Courtroom Misogyny: The Law Can't Do What The Courts Won't

Courtroom Misogyny: The Law Can't Do What The Courts Won't
Time and again, the law fails to protect the woman of Pakistan. It lets murderers, rapists, pedophiles and abusers walk out of courtrooms with their heads held high, while their victims cower in fear, or worse still, remain silenced and unavenged, buried six feet under. While grass-root activism and rallying calls for change can make a difference sometimes, the truth is that the law needs to change in favor of the women of this country who face enough oppression, violence and discrimination to make Pakistan the third worst country in the world for women. However, can there be any hope for the law to protect women when the very source of that law lacks gender sensitivity, and in fact, makes women feel unsafe and unwelcome? In other words, how can the law protect women, when the courtroom itself is the site of so many instances of misogyny, discrimination and oppression?

Nearly all the women lawyers The Friday Times spoke to, talked about how the courtrooms in Pakistan make women feel unwelcome and unwanted. Khadija Siddiqui, a barrister from Lahore who gained public attention after she was stabbed in the neck 23 times by a classmate, says that the general attitude towards female lawyers, and especially female litigators is that they should restrict themselves to chamber work, or go into the corporate sector, as opposed to practicing litigation in the criminal courts. She says criminal litigation especially requires a certain degree of aggression, which can be difficult to portray if you're a woman because of the constant misreading. "They'll say something like 'oh women are just emotional, they get too passionate, or angry," she says. This isn't too unlike what women generally have to hear in any professional field where they need to be assertive, as depicted by Imran Khan's sexist jab at Maryam Nawaz recently.

Khadija says as a result of this discrimination and sexism, a lot of women end up leaving criminal law. "I think gender sensitization is very important; until we get an inclusive environment, women will stay away from practicing in court," she said. While she herself made it her mission to not end up being sidelined and only getting irrelevant and unimportant tasks like obtaining court dates for senior lawyers, unfortunately this is something that happens to a lot of young female lawyers in the courts. "We ourselves need to make ourselves so stable and competent, that no male lawyers can dismiss our talent and delegate such meaningless tasks to us," she says. Khadija also believes that the lack of representation and the lack of positive role models to look up to also makes it harder for women to want to stick around in an environment where they know they will always be the outsider.

This vicious cycle of women leaving courts because of a lack of gender sensitivity, which ends up resulting in even less gender sensitivity than before was highlighted by advocate Aminah Qadir as well, who is a lawyer at the Lahore High Court. She says that because of her gender, and because she generally looks younger than she is, she experiences patronization on a fairly regular basis. "They'll say stuff like 'beta or choti behen (younger sister) perhaps you haven't studied the law too well', and I obviously don't appreciate these things because I want to be treated as an equal," she says. She also points out other cases of discrimination and bias, and says that she observes how her male colleagues aren't asked as many questions to justify their arguments as she is, or how if she interrupts a judge, he gets offended, but a male lawyer can seem to interrupt everyone, including judges many times without anyone caring.

Lawyer and researcher Nida Usman Chaudhry recalls how her professors at law school used to discourage women from going into the courts, citing 'safety reasons'. She says that while this was a well-intentioned concern on their part, it ended up doing more harm than good. "The impact of this was that women couldn't advance and progress as quickly in the profession as men did," she says, adding, "If you don't go to the courts, then your attendance will not be marked, and the judge won't know you or your work, and when the time for nominations comes around, you won't be in the running." She says that even if the idea to keep women away from courtrooms came from a concern about their safety, it created an environment where women were systemically kept behind, as she found out in a study she conducted.

Findings of Nida Usman Chaudhry's study.


She also expressed reservations about how the Bar Council operates, questioning its ability to perform both regulatory and representative functions at the same time. "The people who bring you into power and vote for you, are the same lawyers you are supposed to regulate. So how are you going to effectively regulate them without worrying about losing your vote bank?" she asks. Nida says the reluctance of the male dominated bar to back female candidates also reveals a feeling of insecurity and threat when it comes to including diverse voices. "When the Bar has to act as a body of persons, they think that a woman will not be able to replicate the brotherhood and fraternity that her male counterparts would," she says, adding that she has heard of incidents where female Bar candidates were told to their faces by male lawyers that they wouldn't be voting for them on account of their gender.

When TFT asked advocate Rabbiya Bajwa, who is currently running for the Vice President of the High Court Bar, about her experience as a Bar council candidate, she said that she personally has not experienced any blatant discrimination, however the sexism in the law industry comes from the same sexism that is rampant in society as a whole. She acknowledged that women have to struggle slightly more than men do to get themselves taken seriously in the field, but once they pass that initial struggle and are able to take a stand once, then it becomes easier to coast past everything else. In addition to the initial struggle to be taken as seriously as their male colleagues, Rabbiya said the class divide was also very strong in the law industry, saying that women from more privileged backgrounds find opportunities more easily than those with relatively modest backgrounds, who may not have a strong family backing them.

When criminal lawyer Jannat Kalyar was doing research for a study on women lawyer's participation and representation in bar politics, she took this question of class divide into consideration, and found that a lot of people were doubtful about the attitude of the judges as well, saying they behaved in discriminatory manners as well. "Whenever there's a family court case, the judges tend to be more distrustful of the female victim, and if a female lawyer is representing the female victim, then the lawyer's seriousness is questioned," she said. But surprisingly, she also found that there were some judges who conceded that women lawyers are more thorough when it comes to studying up on cases, which she says shows that there at least some sources of encouragement in the courtrooms.

So what's the way forward? Nida pointed out that a lot of legal firms say that they don't hire a lot of women, not because women aren't talented, but because they will 'eventually get married and have to tend to their houses', which would make them 'unwise investments'. She says this reminds her of her law professors who acknowledged that the courtrooms were unsafe, but their only solution was to keep women out instead of making the courts safer. Likewise, the law firms that don't hire women out of fear of cultural expectations and duties getting in the way never seem to look into how they can make their workplace more inclusive, by maybe offering daycare facilities, or flexible working hours. She also says that if courts are hiring 100 male staff members, they should make sure that they have at least 40-50 female staff available as well, if only just for the optics, because that will immediately create a more comfortable environment.

Ultimately, there can't be much hope for the legal system to give respite to the general majority of women in this country, if the women working in courtrooms and legal chambers can't even escape misogyny and sexism. To move forward, we need to include more women, and then treat them with the same respect we award to men.

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.