On Thursday, the Supreme Court collegium of India created history when it picked Indu Malhotra as the first woman advocate to be recommended for appointment as a judge of the SC, which has had just six women judges in 68 years.
Even as headlines celebrated this achievement, few people remembered the Indian woman who dared to go beyond the obvious and went on to become India’s first female Supreme Court judge.
Justice Fathima Beevi broke all the barriers of societal biases to take up a profession that was once considered to be a man’s prerogative. Here’s her inspiring story.
Born to Annaveetil Meera Sahib and Khadeeja Bibi on April 30, 1927, at Pathananthitta in the erstwhile state of Travancore (now Kerala), Fathima studied law at Trivandrum’s Law College. Despite being only one of the five women students in her class in the first year (a number that dropped to three by the second year), the hardworking student was already on her way to making history.
In 1950, Fathima became the first woman to top the Bar Council of India’s exam. The same year in November, she enrolled as an advocate and started her career in Kerala’s lower judiciary, much to the displeasure of many people who raised their eyebrows at a headscarfed woman in the Kollam court.
Over the next three decades, Fathima 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.
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In October 1989, six months after retiring from the Kerala High Court, Fathima was appointed as a Supreme Court judge in October 1989. For India, it was a watershed moment that paved the way for women in India to occupy positions in the higher judiciary.
The first Muslim woman Judge to be appointed to any Higher Judiciary, she also earned the distinction of being the first woman Judge of a Supreme Court of an Asian nation.
According to senior advocate Dushyant Dave, during her illustrious tenure, Justice Beevi was as courteous as she was balanced, always well prepared with the case history as she sat on the bench.
After retiring in 1992, Beevi served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission. In 1997, she was appointed as the Governor of Tamil Nadu, an eventful stint that ended in in 2001.
Since Beevi’s appointment in 1989, only six more women judges (including Indu Malhotra) have been appointed to India’s apex court. Furthermore, there have been only two periods when it has had more than two sitting woman judges at the same time.
As Fathima said in an interview with the Week, there is a need to elevate more women to the post of judges 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. 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”, Fathima said.