Content warning: this article references experiences of sexism.
Prior to entering law school, I was told all sorts of cautionary tales. In particular, I was made well aware of the prevalence of sexism in the legal industry. As a woman who had already been in the workforce, I was aware of the various ways in which misogyny manifested and how people exercised it. I was also aware that being an outspoken woman of colour would attract additional hostility.
I remember walking through those glass doors for the very first time, imposter syndrome gripping me tightly – a phenomenon that was not unusual for me. I expected it would last for my first semester and then slowly subside, but this time was different.
Being a woman of colour, especially one who did not attend a select-entry or private school, in a prestigious institution proved to be far from palatable. As an outspoken individual, the feelings of isolation and consistent reminders that I didn’t belong became entrenched. The truth is, my very existence, particularly in an institution, is political. I am unable to exist without being a direct threat to the status quo, even though it is not of my own volition.
In my first semester, a friend and I competed in Witness Examination. For the majority of our rounds, we had the same student judge. This same judge consistently referred to me as ‘Shriti’ even after being corrected multiple times. For reference, my name is phonetic (Srish-ti). There were a plethora of times I corrected this particular judge. Heck, I even inputted my pronunciations into zoom. Although I could not pinpoint whether it was due to my race or my gender that this conduct was repeated, it was a subconscious display of the judge’s discomfort with my intersectional existence.
Although it would have been easier to smile and ignore, I repeatedly called them out and as a result I felt a sense of animosity from the judge. Since then, I was provided feedback at the end of our rounds that appeared highly arbitrary as it did not clearly demonstrate how I could have performed better. The only time my partner and I won a round was when we had a separate set of judges.
I anticipate that people may think that is a situation of chance. However, let me draw your attention to the following.
I remember the last round in which my partner and I participated, I was the acting legal counsel and performing cross-examination, judged by the same individual. During the cross-examination, I completely derailed the prosecution’s witness to the point that the witness demonstrated inconsistency with their witness statement. It was unequivocal to all parties that we had won. But no. We didn’t.
I do not dispute that some rounds my partner and I competed in had rightful outcomes because naturally, there are always wins and losses. But to me, this particular moment seemed to confirm all my doubts about my existence being unpalatable. As I said, I can’t point to it purely being an experience of sexism or racism, but it was one to do with the threat of my existence. Of course, it is always nice to win, but I was enraged about something more insidious. As the astonished faces of the opposition demonstrated, everyone knew the outcome wasn’t fair. Either way, it was just a competition, and the judge was a student, so I let it go. In fact, later in the year and in a different environment, this student ended up redeeming themselves to me after getting to know me better. They also ended up calling me by my actual name.
But, here’s the thing.
Misogyny isn’t typically blatant, but because of its subtle nature, it can be even more sinister. It is often displayed through the subconscious reaction one has to women, even more so when they are outspoken women of colour. This is because misogyny works as a type of prejudice that functions in contempt of those who unapologetically operate outside of the patriarchal constraints that they are expected to. However, when you add other forms of prejudice a person with an intersectional existence is likely to experience, it is likely to cause significant psychological damage.
In fact, one can like a woman as an individual, be well intentioned and still engage in misogyny. Because you can still belittle, humiliate and disrespect someone because anything disruptive to ‘acceptable’ power relations is threatening. Even without malice.
I wish to say that my experience in my first semester was a one-off, but unfortunately not. I had this behaviour repeated by a tutor of mine.
Similarly, I was called ‘Shriti’ for an entire semester, regardless of my correcting the tutor ample times and inputting my pronunciations on zoom. Everyone in class noticed it. Many remarked to me privately about it. But, my tutor did not change this behaviour nor hesitate to learn the difficult pronunciations of my male counterparts.
Every week, I did the readings, prepared as best as I could and regularly contributed to class. Often, when I raised my hand to contribute, my tutor would respond to me with an ‘okay’. But when a man contributed and sometimes even made a similar point, was rewarded with an ‘excellent’ and further discussion. I remember one of my final classes, ironically on gender, I said something along the lines of “the onus falls on men to prevent sexual harassment in the legal industry by facilitating conversations with other men and strongly encouraging them to change their behaviour”. Once again, I was given an ‘okay’.
There is no doubt that as future lawyers we will have to advocate for clients with vast lived experience that may differ from our own. By being transparent about our experiences, hopefully we can foster an understanding that involuntary factors are often at play for an intersectional existence – pushing them further to the margins. At the end of the day, to be empathetic will evolve us as advocates and we can start that journey here and now. This is why I’m sharing this. Because it’s important that we be able to hold others and each other accountable and most of all, learn.
Srishti Bali is a first-year law student.
The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of De Minimis or its Editors.