Fathima Beevi is a name every law aspirant is familiar with. She was the first woman to be appointed a Supreme Court Judge and also the first Muslim woman in Higher Judiciary and the first woman to become a Supreme Court Justice in an Asian country. Her judicial career is indeed an inspiring journey.
Fathima Beevi was born on 30th April, 1927 at Pathanamthitta, in the Indian state of Kerala. She was the eldest of six sisters and two brothers. She completed her schooling in her native place in 1943 and then moved to Trivandrum for her higher education. After completing B.Sc. from University College, Trivandrum, she enrolled herself to study law from Government Law College, Trivandrum.
After obtaining her law degree in 1950, she gave the Bar Council of India exam and became the first woman to top the exam, and received the Bar Council gold medal, the first of her historic achievements.
Fathima Beevi enrolled as an advocate and began her career in the lower judiciary in Kerala on 14th November, 1950. After eight years, she took the job of the Munsiff at the Kerala Subordinate Judicial Services. As the years went by, she took up various positions, serving as the Subordinate Judge of Kerala, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, the District & Sessions Judge, a Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and Justice of the Kerala High Court. On 6th October, 1986, within six months of retiring from the Kerala High Court, she was appointed as a Justice in the Supreme Court of India, becoming the first woman ever to do so. By being appointed to the Supreme Court she paved the way for women to pursue careers in a male dominated judiciary.
After her retirement from the Supreme Court in 1992 Fathima Beevi served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission and the Chairman of Kerala Commission for Backward Classes. She received Hon. D.Litt and Mahila Shiromani Award in 1990. She was also awarded the Bharat Jyoti Award and the US-India Business Council (USIBC) lifetime achievement award.
On the 25th of January 1997, she was appointed as the Governor of Tamil Nadu by the then President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma. As a Governor, a major decision she took was rejecting the mercy petitions filed by the four condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. While serving as the Governor, she also served as the Chancellor of Madras University.
Fathima Beevi continues to be a role model for every woman aspiring to enter the historically male dominated judiciary. She opines that although the judiciary is patriarchal, there are many women in the field now. She has opened the door and now it is for the others to enter and increase the representation of females in the courts of law. Let us hope to see a significant increase in women’s representation in higher judiciary in future.