When a male client grabbed 32-year-old Hafsa Ahmad from behind inside a crowded courtroom in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, she knew no colleague would stand up for her despite witnessing the assault. Why would the law firm she works for lose a high fee-paying client just to protect her, she thought to herself. She did not say a word and forgot the incident as if it had never happened.
Ahmad’s experience is not a one-off; 35-year-old Nida Usman Chaudhary, an award-winning lawyer and researcher, was catcalled by a male lawyer right outside the Lahore High Court, just when she was exiting the building after hosting a seminar to raise awareness about sexual harassment at the workplace. “It is ironic that this happened moments after I had finished speaking to a room full of lawyers about ways to curb harassment in the courts,” she told Foreign Policy.
In Pakistan, women lawyers who pursue litigation have to develop a thick skin to survive in the profession. Sexual harassment, condescending attitudes of male colleagues—and even some judges—and an overall culture of misogyny discourages them from practicing law and forces some of them to switch career paths.
Pakistan’s Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (enacted in 2010) makes it mandatory for government and private institutions to form inquiry committees to hear complaints of harassment, yet this law remains unimplemented in courts and law firms. Harassment, gender discrimination, and lack of internal recourse not only rob women lawyers of opportunities for networking and growth, but also has a lasting effect on Pakistani society.
Given the rampant culture of victim-blaming when it comes to cases of gender-based violence in Pakistan, the absence of a critical mass of women lawyers means victims of these crimes who approach the courts are met with hostility and are often forced to withdraw their complaints after reaching a so-called compromise with the accused.
Complainants who report gender-based violence often face character assassination during cross-examination, with opposing parties trying to question their credibility and blaming them for their own ordeal. It is easier to navigate this misogynistic environment with a woman lawyer on your side. However, without this support, female complainants are usually intimidated into silence. The gender imbalance in the legal profession therefore affects the criminal justice system’s ability to dispense justice.
Earlier this year, the Lahore High Court Bar Association elected its first woman secretary, Sabahat Rizvi, in a victory that women rights groups celebrated as historic. While Rizvi’s win was indeed a breath of fresh air, it is an exception to the norm. The Pakistan Bar Council, the highest elected body of lawyers in the country, hasn’t had a single female member since its formation by the Parliament in 1973. The absence of women in this body, according to Chaudhary, is linked to the way the electoral process works—which is structurally designed to keep men in power.
Members of the Pakistan Bar Council are elected directly by provincial bar councils. Since provincial bar councils have a disturbingly low number of women members to begin with, it’s mostly men picking the Pakistan Bar Council. A study conducted by the Women in Law Initiative found that in recent years, following a 2018 amendment to the law, the eligibility requirements to run in local bar council elections have become increasingly stringent and have resulted in the “gatekeeping” of corridors of power from women and young lawyers.
Only 12 percent of the lawyers in Pakistan who are registered as advocates are women, while in Punjab—the country’s biggest province by population—the percentage of women lawyers is 11 percent. The Punjab Bar Council has just one female member, Rushda Lodhi, who was a runner-up in the council’s last election in 2020. Lodhi was given the seat after a top-ranking male official was disqualified for having a fake law degree.
The late Asma Jilani Jahangir—Pakistan’s most well-known human rights defender and lawyer—managed to make her mark not just in Pakistan but around the world. Jahangir, who tirelessly defended Pakistan’s most marginalized groups, was the recipient of many human rights awards, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. With her sudden passing in 2016, young women lawyers she had mentored felt they had been orphaned. Jahangir’s younger sister, Hina Jilani, also a lawyer, is now carrying forward her legacy.
But what is common among the Jilani sisters, as well as other strong women lawyers like them, is the support from their families alongside their own perseverance. Most women in Pakistan, especially in conservative parts of the country such as in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are not as fortunate.
The 2022 Global Gender Gap Index Report, released by the World Economic Forum, ranked Pakistan 145 out of 156 countries surveyed—beneath Saudi Arabia and Iran— when it came to economic participation and opportunity. The United Nations Women Pakistan notes that women “restricted from taking up positions in the political/public sphere due to systemic challenges arising from patriarchal notions.”
In Pakistan’s patriarchal society, most women have to seek their fathers’ or brothers’ permission to work. Even when conservative families allow their daughters to work, they are asked to stick to so-called gender-suited professions, such as teaching. Since being a lawyer means interacting with men from different walks of life and regularly visiting courts and police stations, women who want to pursue litigation face opposition from their families.
Even if they manage to begin their practice without their family’s support, they have no one to turn to if they face harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Often their only two options are to either quit, or continue struggling silently in a thankless profession where the odds are heavily stacked against them. Most women choose the former.
Maryam Khan, 40, a Lahore-based lawyer who began practicing in 2016, told Foreign Policy she has to “overprepare” her arguments because she knows judges would grill her more than her male colleagues. She remembers representing a leading oil company in a high court where the judge kept asking her if she was the lead counsel in the case. “My name was on the case file. He knew I was the counsel, but he probably did not want to believe that a woman can handle an important case like that,” Khan said.
Several other women lawyers FP spoke to admitted that they experienced a similar condescending tone and line of questioning from judges, who often assume that female lawyers appearing before them are either secretaries of a senior lawyer or clerical aides.
Another form of misogyny that women lawyers face is the assumption that when they win a case, it is because the judge unduly favored them due to their gender, and not because their arguments were convincing. Moreover, women who are well-dressed are not taken seriously and accused of playing the so-called woman card to get a favorable ruling. Young women lawyers also patronizingly get addressed as beta (child) by male counterparts who want to underscore their seniority.
Barrister Fatima Shaheen, 36, now a TV anchor, pursued litigation for six years in Lahore before she realized she could no longer put up with the misogynistic behavior. She recalls an opposing lawyer once jokingly telling her, “If you dress like this, the judge will keep staring at you instead of issuing the order.” These hostilities and an unwelcoming environment force most women to quit practicing, which is why bar lounges, associations, and councils across the country remain a boys’ club.
The rise of religious extremism in Pakistan has had a parallel effect on the legal fraternity and tanked the progress toward fair representation of women lawyers in the field. Since its rise to prominence in 2017, the Sunni extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has been able to galvanize significant support among the working and middle classes in the country, and especially in the Punjab province. With the TLP’s rise, lawyers with extremist inclinations became more vocal.
In 2016, a 700-member lawyer alliance was formed to voluntarily prosecute individuals accused of blasphemy. The Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (Finality of Prophethood) Lawyers Forum was created in the lead-up to the TLP’s formation, when extremist clerics were holding protests against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed murderer of former Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer. (Qadri killed the governor in 2011 due to his support to a blasphemy-accused Christian woman.)
Aside from the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Lawyers Forum, there are other smaller groups of lawyers who describe themselves as the “guardian of the Prophet Muhammad’s honor” and share the TLP’s ideology.
In June last year, the Lahore Bar Association invited TLP chief Saad Rizvi, who has been arrested a number of times for violent protests by his group, to address a session about Islamophobia. Last month, two of the most prominent bar associations of the country wrote separate letters echoing TLP’s demands, and advised the police to not let Pakistan’s Ahmadi community, an already persecuted religious minority, observe the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha.
The increased influence of extremist factions, and the absence of proper protection mechanisms for judges and witnesses, mean that lawyers and judges have to tread carefully—further shrinking the space for women lawyers to form networks and effect change in the legal profession.
Article 25 of Pakistan’s Constitution says that there should be no discrimination on the basis of sex, yet the profession that is supposed to be the custodian of this law fails to curb gender-based discrimination within its own ranks. That there are no steps by representative bodies such as the Pakistan Bar Council to address this severe gender imbalance means that the problem is yet to be acknowledged, let alone resolved.
The situation is not too different in other parts of South Asia. According to recent data released by India’s Ministry of Law and Justice, only 15.3 percent of the country’s lawyers are women. In Bangladesh, the figure is 10 percent. Across the subcontinent, the patriarchal mindset that considers certain professions “unsuitable” for women ends up hindering their access to opportunities.
Women have been at the forefront of the struggle against military dictatorships and the restoration of democracy in Pakistan—and without their active participation in the public and private spheres, the country’s democracy will remain weak.