NOT MISS OR MRS; JUST COUNSEL -By Gloria Mabeiam Ballason Esq.
Me: May it please my lord.My name is Gloria Ballason.I appear for the…
Judge: (Cuts in) Miss or Mrs?
Me: Respectfully neutral my lord.
Me: Most respectfully neutral my lord.
Judge (Now visibly angry): I ask Miss or Mrs. because I need to know who is appearing before me!
There was pin drop silence. The Judge was clearly taken aback and upset at what he may have considered a recalcitrant response to his authority. Stunned by his sharp reaction, I took in his mood and did a quick Maths at what my chances could be if I insisted on remaining ‘neutral’.
I had travelled a tortuous road and a harrowing trip to arrive at the capital city of Abuja for a case in which I represent a client whose fundamental rights had been violated. Here was I steeped in (mis)fortune not alot better than my client’s. His was a case for which I had traded off sleep in order that I might dot the I’s and cross T’s. I had to exert myself beyond the norm because the issues were capable of challenging structural injustices. And now, all of the effort put into the paper work could be affected if I was considered insolent. I had shown up at 8:00am and found to my chagrin that my case wasn’t listed on the cause list.
‘Counsel, your case came up yesterday;’ a male court registrar said half-heartedly in a tone that was at best patronizing to an infant listener. I showed him the sms that was indicative of the date I had showed up in court. It took an hour of insisting I couldn’t pay for the registry’s mistake before my case was listed in pen as the last on the cause list.
With the odds clearly stacked up, the choices before me were clear: to take on a reputational risk from this first day of appearance or succumb to the humiliation. It didn’t feel smart to sacrifice the later on the altar of the former as the Client could be the biggest loser in what may end in a zero-sum game.
“Miss”, I regretfully and sadly answered. I could hear the sniggers from across the court. The Judge had began sitting at noon.The little drama seemed to have rejuvenated the famished audience of a preponderant male court at my expense. I was not amused.
Done with the hearings, I put back my heavy books into my large, draping knapsack, and made my way out of court.
“Counsehhl”, a male young wig beckoned, ‘shebi I fit follow you as you no geht ring abi?’
‘I guess you heard my objection in court about this sexist profiling? Now, back off!’ ; I said with my eyes cold as steel.
As the noon air hit me on my way to the elevator, it caused my thoughts to soak in what happened in court. Without the prefix Miss or Mrs, I was invisible to the court
I needed a title to elevate me to the court’s consciousness. Was it a matter of poor choice of words or was the court itself plagued by the sexism of our patriarchal society?
It reminded me of the conversation I had with a relative. The village meeting had a tradition of giving monetary gifts to the parents of any single who was going to get married. If the single was male, his parents got away with twice as much as the parents of the single female because ‘the male would pay the bills in the new home’. I had taken my time to explain how discriminatory that was and how the culture undermines the person in the female child.
Here was I before a court which seemed un-innoculated from the same dilemma of not recognizing that the female counsel was just as enough a counsel as the male who wasn’t required to provide any prefix or suffix to his name to be ‘known’, or ‘seen’. His dues were paid by reason of being male.
Speaking of dues? I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2007. Prior to that, I was a student leader- the only female amidst 28 males and had to make my way through by largely countering bullying with the credibility of my work. Four years after I was called to the Nigerian Bar, I bagged two Masters degrees in International Affairs and Criminology respectfully then went on to obtain a third Master in Laws (LLM). Since 2008 I write Law opinions every week for my Law columns in national dailies-more than 12 years of weekly research and writing quite apart from legal practise research. I have lost count on the number of postgraduate students I have taught as a part time resource lecturer at the Kaduna State University and Nigeria’s sole military university- the Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA).
For more than a decade I have led a public interest litigation organization that does vigorous legal work and yes, I do love my lipsticks and mascara and feel very comfortable in every decent thing that defines me as female just as I especially take delight when my folks call me by my pet name, “Woman”. But I am not a gender,object or thing. I am a human being with the complements of my humanity intact.
It is difficult to put into words the full implications of a 21st century court that does not comprehend the insidious ways that females are objectified and discriminated against and just how unfair the weight of one’s argument is confined to a title.
How right can it be that the marital status of a female lawyer is brought into issue every time she appears before the court while her male counterpart is excluded from such indignities? Is it too much to ask to be accorded the deserving professional respect or atleast, regards that insulate a female lawyer from that gnawing feeling of being less than a grown adult or a token lawyer?
In May 2012, Chief Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen had in open court advised female lawyers to resist being compelled by judges to state their marital status while announcing their appearance in court. Reacting to the then CJN’s advise, Prof. Ernest Ojukwu, SAN lent credence to the CJN’s advisory and noted that the practice was discriminatory,debasing and humiliating especially in the manner the question was often asked. While the CJN’s advise generated debate and was welcome by many female lawyers, the advisory was neither codified nor was it issued as directive.
This practice, former Human Rights Commission Chairman, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, says is akin to a treatment that makes it appear that female lawyers are not before a court of law but are items for sale in a cattle market moreso as these judges do not feel called upon to ask male lawyers appearing before them to announce whether they are married or still in the market.
Indeed, the Court can only be as clear about the constitutional rights to dignity of the human person and freedom from discrimination as it treats those who appear before it or it may well be just as plagued as the rest of the unlettered world which knows no better.
So let the courts become a model for the respect of rights in compliance and not in breach for if the court gets it right, chances are higher that the rest of society would follow suit.
Ballason is a legal practitioner. She writes from Kaduna.
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