Gavel Down on Gender Bias

The stark under representation of women in Pakistan’s legal system, with a mere 17% of lawyers and a negligible number of female judges weakens the justice system itself.

Imagine a courtroom where justice seems to have a gender. In Pakistan’s legal system, that’s the reality. Women, who make up half the country’s population, are vastly underrepresented in law, leaving a gaping hole in the pursuit of justice. This lack of female judges and lawyers isn’t just a question of equality, it weakens the entire system. Just 17% of registered lawyers in Pakistan are women, and the number of female judges is even more dismal. This imbalance has far-reaching consequences, from a lack of understanding of women’s issues to a less robust legal discourse. But hope is still not lost with recent appointments of female judges to the highest courts signalling a shift in the narrative. By dismantling the barriers that keep women out and fostering a culture of inclusion, Pakistan can create a legal system that truly serves all its citizens.

The statistics paint a stark picture. As mentioned above, women constitute only around 17% of the total registered lawyers in the country according to the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan (LJCP). This means for every five lawyers, only one is a woman. Even more concerning is the abysmal number of female judges, with a mere 5.5% representation in the superior judiciary, which includes the Supreme Court, Federal Shariat Court, and five high courts. These statistics are not only alarming but quite clearly show that Pakistan lags far behind in creating a diverse and inclusive legal landscape.

Breaking down the numbers further, a report by the LJCP reveals that out of the 3,142 judges and judicial officers working across the country, only 572 (around 18%) are female. While the national average is concerning, a closer look reveals significant disparities across provinces. Balochistan has even lower percentages of female judges compared to the national average, with Balochistan hovering around 10% due to limited educational opportunities and tribal influences. Punjab and Sindh, being the two largest stations in Pakistan, have slightly higher numbers, reaching 16% and 14% respectively. However, the situation in Islamabad, despite being a smaller station, offers a glimmer of hope with a slightly better representation of around 19% female judges. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa stands out with a surprisingly high 22% female representation in the district judiciary. This statistic, despite the challenges the province faces, highlights the commendable efforts of women in KPK to fight for their rightful place in the legal system.

However, the challenges extend beyond the judiciary. The same LJCP report indicates that women make up only 15% of the total network strength of prosecution officers in Pakistan. Several factors contribute to this underrepresentation. Societal norms can discourage women from pursuing careers in law, particularly those requiring long hours and travel. Financial constraints further limit options, as female lawyers often face difficulties securing well-paying opportunities, especially in the crucial early years of practice. A more insidious factor is the entrenched patriarchal nature of the legal system itself. The lack of senior female role models and a culture of bias within the legal fraternity can create a hostile environment for aspiring female lawyers. This discourages many talented women from entering or persisting in the profession. The consequences of this underrepresentation are far-reaching. A justice system lacking female voices is less likely to adequately address the specific needs and concerns of women. Issues like domestic violence, sexual harassment, and child custody require a nuanced understanding of gender dynamics, which female judges and lawyers can uniquely provide. Furthermore, a diverse legal profession fosters a richer legal discourse and a more robust system of checks and balances. When women are excluded, the system loses a valuable perspective and becomes less effective in delivering justice for all. Moving forward, addressing this imbalance requires a multi-pronged approach. Encouraging girls’ education and promoting legal careers as viable options for women are crucial first steps. Additionally, initiatives providing financial aid and mentorship programs can empower women to overcome financial and professional hurdles.

More importantly, the legal profession itself needs to undergo a cultural shift. Implementing anti-discrimination policies and promoting diversity within law firms and bar councils will create a more welcoming environment for female lawyers. Simply increasing the number of women in the legal system is not enough. It is crucial to ensure their inclusion and recognition. This means creating a work environment where female lawyers feel valued for their unique contributions and expertise. They should be entrusted with a variety of cases, not just those stereotypically associated with women’s issues. This not only benefits the legal profession by fostering a richer pool of talent but also sends a powerful message to society at large, demonstrating that women are capable and deserving of equal opportunities in all areas of law.

The stark underrepresentation of women in Pakistan’s legal system, with a mere 17% of lawyers and a negligible number of female judges, not only undermines gender equality but weakens the justice system itself. This imbalance creates blind spots in understanding women’s issues and fosters a less robust legal discourse. However, the recent appointments of Honourable Ms. Justice Ayesha Malik and Honourable Ms. Justice Musarrat Hilali as the first female justices of the Supreme Court marks a significant milestone. Similarly, the elevation of Honourable Ms. Justice Aaliya Neelum to become the first female Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court is another step towards a more inclusive judiciary. Therefore, investing in girls’ education, promoting diversity within the legal profession, and fostering a culture of inclusion through mentorship and anti-discrimination policies, Pakistan can create a brighter future for women in law. This, in turn, will lead to a more equitable and effective legal system that serves all citizens and delivers justice that is truly fair.

Farhad Durrani

The writer is an Advocate of the High Court.