“If I can, so can You.”1
—Justice M. Fathima Beevi
Justice M. Fathima Beevi, who did the unthinkable in the late 1980s and broke the proverbial glass ceiling to become the First Woman Judge of the Supreme Court of India, passed away on 23-11-2023 at the age of 962. Her entry into the higher echelons of Indian judiciary opened the gates for women all across India and Asia to dream big and achieve the greatest heights of success.
As a humble tribute to the departed soul, we have attempted to recapitulate the inspiring life and career of Justice M. Fathima Beevi and the empowering legacy she left behind.
Early Life and Education
Born on 30-04-1927 in Pathanamthitta (Kerala) to Mr. Meera Sahib and Khadeeja Bibi, Justice Fathima Beevi did her schooling from Catholicate High School, Pathanamthitta, B.Sc. from University College, Trivandrum followed by Bachelor of Law from Law College, Trivandrum.3
*Did you Know? Justice M. Fathima Beevi was only one of the five female students pursuing legal education in her class.4
Her journey was not without its challenges, as she navigated a traditionally male-dominated profession with grace and determination. Her achievements paved the way for countless aspiring women in law, inspiring a new generation to pursue careers in the legal field.
Enrolled as an Advocate on 14-11-1950, Justice Fathima Beevi embarked on a journey that would see her rise through the ranks of the judicial system. Her career milestones stand as a testament to her exceptional legal acumen and tireless pursuit of excellence. In May 1958, she was appointed as a Munsiff in the Kerala Sub-ordinate Judicial Services, marking the beginning of her distinguished service on the bench. Her exemplary performance led to successive promotions — Sub-ordinate Judge in 1968, Chief Judicial Magistrate in 1972, and District & Sessions Judge in 1974.5
Justice Fathima Beevi’s expertise and dedication did not go unnoticed, and in January 1980, she was appointed as the Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal. On 04-08-1983, she reached another pinnacle in her career when she was elevated to the High Court as a Judge. Her appointment as a permanent Judge of the High Court on 14-03-1984 marked a significant chapter in her judicial career. Undoubtedly, her crowning achievement came with her elevation to the Supreme Court as a Judge on 06-10-1989.6
*Did You Know? Justice Fathima Beevi not only became the First ever woman to become a Supreme Court Judge, but she also became the First Muslim woman in Higher Judiciary and the First Woman to become a Supreme Court Justice in an Asian country.7
In a case concerning limitations on statutory power, principles of Natural Justice and applicability of Rule of Law, Scheduled Caste & Weaker Section Welfare Assn. v. State of Karnataka, (1991) 2 SCC 604, Justice Beevi said,
“It is one of the fundamental rules of our constitutional set-up that every citizen is protected against exercise of arbitrary authority by the State or its officers. If there is power to decide and determine to the prejudice of a person, duty to act judicially is implicit in the exercise of such power and the rule of natural justice operates in areas not covered by any law validly made.”
In an appeal to decide the Constitutionality of a State enactment, Assam Sillimanite Ltd. v. Union of India, 1992 Supp (1) SCC 692, it was observed,
“Notwithstanding the declaration of the legislature that any particular Act has been made to implement the directives specified in Article 39, it would be open to the Court to ignore such declaration and to examine the constitutionality of the same. The declaration cannot be relied on as a cloak to protect the law bearing no relationship with the objectives mentioned in Article 39.”
In a Civil suit, Ramesh Hirachand Kundanmal v. Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, (1992) 2 SCC 524, making notable observation upon who is a ‘necessary party’ under O.I R.10(2) CPC, Justice Beevi said,
“What makes a person a necessary party is not merely that he has relevant evidence to give on some of the questions involved; that would only make him a necessary witness. It is not merely that he has an interest in the correct solution of some question involved and has thought of relevant arguments to advance. The only reason which makes it necessary to make a person a party to an action is so that he should be bound by the result of the action and the question to be settled, therefore, must be a question in the action which cannot be effectually and completely settled unless he is a party.”
“If the evidence is of such a nature that two views are possible and the view in favour of the accused weighed with the High Court in acquitting them, this Court will be slow to interfere with the order of acquittal. If only the High Court has committed grave error in the appreciation of the evidence and misdirected itself by ignoring legal principles or misreading the evidence and arrived at the conclusion, the decision can be characterized as perverse or illegal requiring the interference by this Court under Article 136 of the Constitution of India. The judgment of the High Court if supported by cogent reasons has to be sustained.”
In a Civil suit, Rattan Chand Hira Chand v. Askar Nawaz, (1991) 3 SCC 67, the Court had the occasion to decide upon validity of a contract in purview of section 23 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872. Justice Beevi, in the light of given facts and circumstances, held,
“Every agreement of which the object or consideration is unlawful is void. The consideration or object of an agreement is unlawful when the court regards it as opposed to public policy. If anything is done against the public law or public policy that would be illegal inasmuch as the interest of the public would suffer in case a contract against public policy is permitted to stand. Public policy is a principle of judicial interpretation founded on the current needs of the community. The law relating to public policy cannot remain immutable. It must change with passage of time.”
After her retirement on 29-04-1992, Justice Fathima Beevi was appointed as the Governor of Tamil Nadu in 1997 Justice M. Fathima Beevi went on to become the Governor of Tamil Nadu on 25-01-1997. Appointing her and former chief justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court as the governor of Kerala, the then President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma. As the Governor of the State, she rejected the mercy petitions filed by four condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. However, after a series of fateful events, Justice M. Fathima Beevi had to resign from her Governorship. 8
Justice M. Fathima Beevi also served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission (1993) and the Chairman of Kerala Commission for Backward Classes (1993). She also received Hon. D Litt and Mahila Shiromani Award in 1990 and was awarded the Bharat Jyoti Award and the US-India Business Council (USIBC) Lifetime Achievement Award.9
It is with heavy hearts that we bid farewell to Justice M. Fathima Beevi. As we mourn her loss, let us also celebrate the legacy she leaves behind. Her contributions to the legal field and the advancement of women’s rights will continue to inspire generations to come. Her passing leaves a void in the legal community and beyond, as we reflect on a life dedicated to breaking barriers and championing equality. May her soul rest in peace and may her ideals of justice and equality continue to guide us in our collective pursuit of a fair and just society.
4. Justice Fathima Beevi: The First Indian Woman To Become A Supreme Court Justice, Feminism in India.
7. Justice Fathima Beevi: The First Indian Woman To Become A Supreme Court Justice, Feminism in India.