KARACHI: The pattern of women being consistently under-represented in the country’s mainstream workforce also holds true for the judiciary, where women constitute a mere 14 per cent of the province’s judges from the lowest to the highest tier.
The reasons range from socio-cultural restrictions and a patriarchal societal mindset to on-the-job pressures such as relocation and courtroom hooliganism.
Ranging from the lowest tier of civil judges and judicial magistrates to the highest rank of high court judges, there are 480 judges in the province. Of these, only 68 are women. Read grade-wise, there are three, or eight per cent, female judges in the Sindh High Court out of a total of 37, and eight (13 per cent) female district and sessions judges out of a total of 62. Out of a total of 82 additional district and sessions judges, only 15, or 18 per cent, are women, while of the 92 senior civil judges there are only 19 (20 per cent) women. Amongst the 201 civil judges and judicial magistrates in the province, there are only 23 women (11 per cent).
Retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, a former judge of the Supreme Court and former chief justice of the Sindh High Court, told Dawn that it was regrettable that few women entered the high court as judges. But even when appointed, he said, female judges tended to be promoted from amongst the district and sessions judges rather than the lawyers. “Rarely has a female judge ever been selected from amongst the lawyers,” he observed. “Most of the female lawyers show a preference for working in offices as corporate lawyers. If ever they do go to court, it is usually for minor work such as seeking an adjournment or filing papers. They rarely argue a case, and hence they have less exposure.”
He believed that this was a major reason why women were not appointed as judges of the high court, especially from amongst lawyers. “This is despite the fact that the number of female lawyers has increased dramatically since I entered the legal profession about 50 years ago,” he commented.
Retired Justice Zahid pointed out that there were now many more incentives to join the profession: “Salaries have increased, facilities such as vehicles are provided and many of the judges posted in small towns or in the interior of the province are also given houses.
“Yet few women come into this field,” he told Dawn, musing upon the possibility of socio-cultural restrictions. “It could be because families do not allow their daughters to enter the courts. Or, married women could face problems if they, as judges, are posted somewhere other than where their spouses are. In the case of unmarried women, it is possible that their families do not accept their being posted to remote areas and living there on their own.”
‘A matter of mindset’
Socio-cultural factors may be at play but retired Justice Majida Rizvi, formerly a judge of the Sindh High Court and former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, blamed the mindset of the appointing authorities.
“It is not a matter of female lawyers being less competent and therefore not being selected,” she told Dawn. “The fact is that the appointing authorities are simply not selecting women in sufficient numbers.” She raised the point that if competence were an issue, why was it that some male judges were appointed and later sacked for not being up to the job.
“I certainly do not believe that competence should be compromised,” argued the former judge, “but for argument’s sake, why is it that women of a certain professional ability are not selected as judges, while men of the same ability are appointed?” She observed that the men and women in the profession were products of the same society and similar educational institutions, so to hold one as being more competent than another would, in the absence of hard evidence, be unfair.However, the retired justice Rizvi conceded that there had been occasions when certain advocates had tried to exert undue pressure on some female judges, in order to try and get favourable verdicts. “These incidents were reported and disciplinary steps were taken,” she said, “but they could constitute a reason for some families to discourage their womenfolk from going to court.”
Retired justice Rizvi added that there was not a single woman amongst the judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and hardly any female judges in the high courts of the other provinces. In fact, both she and retired justice Zahid agreed that the number of female judges was higher in Sindh than in any of the other provinces.