AFFIRMATIVE action, for all its merits in addressing systemic imbalances based on gender, ethnicity, etc cannot be justified in all situations. That realisation, it would appear, rightly clinched the debate on Monday in a meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice to examine the Islamabad High Court Act (Amendment) Bill 2016. Introduced by the MQM’s Nikhat Shakeel Khan, the bill proposed that a quota be instituted for women to be appointed judges in the Islamabad High Court. Aside from one, all the other committee members, including women legislators elected to the National Assembly on reserved seats, rejected the proposed amendment, asserting that appointments to the bench be made strictly on merit. It was also pointed out that there existed no precedent anywhere in the world for such a practice.
It may be tempting to draw parallels between the reserved seats for women in the legislatures and the suggested quota for women judges — particularly so given the objections to the proposal by female lawmakers elected on a quota — but such a comparison does not jibe with logic. Considered dispassionately, it is also frivolous. As vital as the job of legislators is to a functioning democracy, it is not a profession that demands the specialised skills required of members of the judiciary. Moreover, in professions such as law, medicine, etc where decisions can have a direct bearing on the lives of individuals, merit alone should be the touchstone of decisions about promotions. However, the lopsided gender balance in the legal profession as a whole is certainly a matter of concern. One way to address it is to institute affirmative action at the level of law colleges/universities with a quota for female applicants in order to bring more women into the legal fraternity. But for that to pay real dividends, it should go hand in hand with efforts to clean up the rough-and-tumble environment in the country’s courts which also deters many female lawyers from going into litigation practice. There must be more initiatives along the lines of the committee set up by Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah to look into matters relating to women judicial officers, including the hostile and boorish behaviour sometimes directed at them by lawyers and litigants alike. Bringing gender equality to the bench and bar is much required, and deserves more attention from the legal fraternity than it has so far given to it.