Skirt lengths and bhuna gosht: What women in Pakistan’s legal fraternity face

Much needs to be changed to support women lawyers so that the legal fraternity becomes a community.
Published March 9, 2018

My earliest memory of legal practice in Pakistan takes me back to a suffocating courtroom at the Lahore High Court on a harsh summer day in June. My female colleague and I had been shoved to the far corner of the small courtroom as throes of male lawyers pushed past us to surround the presiding judge — ironically one of the two female judges at the LHC at the time.

The authority in her voice carried across the crowded space. However, it failed to cut through the misogyny that pervaded every corner and forced me to shrink back, almost hoping to blend in with the dusty books lining the walls.

Despite my efforts, I was spotted by an aged lawyer who determinedly limped towards me. Upon reaching me, his wrinkled hand grabbed my wrist and shoved a book in my hand. My colleague and I shook our heads, willing him to leave us alone. Angered at our response, he yelled:

“I have written this book especially for you. Why aren’t you taking it?”

Everyone around attentively turned towards us — enjoying our discomfort. Desperate to remove ourselves from the situation, we grabbed the books and sent the old lawyer hobbling, perhaps to his next victim.

The all-important book was a guide for female lawyers, authored by the lawyer himself, and alternated between recipes for bhuna ghosht and warnings about the dangerous effects of working mothers on children's mental health.

Following the recipe for kadu ka halwa was a chapter on the permissibility of domestic violence in Islam.

As my copy was swiftly chucked in a dustbin outside the courtroom, I could not benefit from the wisdom contained within its pages.

Though many years have passed since that fateful day, and I have been placed in objectively worse situations since, I periodically find myself replaying the incident in my head and coming up with ways I could have responded differently in that moment — perhaps with more courage.

I am, however, acutely aware that even today my response would not have been much different.

Read more: Women and sexual harassment at the workplace

The legal profession in Pakistan continues to be a hostile and unwelcoming environment for women, with little progress over the years.

While women outnumber and outshine their male counterparts in public and private law schools across the country, their presence is almost nonexistent in the top echelons of legal practice and the judiciary.

Pakistan has the distinction of being the only country in South Asia to never have appointed a woman as a justice of the Supreme Court.

In one of his first public addresses in January 2018, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan took the opportunity to comment on the desirable length of a woman’s skirt.

Clearly one cannot expect the 70-year streak of male monopoly over the country’s top constitutional questions to be broken in his tenure.

The recent passing of Asma Jahangir dealt a formidable blow to the hopes of the most vulnerable of Pakistan’s populations. Perhaps the biggest brunt of the loss was felt by her female colleagues in the legal fraternity who were forced to confront the reality that there was no longer a female counterpart occupying a leadership role at the Bar.

The void left by Asma’s passing is a daunting reminder of the legal fraternity’s unwillingness to address the direct and indirect discrimination that prevents women from rising through the ranks as lawyers and judges in Pakistan.

Structural issues

The legal fraternity in Pakistan constitutes primarily of chambers led by one or more senior lawyers. Fresh law graduates must shadow these individuals as apprentices in the hopes of learning the trade.

This can attributed in part to the failure of legal education in Pakistan to impart any skills that are relevant to practice in Pakistan.

Law students can either opt for the Punjab Law College curriculum or the University of London external degree — neither one of which arms them with practical drafting, advocacy and negotiation skills that form the basis of actual legal practice.

Junior lawyers, as a result, spend the first few years of their professional lives answering the beck and call of their seniors for a meagre stipend — and that too if they're lucky.

In an environment where one’s professional advancement is entirely dependent on the generosity of senior (male) lawyers, women are not considered a priority to be invested in as future practitioners.

When hiring women, firms make sure to include questions about when they plan to get married. Women are subjected to sermons regarding how it is useless to invest in female associates, as eventually they would be relegated to a life of domesticity and never pursue legal careers.

Those women who brave it past the interview stage are primarily restricted to research and drafting.

Read this: Female Pakistani journalists share stories of harassment at the workplace

Gender segregation remains a recurring theme across law firms, regardless of size and area of focus. Women are often bunched together in an unofficial "female associates" room, which is hidden in both the office building and the conscience of the higher-ups.

Male associates are allotted tasks that offer the most opportunities to build client networks and practical court skills necessary to professional success.

Motivated primarily by fees, lawyers hesitate to assign female associates to top earning cases in fear that clients would perceive their matters are not being dealt with seriously.

As a result, male associates are called into client meetings and delegated oral arguments, whereas women do the heavy lifting of case preparation.

In her first job at a prolific law firm in Lahore, one lawyer was often told off by her seniors for accompanying them to court or making contact with clients.

Certain law firms impose mandatory work timings for women, forcing them to go home several hours before male associates and automatically putting their career progression at a disadvantage.

Boys' club banter

Most courts in the country have separate bar rooms for women lawyers. While this holds certain advantages in providing women a space to unwind between hearings, it is unfortunately not the place where most of the networking and political lobbying takes place.

As a result, women are effectively barred from a key arena where political power is negotiated. While women are not barred from entering the main bar room, no attempt is made to make them feel comfortable within its four walls, as they are subjected to gossip and ridicule for trespassing.

Read more: Sindh High Court's common room for women is a small victory for female lawyers

A civil lawyer told me that she once found herself stuck in the middle of a lewd conversation between male lawyers about certain female entertainers.

Another lawyer relayed a story of how she walked past a group of lawyers gathered around a cellphone and laughing. When she caught a glimpse of the display, she saw they were watching obscene videos.

Women's conduct is constantly subject to scrutiny by fellow lawyers and clerical staff. Simply choosing to socialise with male lawyers, even former classmates, draws gossip and character attacks.

Senior clerks frequently remark in their presence how women at the office corrupt the work environment. The few women who are regularly assigned key cases by senior lawyers are often accused of using unprofessional methods to succeed.

Law chambers and firms are not subject to any harassment laws or regulation. In a system where senior lawyers are given complete authority over the career progression of junior lawyers, harassment emerges as a constant.

Many women are subject to unwanted physical advances, being forced to spend time with senior male lawyers, and being forced to sit through sexist banter.

A common theme emerges: being pushed and brushed up against whilst arguing. Some women litigators claim the opposing counsel deliberately asks male lawyers to surround them while they argue as an intimidation tactic.

Women lawyers feel unsafe during brawls and demonstrations, the most common means of dispute resolution between male lawyers.

The violent and brash reputation of the legal fraternity is key amongst the reasons for why women face resistance from their families to going to court.

How do we move forward?

Clearly, much needs to be changed to support the rise of women lawyers through the ranks of the legal fraternity so that it can become a community.

Firstly, institutional mechanisms for the protection of women lawyers against harassment and violence need to be put in place.

The Bar needs to take responsibility for the continuing legal education of junior lawyers, especially women, in practical advocacy skills in order to improve the quality of that community.

There is also a dire need to regulate the treatment of associates in legal chambers and law firms to maintain at least a minimum standard of professional conduct and integrity.

Networks of women lawyers can be a powerful force to challenge the old boys’ clubs that control all political power at the Bar.

Finally, senior lawyers need to put in that extra effort to support the professional advancement of female associates in a legal profession where the odds are well stacked against them.

Have you faced discrimination at work? Share your experiences with us at