Interview: Truth and justice

February 02, 2013

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Majida Rizvi.

Pakistan may be one of the most male- dominated societies on the map, with discrimination against women being almost an institutionalised policy, but perhaps it is this debilitating environment itself that encourages a handful of courageous women to break the boundaries and challenge the status quo. Women like Justice (retd) Majida Rizvi.

Though she has the honour of being appointed Pakistan’s first woman judge to a high court, Rizvi’s scope of work far outstrips her job description; a tireless crusader for human and gender rights, she accomplished as much for her cause after retirement as she did during her career and here she talks about the achievements that really mattered.

“When I enrolled in SM Law College I was one of only six girls,” says Justice Rizvi as she reminisces about her choice of career; a very unusual field for girls in the ’60s. “My father was all for education; be it for boys or girls. He had no problem with me choosing to study law. But when, after graduation, I decided to practice as well, he was a bit hesitant.”

It took Rizvi six months to persuade her family and as soon as she won their permission she joined an established law firm. It was the early ’60s and though Rizvi claims she faced no discrimination from her co-workers, there was some resistance to the idea of a woman lawyer from the clients’ side.

“Once the senior lawyer told a client that as I had made all the preparations, I would conduct his case. ‘Yeh larki kya karay gi,’ retorted the client. As luck would have it, when the case was presented, my senior got delayed so the judge told me to start. The client didn’t have a choice but to put up with it. The judge told me that I should argue the case at the next hearing as well and so I did and fortunately we won. That was my breakthrough.”

Breaking new ground in the field of law was not enough of a challenge for Rizvi who was always driven by a need to improve the world. When war broke out in ’71, she obtained permission from her seniors to donate some time to set up a township for the refugees pouring in from East Pakistan. “I used to be in Orangi at nine in the morning, rounding up volunteers to arrange medical services for the people. I gathered donations for construction material to build houses, arranged food distribution, helped set up industrial homes and a school. In the evening I would go to the office and catch up with all the paperwork there.”

Alongside her career and social work, Rizvi also launched her campaign to educate women regarding their legal rights; a lifelong mission that she has pursued with great zeal. “From 1964 I have been writing on gender and women issues in Akhbar-i-Khawateen. Since I knew that most women would not be interested in reading about legal issues, I used to write my articles in the form of a story to get the reader’s interest and then bring in the legal problems and their solutions.” Her column was very popular but it also garnered a lot of criticism.

“Akhbar-i-Khawateen got a huge number of threatening letters addressed to me; people told me that I was misguiding their women and they would threaten all manner of things. However, I continued to do what I felt was right.”

Apart from reaching out to women through her columns, the lawyer also visited low-income areas to address women and educate them regarding their legal rights. “I never told them to leave their husbands but I did tell them that if your husband is harassing you, you have the right to seek help.”

For over three decades, Rizvi pursued her legal career, making a name for herself as a professional and dedicated lawyer; then she made history by being appointed Pakistans first woman judge to the high court. “When Benazir Bhutto came to power it was her vision that women judges should be part of the higher judiciary. Mine was the first appointment.”

Rizvi presided as judge at the Sindh High Court from 1994 to ’99 during which time, unlike her counterparts in Lahore who heard family cases, she also sat on the criminal benches. Thanks to her impeccable reputation for integrity and impartiality, she was assigned some of the most sensitive cases of the time, such as the Mehfil-i-Murtaza massacre case; “even some of my male colleagues were reluctant to take it up but the senior judge sent it to my bench.”

Among some of the cases in which she felt a keen personal interest were that of a PIA flight attendant who sued the company for gender discrimination as the retirement age for women employees was set much lower than that for men. Rizvi proudly points out that the case went on to set a benchmark and 12 more girls filed a petition following its success.

After her retirement in ’99, Rizvi could devote more time to her primary mission — the battle for gender and human rights. It was here that she accomplished what she believes to be perhaps the most important achievement of her entire career: the launch of the Hudood Report.  In 2002, Rizvi was elected chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women. The first thing she did was to have the Hudood Ordinances examined on priority basis.

“I put together a 15-member committee, including religious scholars from various Islamic sects, human rights activists, lawyers, etc., and we studied the issue in great depth. I myself studied the Quran and Sunnah to analyse how far these laws are derived from these sources,” she adds.

The conclusion that the committee eventually came to was that the laws were not derived from the Quran and Sunnah; it concluded that if Shariah-based laws were desired a committee should be set up again and the laws should be redrafted after proper interpretation. This was the crux of the groundbreaking Hudood Report launched in March, 2003.

“We broke the myth that these laws were Islamic — or Quranic. It was due to our efforts that a new law was passed — now bail could be granted in Hudood cases. This was followed by a proper definition of ‘honour killing’. Penalty was fixed in the case of wani under section 110, and finally, in 2006, the Women Protection Act was introduced. All this was the result of that report that made people realise that these laws were man-made. We made people think.” Rizvi smiles with quiet pride, “This was one of the biggest achievements of my career.”

Under Rizvi’s leadership the Commission also published a report, Women Employment in Public Sectors, which showed how the quota was five per cent but the actual figures were lower than three per cent. A report on Qisas and Diyat laws was also published.

Asked how far these reports succeeded in bringing about an actual change, Rizvi is quite realistic in her assessment, “There is progress in some areas, regression in others. In Qisas and Diyat we have been arguing to have certain clauses removed; a compromise is certainly allowed in the Quran but it is only after a person has been punished to some extent (for murder). The way the law is applied here, a person can negotiate a compromise right after the crime, usually by applying pressure. In this way his name is never dragged in the court, nor is he ever labelled a murderer. Such people go on to sit in the assembly, hold high posts and their victims are usually women.”

Recipient of several national and international awards, Rizvi clearly considers her work its own reward. She recalls one of her cases involving a retired government employee whom she saw hanging around the court everyday. He was fighting for his pension — a sum of around Rs80,000 — which he claimed the government owed him; poor and disabled, he was reduced to running from pillar to post. Rizvi moved his hearing date forward, heard the case and awarded him a 10 per cent increase on the owed amount to adjust for inflation.

“These were not high-profile cases but they were the most satisfying — they still make me feel good — that I have accomplished something worthwhile in my life.”