She is the nation’s top corporate lawyer with an unmatched pedigree. Daughter of former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee, who is known for his commitment to human rights, Zia studied law at Cambridge and Harvard. She worked as Corporate Associate at New York firm Baker & McKenzie for four years before getting back to India to marry childhood sweetheart and gaming and hospitality tycoon Jaydev Mody. Her firm AZB & Partners is India’s largest and most-respected corporate law firm specializing in mergers, acquisitions, project finance, private equity etc. She is also a member of the Securities and Exchange Board of India's Standing Committee on Mutual Funds, and of the Capital Market Committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Zia took time off for a brief chat with Vaahini on women’s legal rights in India. Following is her take on the same : “If you look at the last 20 years which is a fairly long time, there has been a significant improvement in legal rights of women. There have been legislations to prevent dowry harassment, sexual harassment and even legal changes to the grounds for granting a divorce, so that the woman gets a fair share when there is a separation. The problem, however, is that one can’t tell how successful these legislations have been on the ground. That boils down to society – how willing it is to accept these changes and how long it will take. For instance, how many women in rural India can even spell the word ‘rights’? Even in urban India, in the middle class, which is traditional and goes in for arranged marriages, there is no sense of agitation on these issues.”
“My own view is that the lot of women will change when the village woman manages to get a voice. She will get a voice if microfinance reaches her and she can bring dollars to the table and that money allows her to speak. People may laugh at the women’s quota in the panchayat saying she just sits on the chair, and it’s her husband standing behind her telling her what to do. Or even the compulsory directorships for women on boards of companies. My own take on this is that not all men on boards of companies are intelligent. If they were they wouldn’t get into trouble. These legislations are a step forward…one step at a time, we are headed in the right direction.”
What about the Child Marriage Act, which bans such marriages but recognizes the status of the child as a married woman? Isn’t there a disconnect in such laws?
“If she is married against her will or she is a child and does not know better, can she also suffer the legal impediment of being a nobody? Here’s a 15-year-old who does not know what’s happening to her life and the law is also telling her what happened to you is void, illegal and people can fool around and dump you...there is a an issue to be addressed.”
“Similarly, laws which concentrate on separation, alimony need to become more strong and liberal because today even if you go to court for alimony you don’t get anything except social stigma. Every judge is a bit paternalistic and it is difficult to sustain a battle societally. That’s where we haven’t progressed. It is important that there is a clearer statement on what property the woman is entitled to in case of a divorce. This compensation guideline will remove any arbitrariness on behalf of the judge.”
“Presently, I don’t think a woman going through divorce has much option. Law can provide a framework but society has to change, mindsets have to change. Unlike India where in spite of laws nothing gets done, Nordic countries and the US provide a clear legal path for women to agitate for their rights. They can go to court, ask for a jury trial and they get it fairly soon. Similarly, we can take guidelines from England where law has clearly defined how much a housewife is worth.”
“Women have to become more aware of their rights. The Prevention of Sexual Harassment was a important legislation but not many women are aware of it. They are not aware that husbands cannot ride roughshod over them, They don’t know that domestic violence is punishable. Many women do not go to the police station. They don’t want to raise their voice. They’d rather leave the job or stay quiet even in extreme cases when their husbands are sexually harassing their daughters.”
For professional women, Zia has this advice. “At work, a woman needs to conduct herself sensibly, professionally. Do your job, go home. Be friendly though not familiar.” For the increasing number of women who are opting for careers in corporate law, this is what she has to say: “ Slog it out, have passion and don’t sway away from your purpose. “