The Promising Paradox of Women and the Judiciary
The tale of the woman judge as one of, at best, indifference and, at worst, open hostility transcends time zones, jurisdictions, social, political, cultural and historical contexts. Those retold in Women and the Judiciary in the Asia-Pacific—a collection exploring the position and contribution of women judges in the Pacific Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, India, the Philippines and Malaysia, deftly edited by Melissa Crouch—are cases in point.
Take, for example, the ousting of Maria Lourdes Sereno, the youngest and first woman Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court (Imelda Deinla p. 182), the politically motivated suspension and attempted impeachment of Sushila Karki, Nepal’s first female (and to date only) Supreme Court Justice, known for her ‘zero tolerance’ approach to corruption within and outside the judiciary (Subas P Dhakal, Sharada Shrestha and Gauri Dhakal p. 249) or the threat of deportation faced by Vanuatu’s first, and at the time only, woman judge, Mary ManYassin, to prevent her from sentencing 15 male MPs who had been convicted of bribery (Anna Dziedzic p. 54). See too the experience of women excluded from the Malaysian Shariah judiciary until 2010 (Kerstin Steiner p. 266) and the collective amnesia relating to the life and career of Maria del Pilar Francisco de Villacerna about whom, we are told, ‘nothing is known’ and who was often displaced from her pioneering achievement as the first women lawyer admitted to the Philippine bar by the more familiar Natividad Almeda Lopez, later the first woman to sit on the municipal court of Manila (Deinla p. 183). At other times the woman judge is treated as an exotic outsider – expected to wear ‘feminine dresses or … ballgowns’ (Deinla p. 202) – or as hindered by her caring responsibilities, her desire to balance family commitments enough to question her capacity and skills as a judge (Dhakal, Shrestha and Dhakal p.252; Simashree Bora p.280).
However, Women and the Judiciary in the Asia-Pacific is more than just a collection of stories (though this would be enough). It is part historical record (see eg ‘appendix 1’ of Bora’s chapter listing the names of all the women judges to sit on Indian state courts since their establishment), and part call to arms: a record of where the woman judge has been, and where she might go in the future.
Over the course of 10 chapters, the collection reminds us that progress toward equality and inclusion ebbs and flows. And that ‘ground-breaking’ appointments are often followed by extended periods of isolation – see eg Dziedzic’s collation of women who have served on Pacific courts (p. 37). We are warned against the danger of searching for heroines and/or focusing on the achievement of ‘trailblazers’ which ‘capture only a very small part of women’s efforts to enter the legal profession’ and judiciary, and risk ‘sustaining an impression that there is equality [which] can hinder efforts to reduce it’ (Sarah Bishop p. 109-110). And we are challenged to check the assumption – perhaps reinforced by the comparative lack of attention by gender and judging scholars – that ‘the Global South is behind in terms of the number of women’ in the legal profession and judiciary (Crouch p. 155). Crouch refers to Sri Widojati Notoprojo, appointment to the Indonesian Supreme Court in 1966, 15 years before the appointment of the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the US Supreme Court and, I would add, some 38 years before the appointment of Brenda Hale to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.
Familiar questions are explicitly and deliberately reframed through a, to date, under-explored Asia-Pacific perspective: What does it mean to be a woman judge? To what extent are they able to enter and progress within the judiciary? What difference, if any, do they make? To what extent is their experience as a woman judge shaped by, and distinct from, the diversity and complexity of the regions in which they sit? It is an approach, Crouch and Natasha Naidu argue, that ‘acknowledge[s] and embrace[s] the diversity and complexity of the Asia-Pacific region and the challenges that women face in the judiciary in postcolonial contexts’ and that recognises that ‘to take these contexts seriously often requires us to start with a different set of questions and assumptions that is present in the existing literature on the Global North’ (p. 24).
In response, the contributors provide a deep dive into a wealth of original empirical research, comparative analysis and first-person interviews and reflections. The collection explores with authority, rigour and insight the promise and paradox of being a woman judge. It captures the ‘historical trajectory and contemporary impact of women in the judiciary in the Asia-Pacific’ (Crouch and Naidu p. 2), setting agendas for future research (Ulrike Schultz p. 301) and adding weight to the argument that ‘theoretical insights from the Global South … yield insights for the Global North’ (Samararatne p. 75). And it provides further evidence of how much our judiciary benefits from – and its decision-making is better for – the diversity of perspectives, views and experiences within it.