IT is encouraging to note parliamentary debate on gender imbalance in the Supreme Court even as the government drags its feet on the issue.
On Tuesday, the Senate Standing Committee on Law and Justice deferred a bill tabled by PPP Senator Babar Awan in May calling for a 33pc quota for women judges to be appointed to the SC through an amendment of the Supreme Court Act, 1997.
Earlier, a similar bill in the National Assembly mandating a 25pc quota was opposed.
Although to date, Pakistan is the only country in South Asia to never have appointed a woman as SC judge, there is no constitutional bar that prevents women judges from the higher courts.
That said, only seven of the country’s 112 High Court judges are women. The Pakistan Bar Council, the highest regulatory body for lawyers, has never had a woman member.
Such glaring under-representation of women in the judiciary reflects a deeper gender imbalance. Even so, women in the legal profession have demonstrated mettle. Stellar SC contenders included Majida Rizvi (the first woman judge), Khalida Rasheed, Qaiser Iqbal, and Yasmin Abbasi.
Without sustainable efforts at reform (support from bar councils included) to include women in the higher courts, progress will be slow. Surely, if three out of four law students are women, there is no shortage of interested young lawyers.
Moreover, since judicial appointments to the SC come from among High Court judges and lawyers, there is the argument that quotas at the SC level might not be as effective if there are such few qualified judges. That may hold some weight but quotas must not be dismissed as part of the remedy.
After all, quotas for women parliamentarians have made a difference to their political contributions. Further, the lack of transparency in the all-male judicial appointments process must be remedied.
Criteria for nominations to the superior judiciary must be made public. If the process is unbiased and merit-based, then quotas would partially address gender disparity in the legal profession.
Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2016