Nida Usman Chaudhry began noticing the inequality women face in the legal profession as a law student. There were only a few areas of the law where women would often end up working; teaching, in-house jobs and other ‘non-traditional’ careers’.
It was then that she started Women in Law, an internal report for the legal community that documents the struggles and work female lawyers undertake and what they hope to achieve. Ms Chaudhry now chairs the Lahore High Court Bar Association’s Gender Equality and Diversity Committee, and works on gender sensitisation in the legal profession.
Q: What sort of cases do women usually receive and what sort of litigation are they largely absent from?
A: I have a problem with this question because it could lead to stereotyping women, but speaking strictly in numbers women are more present in family law or intellectual property law, in-house jobs or doing research and preparing cases.
They are largely absent from criminal law and generally, litigation. Even if they prepare the case, their male counterparts present it. Even if they work in a firm that does litigation, female associates will not be getting the same work and opportunities because they are considered baggage and the responsibility of their male counterparts.
Q: What kind of environment do women face in the legal profession?
A: Women also lose out on cases due to separate bar rooms. I am not against separate rooms for women because they are necessary because of our social norms and needs, but that means they are not going to be included in networking. Connecting with other lawyers is extremely important in this profession because otherwise all the opportunities go to the men because the bar room and other communal places are where all the discussions take place.
This will change if there are more women in court because with visibility, the environment will automatically be less hostile.
Women should try to be more active in litigation, be active members of the bar, stand for elections and claim their space in policy-oriented or prominent positions.
However, I think the trends are changing. We have people like Nighat Dad talking about digital rights and privacy and Sarah Belal, the executive director of the Justice Project Pakistan, which takes on death row cases and those of people who are mentally challenged, which is hardcore criminal law and human rights law.
We have prominent high court judges in the Lahore High Court now such as Justice Ayesha Malik, who is an inspiration because she has carved an identity for herself.
Q: How did you start working on increasing representation from our region in international arbitration?
A: International arbitration is a very recent phenomena and Pakistan is going to be very seriously engaged in international arbitration in the years to come due to our alliances with China, Turkey and previously with Australia.
Now that the government has signed all these international treaties and we have this parallel system globally, where states are going to be held accountable for their commitments locally to businesses and industries from other countries, it is very important that we train ourselves in these areas.
International law is a very new field and there is a lack of understanding of it. And arbitration then is a specialised field within international law, which means understanding of that is even more limited.
Therefore, when we have a case involving a Pakistani national, they have to take their case to arbitrators who are mostly white men and who do not represent geographical diversity and are not familiar with the ground realities of the region. Every case has its own challenges and issues that need to be taken into account.
During alternative dispute resolution, specifically international, where state level commitments are involved, you can be subjected to millions in sanctions and damages. It is very important therefore that you are well represented.
If we have the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and agreements and want to retain GSP Plus status, we definitely want to have more arbitrators and an understanding of it.
Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2018