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WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: Leila Seth

Karthika S Nair | Mar 27 2020
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Leila Seth: Trailblazer Who Made Laws For Women

"We have the right to equality and if you teach people the right to equality and you teach people that you don't extinguish legal or sexual autonomy of a woman after marriage then things will change." -Leila Seth.

Leila Seth was one of the pioneers who broke shackles of social inhibitions and stereotypes attached to a woman and lead the path for other women in her field. She was told that she will not make it, yet today, she is remembered for her persistence, radical fights and words that form a special place in the history textbooks. She was the first woman judge in the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state.

Leila will be remembered as a trailblazer and an advocate who fought for women's rights. 

Early Life And Education

She was born on 20 October in 1930 to a very progressive family in Lucknow. In a nation where the couple often resent the birth of a girl child, Leila was welcomed by her parents happily after her two elder brothers. Her parents supported the idea of empowerment and treated her equal to her elder brothers. However, her father died when she was 11 years old and her mother struggled to educate her three children.

Leila studied in Loreto Convent, Darjeeling, after that she started working as a stenographer in Kolkata. She eventually met her husband Prem Seth and got married to him. They moved to London where he was working. Leila expressed her desire to study further but since she was with a baby, she wanted to go for something that she could do easily from home. That's how she managed to narrow down her career option to law because it was something she could do from home. 

At the age of 27, Leila Seth topped the London Bar exam, becoming the first woman to achieve the feat. This led to scepticism from various newspapers which expressed concerns about a married woman earning the top slot out of 580 students in the London Bar exams as it is futile due to her duties as a wife and mother. The newspapers also described her as "mother-in-law."

Marriage And Children

She married Prem Seth and has three children, Vikram, Shantum and Aradhana. Vikram Seth is a well-received author who wrote popular books such as 'A Suitable Boy'. Shantum is a teacher and Aradhana is a filmmaker. Her son Vikram came out as a homosexual and both of them voiced against Sec 377.

Career And Hurdles

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She came back to India with her husband after she passed the law exams. She started practising Law in Patna and worked under a senior advocate named Sachin Chaudhary. Chaudhary judged her initially and one day he bombarded her with sexist questions to which she answered calmly. 

At first, he suggested that she should get married instead of working, she replied that she is married. 

Then he said that she should have a child and Leila responded that she is a mother already.

Then, he took it up a notch and said that it will be unfair to her child not to have siblings and suggested her to have two children. Leila said that she has three children and that is when he ran out of questions. Chaudhary admired her drive and determination, so he started working with her. 

During her law practice, she faced more sexism. Most of her clients wanted advice from a man despite working hard on the cases. She was paid less when compared to her male counterparts. Once a senior lawyer simply said that he respects her opinion as opposed to letting her handle cases. These forms of sexism left her dejected but not broken.

Important Works

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The biggest turning point in the life of Leila Seth was when she had to fight against Dharamshila Lal, another woman lawyer in the High Court, in a rape case. Leila represented the survivor and was nervous about going up against her. Leila won the case for the survivor. 

She handled other cases concerning women like divorce cases and harassment cases. Leila wanted to push further and go for mainstream cases as well. 

She undertook Tax matters like Income Tax, Sales Tax, Excise and Customs,  Company Law, Constitutional Law, Civil, Criminal cases and public interest litigations (PIL).

In 1972, she launched her Supreme Court practice and handled tax matters, writ petitions and constitutional civil and criminal lawsuits etc. 

In 1977, the supreme court designated her as a senior advocate. She broke the glass ceiling in 1978 by becoming the Judge of the Delhi High Court.

Contribution To Women's Legal Rights And Other Cases

Leila Seth was a member of the 15th Law Commission of India from 1997 to 2000. She helped in pushing forward the law that gives daughters the right to inherit the father's property. As per earlier traditions, except in Kerala Nair families, daughters were never given father's property. Properties went to sons and often men who did not have sons didn't inherit their father's property, which went to his male sibling who has sons. 

What daughters received was the dowry given to her during the marriage even that went to her husband and in-laws. 

Leila Seth spearheaded the campaign for women to get father's property in the Hindu Succession Act (1956) and they finally got the right in 2005. 

For several years, she was the Chairperson of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

She studied how the TV series 'Shaktiman' was problematic for children as several kids lit themselves on fire or jumped off the building, hoping that Shaktiman will save them.

Under the Justice Leila Seth Commission, she enquired into the custodial death of businessman Rajan Pillai. 

The most important role was in the three-member Justice Verma Commission after the infamous Dec 16, 2012, gangrape. New and strict laws against rape were implemented where the minimum sentence is increased to ten years and the death penalty is given to cases where the victim is killed or left in a vegetative state. 

She also voiced against Sec 377 that criminalised homosexuals. The law was struck down in 2009 but was upheld in 2013. It was struck down again in 2018. 

She wrote an autobiography titled 'On Balance, an Autobiography'.

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Justice Leila Seth died at the age of 86 on 5 May 2017 at her residence in Noida. Her eyes and organs were donated for treatment and medical research as per her wishes.