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Pakistan: Why are there so few female judges?

Jamila Achakzai in Islamabad
May 15, 2024

Across Pakistan and South Asia, women are struggling to become judges and rise up to senior judiciary positions. Those who have tried say Pakistan's patriarchal system is holding them back.

Pakistan's Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad administrates the oath of office to Ayesha Malik
Pakistan's first female Supreme Court justice, Ayesha Malik, was only appointed in 2022.Image: Press Information Department/AP/picture alliance

Khalida Rachid Khan says "male chauvinism" kept her from reaching the very top of Pakistan's judiciary.

Decades ago, Khan became the first female judge to break into the upper echelon of the country's courts.

"I was appointed to the Peshawar High Court in 1994, but male members of the then legal fraternity, especially lawyers, weren't welcoming to me and created hurdles to my work," she told DW.

Even though Khan had a chance to become chief justice under Pakistan's seniority system, she was "wondering how those who never treated me [with respect] as a judge could support me in that top office."

Eventually, she decided to take on a posting outside of Pakistan, becoming a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2003.

First woman entered Pakistan's Supreme Court in 2022

More than two decades later, women remain largely underrepresented among Pakistan's judges and judicial officers, with less than one in five being female, even though women make up close to half the population in Pakistan.

Only seven women serve in "superior courts," the highest echelon of Pakistan's judiciary, which employs 126 judges in the Supreme Court, Federal Shariat Court, and five high courts.

That includes Justice Ayesha Malik and Justice Musarrat Hilali on the Supreme Court. Malik was the first woman ever to be appointed to the court in 2022, with Hilali following in 2023. They are the only two females among 16 Supreme Court justices.

And the gender gap persists beyond justices, judges, and magistrates — according to the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan, women comprise only 17% of registered legal practitioners and 15% of prosecution officers.

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South Asia behind on female judges

The issue of women being underrepresented among Pakistan's senior judges is also seen in neighboring countries.

"The entire South Asian region has a disproportionate representation of women in their judicial administrations. They make up less than 10% of judges in the region. Less than one-tenth of advocates and judges in Nepal are women, while in India, women represent only 13% of the high court judges," high court lawyer Rida Tahir told DW.

While Tahir notes some improvements have been made in recent years, she also claims that true equality will only be reached once women make up half of the judiciary.

Pakistani Senator Hamid Khan, a member of the parliamentary committee on judges appointment, echoed this opinion.

"Women are underrepresented even in the superior courts of developed nations like the US, but their strength in our courts is very low," he said.

The lawmaker said there's also a shortage of female lawyers, especially in the sphere of criminal law, because women tend to go more into the civil law.

Nomination process outdated?

In Pakistan, civil judges and judicial magistrates are appointed after they pass the tests set up by the provincial public service commission. For district courts, judges are selected though exams by high courts or promotions.

At the superior courts level, appointments require recommendations from the Judicial Commission of Pakistan, which is headed by the country's chief justice and involves a parliamentary committee.

Lawyer Rida Tahir believes this system is based on outmoded notions of seniority, which are also hostile to women's desire to advance their careers.

She describes the nomination and promotion processes as non-transparent, and says aspiring female judges need to contend with burdensome workloads devoid of family-friendly initiatives as well as stereotypes against female lawyers.

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Pakistan's deep-rooted patriarchy

Retired justice Nasira Javed Iqbal, who previously served at the Lahore High Court, says patriarchy is the major reason for gender inequality in the country's justice system.

"Ours is a male-dominated society. By and large, they [men at the helm] can't see us [women] on par with them. They consider and treat us as a commodity and not human beings," she said.

"Just see we got women judges in high courts only after a woman [Benazir Bhutto] became the prime minister, while the first woman made it to the Supreme Court just two years ago. It's enough to show the deep-rooted patriarchy in our society," she added.

Ali Zafar of the Senate's Law and Justice Committee says lawmakers have done nothing to address the issue of fewer women working in courts.

At the same time, he said part of the responsibility is on lawyers who fail to provide the right environment for women to advance.

"Even the physical appearance in courts becomes an issue, when the courtrooms are so packed with people that there is no decent space for women lawyers to be able to argue their cases, so apart from social issues, such physical hurdles are discouraging women from joining the field of litigation," he said.

Does Pakistan need quotas for female judges?

With the gender gap persisting in both junior and senior levels of judiciary, there are growing calls for Pakistan to implement quotas for judicial appointments.

Opinions on it, however, remain divided.

Retired justice Nasira Javed Iqbal supports having special allocations for eligible women in judicial appointments, but Khalida Rachid Khan calls for a merit-based system where men and women will have equal opportunities to fight for senior positions.

Maheen Paracha, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog, said Pakistan's gender disparity on the bench and in the bar warranted a proactive, long-term approach to tackle structural discrimination and casual sexism in the legal community.

"This entails appointing competent women — who are not in short supply — to decision-making positions such as the Judicial Commission of Pakistan, and investing resources in making the legal profession, including education, training and other opportunities for professional development, more easily available to women across class and region," she told DW.

"Additionally, the nomination and appointment procedure should be made transparent and more democratic to avoid controversies," she added.

More women on the bench, according to Maheen, will make the courts more accessible for litigants and victims from vulnerable groups and thus improve public confidence in the judiciary itself.

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Edited by: Darko Janjevic