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You Should Know the First Indian Female Judge

On Friday May 5th, Justice Leila Seth died of cardiac arrest in her Noida home. She was 86 years old. Leila will be remembered her kind heart, her passion for justice, and for breaking many glass ceilings for women in India.

Leila was born October 20th, 1930 in Lucknow, India. She is survived by her husband Prem Nath Seth and their three children, one of whom is novelist Vikram Seth.

In 1958, only a few months after her second son was born, Leila became the first woman to top the London Bar Exam. Many were shocked, even outraged at the fact that out of the 580 students who took the exam, a married woman with children topped it.

In 1959, Leila enrolled to be an advocate in the Calcutta High Court where she handled tax matters, civil, company and criminal cases, and matrimonial suits. In 1978, she became the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, and in 1991, she was appointed the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh. Leila was the first woman to achieve this ranking, as well.

In the four decades she served as a judge, Leila has pushed amendments for the Hindu Succession Act, which gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property. Additionally, she has spoken out for the LGBTQ community, among her many other accomplishments and good deeds.

On supporting the LGBTQ community, she said, “What makes life meaningful is love. The right that makes us human is the right to love. To criminalize expression of that right is profoundly cruel and inhumane.”

She was also a member of the committee that was formed to rethink rape laws in India after the gang rape crime in Delhi that shook the world in 2012. The committee was made up of sixteen people, four of which were women.

On December 16th, 2012, a 23-year-old student was raped, beaten and tortured aboard a private bus by six individuals, including the driver. She was abused with a metal rod so bad that most of her intestines were ripped out. Her bravery and desire to live kept her alive through many surgeries, but she ended up dying because her injuries were too severe. She became known as Nirbhaya, meaning fearless.

Across the world, protests began against the Indian government for failing to provide adequate security for women. Women had struggled for too long to end rape culture in India, and many were discontented by the government’s practice of denying the existence of rape, and of blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator of rape crimes.

Leila was contacted about the position to a member of the committee a week after the horrible crime was committed, and almost turned it down due to a previous commitment. She said in hindsight that she was very happy she was persuaded to join. The committee debated things like whether or not the crime of rape should be gender neutral and whether the punishment should be life in prison or death.

Many new laws were instated after the committee’s report was turned in, including a law that made the minimum sentence for rape perpetrators 20 years. The report also called for six new courts solely for the handling of rape crimes. Leila’s efforts also established that stalking is an offense.

Leila Seth should be extremely admired for her life’s accomplishments and the strides she took for women everywhere. She will be deeply missed by the world. As per her wishes, her body will be donated to the Army Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi for the advancement of medical sciences and research. There will be a memorial held in her honor on May 28th.

Featured Image by Tori Rector on Flickr

Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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