Please tell us about yourself
For Saxena LLM’19, it was literature that led her to a career in women’s rights law. When she was a college student in India, her family expected her to pursue a degree in engineering, but her interest in the humanities pointed her down another path.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
“I always had an inquisitive mind, so I decided to pursue literature, which was a very unconventional academic choice in my family,” she said. As an undergraduate at the University of Delhi, Saxena was assigned a paper for which feminist literary theory was a sub-topic. Exploring feminist literary theory, and feminism more broadly, for that assignment opened her eyes to the ongoing struggle for women’s equality in India.
“My popular notions of what was wrong, and what was normal were really challenged,” she said. She began to notice discrimination in Indian society at large, and even began to pick up on preferential treatment toward her older brother, which she had otherwise just accepted as routine.
What did you study?
“It made me uncomfortable but also empowered me,” said Saxena. After completing her studies in literature, she decided to explore the possibility of a career in law and enrolled in the degree program at the University of Delhi. There, she continued to pursue her study of women’s issues, taking a course called Gender Justice.
“That course led me to realize that I wanted to pursue a career in women’s rights, [because] it was at that point that I was able to contextualize my knowledge of feminism by studying it within the legal space,” she said.
Tell us about your career path
During law school, she sought out professional experience both in women’s rights and in general litigation practice, completing an internship with the Honorable Justice S. Muralidhar, known for progressive judgments on women’s rights and criminal law, and working with a lawyer who practiced at the Supreme Court of India. But one internship, in particular, had the most lasting impact: Saxena took a position working with Indira Jaising, a prominent human rights lawyer in India who founded the Lawyers Collective, a non-governmental organization that focuses its work on cases involving domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. Jaising would eventually become her full-time employer after Saxena graduated from law school and joined her litigation chambers.
For much of her time working alongside Jaising, Saxena worked on a high-profile case involving sexual harassment allegations against a judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, one of India’s constitutional courts of appeals. Jaising’s office represented a female district judge who reported that the judge, then her supervisor, had sexually harassed her. In response, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), Parliament of India, initiated removal proceedings against the judge, essentially the equivalent of impeachment in the United States, that would have removed him from his seat on the bench if the allegations against him were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“It was a full-fledged trial, and we had to navigate a lot of legal issues surrounding whether or not [the victim] could even have a lawyer to begin with, and whether she had to discharge the burden [of proof] or the counsel for the Committee/Government of India had to discharge the burden. It wasn’t a regular sexual harassment hearing, it was a constitutional issue,” Saxena explained.
In her research for the case, she devoted considerable attention to the law of countries beyond India, which currently lacks a robust set of precedents for sexual harassment cases.
“I did a lot of research on America law because Title VII jurisprudence is very well developed, and also looked to Canadian laws to see what kind of standards of proof are being used to further sexual harassment jurisprudence,” she said.
Ultimately their client lost the case, highlighting the challenges of the high burden of proof for removal proceedings and also the lack of recourse for women who are victims of judicial sexual misconduct. Saxena has seen echoes of the case in the United States.
“The Judge Kavanaugh hearings were extremely personal for me for that reason,” she said. “I realized that the problems are the same everywhere. It’s the same question — her word against his — and her word is simply not enough.”
The removal case inspired her to seek out more exposure to international law, which ultimately led her to the LLM program at Penn Law.
“The work that I did during that [case] made me realize the kind of infrastructure and the kind of lapses [within that infrastructure] that exist in the legal system in India. Because I’d done a lot of research on U.S. and Canadian laws on the subject, I felt that studying here would be helpful to challenge my perceptions of what is good or bad, and what can be done,” Saxena said. “[I felt that] It’s best to learn in a country where the jurisprudence is developed to a larger extent so that I can gain some exposure that will help me to make a meaningful change back home.”
Your experience at Penn?
She was drawn to Penn Law in particular thanks to its array of programs focusing on international women’s rights law, including the Women’s Global Leadership Project with UN Women, spearheaded by Associate Dean for International Programs Rangita de Silva de Alwis. Saxena also cited the Transnational Litigation Clinic, led by Practice Professor of Law Sarah Paoletti, as offering valuable experience in human rights.
During her first semester, Saxena prioritized women’s rights in her coursework, taking classes such as Feminist Legal Advocacy and Employment Discrimination alongside more broadly applicable subjects like Sentencing and Constitutional Criminal Procedure. She has found that her coursework has already begun to reshape the way she thinks about women’s rights.
“In particular, the Feminist Legal Advocacy class was amazing. It challenged my notions of what I thought was normal and exposed me to some of my own prejudices and biases, and the way I view laws from a singular or binary point of view, especially when it comes to sexual harassment. I really value that a lot,” she said.
In recognition of her extensive record of work on women’s rights and sexual violence, the Law School awarded Saxena the 2018-19 Human Rights Scholarship. After graduating, she plans to continue working in international women’s rights with the aim of eventually returning to India and pursuing legal reform.