The Supreme Court of India today released a handbook on 'Combating Gender Stereotypes' offering guidance on how to avoid utilising harmful gender stereotypes, in particular those about women, in judicial decision-making and writing. The Handbook published on the website of the Apex Court aims to raise awareness against the utilisation of harmful stereotypes, particularly those prejudicial to women, explain what stereotypes are and help judges identify and avoid such stereotypes.

In the foreword of the handbook written by the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, it is stated that relying on predetermined stereotypes in judicial decision-making contravenes the duty of judges to decide each case on its merits, independently and impartially. In particular, reliance on stereotypes about women is liable to distort the law’s application to women in harmful ways.

"Language is critical to the life of the law. Words are the vehicle through which the values of the law are communicated. Words transmit the ultimate intention of the lawmaker or the judge to the nation. However, the language a judge uses reflects not only their interpretation of the law, but their perception of society as well", reads the foreword by the CJI.

The handbook 'Combating Gender Stereotypes' aims to identify the language that promotes gender stereotypes and offers alternative words and phrases, identifies common reasoning patterns that are based on gender stereotypes (particularly about women) and discusses why they are incorrect. Also, it highlights binding decisions of the Supreme Court of India that have rejected these stereotypes and can be utilised by judges to dispel gender stereotypes.

For example, for the incorrect word 'Adulteress' the preferred language is 'Woman who has engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage'; for the incorrect word 'Biological sex/biological male/biological female' the preferred language is 'Sex assigned at birth'; for the incorrect word 'Born a girl/boy' the preferred language is 'Assigned female/male at birth'; for the incorrect word; 'Concubine/keep' the preferred language is 'Woman with whom a man has had romantic or sexual relations outside of marriage'; for the incorrect word 'Prostitute' the preferred language is 'Sex worker'; for the incorrect word 'Unwed Mother' the preferred language is 'Mother' and many such similar words.

Today, terming it a "very unique initiative" of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud at the beginning of the hearing by the Constitution Bench stated, "We have prepared a handbook on combating gender stereotypes to assist judges and the legal community identifying, understanding and combating stereotypes about women in legal discourse. It contains a glossary of gender unjust terms and suggests alternative words or phrases which may be used while drafting pleadings as well as orders and Judgements, so it reaches out to lawyers as well as Judges."

The CJI further added "The handbook identifies common stereotypes about women, many of which have been utilised by courts in the past and demonstrates why they are inaccurate and how they may distort the application of the law. The intention is not to criticize or cast doubts on passed judgements but merely to show how stereotypes may unwittingly be employed. To raise awareness against the utilisation of harmful stereotypes, particularly those prejudicial to women, the handbook aims to explain what stereotypes are and helps Judges identify and avoid such stereotypes."

The handbook states that it must be remembered that every individual has a unique set of characteristics. "Women and gender justice movements across the world have worked hard to fight these stereotypes and secure justice for themselves, in the courtroom as well as outside of it. It is important to dispel these stereotypes and foster an environment that cultivates equal respect for individuals of all genders", the handbook says.

The Apex Court expresses hope in the Handbook that it will be a "catalyst for change within the legal profession, inspiring the Indian judiciary to discharge its duties impartially with a recognition of the inherent dignity and unique nature of every individual".

Click here to read/download the Handbook