Pakistan’s chief justice has nominated Justice Tahira Safdar as chief justice of the Balochistan High Court. If confirmed, she will become the first woman in Pakistan ever to hold this office.
Pakistan remains the only country in South Asia to have never had a woman Supreme Court judge, a reflection of the country’s failure to address gender imbalance in the legal profession. Only 5 percent of Pakistan’s high court judges were women, according to a 2016 report by the independent, nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
While some women head district courts, none, as yet, have held top positions in the judiciary. And while Pakistan has produced women lawyers of international renown such as the late Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, the Pakistan Bar Council – which regulates lawyers – has never had a woman member. Jahangir remains the only woman lawyer to have been elected as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
There is a particular need in Pakistan for lawyers and judges sensitive to the hardships women endure. Pakistani women often face a hostile environment, whether at home or in society at large. Violence against women and girls – including rape, “honor” killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage – remains a serious problem.
Many factors explain the underrepresentation of women in the legal profession including harmful societal attitudes, harassment in the workplace, and structural barriers such as the opaque appointment process for judges.
Pakistan has an obligation to ensure equal participation of women under its constitution and international human rights treaties it has ratified, most notably the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Hopefully, Safdar’s appointment will be a first step toward rectifying gender disparity in the legal profession and recognition that the equal participation of women is crucial for Pakistan to become a modern, rights-respecting democracy.