to be replaced with ‘woman with whom a man has had romantic or sexual relations outside of marriage’. Words such as eve-teasing, prostitute, and housewife may soon be replaced by terms like street sexual harassment, sex worker and homemaker. ‘Housewife’ will now become ‘homemaker’. The word ‘mistress’ will be now described as ‘woman with whom a man has had romantic or sexual relations outside of marriage’. ‘Non-marital child’ or ‘a child whose parents were not married’ will replace the word ‘bastard’.
CJI Chandrachud’s poignant message: The power of words
‘Language is critical to the life of the law. However, the language a judge uses reflects not only their interpretation of the law, but their perception of society as well,’ writes CJI. He wants everyone to know that the way judges talk is really important. He says, ‘It’s not just about understanding the law, but also about understanding society.’ If the way judges talk has old-fashioned ideas about women, it can make things unfair.
CJI Chandrachud is known for his strong stands on creating equality in the society. Intriguingly, the handbook signifies the Supreme Court’s resolute march towards dismantling stagnant norms that have persisted for generations.