It was her father who persuaded Fatima Beevi to pursue a law degree after she graduated in Chemistry.
Justice Fatima Beevi, the first Muslim woman to be appointed as a Supreme Court judge, passed away on Thursday at a private hospital in Kollam, Kerala. She was 96 years old.
Considered an ideal model for gender justice, she became a symbol of women’s empowerment by inspiring them to advance in legal professions and leave a mark in other fields. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan expressed in his condolence message that Justice Beevi’s life was a notable chapter in the empowerment of women in Kerala. He highlighted that through her, Kerala earned the recognition of being the first state in the country to appoint a female judge to the Supreme Court.
Vijayan emphasized Justice Beevi’s unique strength in overcoming all obstacles in life, making her an inspiration for the entire society, especially women. He mentioned her expertise in constitutional matters during her tenure as the Governor of Tamil Nadu.
Born in 1927 in Pathanamthitta, Justice Beevi was the eldest of eight children of Annavitil Meera Sahib and Khadeeja Beevi. Her father, a government official, wholeheartedly supported and encouraged her six daughters’ educational aspirations at a time when many Muslim girls refrained from pursuing higher education.
After completing her schooling at the Catholic school in Pathanamthitta in 1943, she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from a women’s college and pursued her law degree at a government law college in Thiruvananthapuram. Her journey was marked by the support of her father, who, inspired by the story of Anna Chandi, Kerala’s first female judicial officer, believed that a legal career would help her climb the ladder.
Justice Beevi not only made history at every level of the judiciary but also became the first woman law graduate to receive a gold medal from the Bar Council in 1950. She started her career as a junior lawyer in the Kollam District Court, breaking traditional norms by wearing a hijab in court.
After eight years, she joined judicial service as a magistrate, eventually becoming a district session judge in 1974. Her elevation to the Kerala High Court as a judge in 1983 and later as a Supreme Court justice in 1989 marked significant milestones in her illustrious career.
Justice Beevi served as a Supreme Court justice from 1989 to 1992, leaving behind a remarkable legacy in the field of law.
As a judge, Justice Beevi stood for equality in crucial decisions. She was part of the bench that heard cases related to certain provisions of the Karnataka Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation) Act in 1991. She shed light on constitutional provisions that safeguard every citizen against arbitrary use of power by the state or its officials.
After retiring from the Supreme Court, she served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission and later as the Governor of Tamil Nadu. In her role as the Governor, she gained headlines after rejecting the mercy plea of those convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. In 1999, after the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence for Nalini, Murugan, Santhan, and Perarivalan, Justice Beevi, as the Governor of Tamil Nadu, reduced Nalini’s death sentence the following year based on the grounds that she was a woman and had a daughter. However, she rejected the mercy petitions of the other three accused.
Her tenure as the Governor of Tamil Nadu was eventful. In the 2001 state assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, despite Annadurai DMK winning a majority under the leadership of J. Jayalalitha, they were disqualified from contesting elections for six years due to corruption charges. Justice Beevi invited Jayalalitha to form the government and was ready to administer the oath of Chief Minister.
Justice Beevi believed that the majority party had chosen her as the leader of the parliamentary group of the AIADMK. Subsequently, she recommended the President to recall the Governor on the basis that the Raj Bhavan failed to fulfill its constitutional duties.
Reflecting on her decision to invite Jayalalitha to lead the government, Justice Beevi said, “I opened the closed door. I am the first person appointed as Governor who was to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Not because there was a shortage of capable women appointed to the Supreme Court. There were capable individuals, both men and women. But doing so was the executive’s job.”
Regarding her decision years later to resign after returning to Kerala, Justice Beevi stated, “I had opened the closed door. I am the first person appointed to the Supreme Court. Not because there was a shortage of capable women appointed to the Supreme Court. There were capable individuals, both men and women. But doing so was the executive’s job.”
In 2001, commenting on her decision to invite Jayalalitha to lead the government, Justice Beevi said, “At that time, she was acquitted, and no guilt was established. Before making the decision, I consulted with Supreme Court justices, and they all agreed with me.”
She also emphasized that there was nothing wrong in taking appointments after retirement from Supreme Court justices. “But one should work correctly. They should not be swayed and should not be associated with any interests,” she said.
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