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Volume 8

Forbidden - July 2011


Written by
Maliha Zia Lari

Maliha Zia is a women's rights activist and lawyer who occasionally enjoys moonlighting as a writer.


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Early Morning Rant of a Female Lawyer


It is not particularly “early’’ in the morning as I write this, considering that it’s already 9 a.m.; but “earliness” is quite subjective, isn’t it?

This isn’t exactly a “rant’’ either; a rant is supposed to be angrier. I would say that I am irritated, frustrated and sleepy, but definitely not angry. This is more like a series of musings.

Anyhow, to continue:

I don’t understand why it is so excruciatingly difficult for people to accept a woman as an official in our courts. Many women work in our legal system today – a lot more compared to the times when I began studying law many years ago. Admittedly, things have changed in the last few years: if a female lawyer is found talking to one of her male colleagues, the judge does not automatically decree that they are sleeping together; nor is it considered an open invitation to flirt if a female lawyer walks in with her hair open. If she wears bright lipstick, the clerks do not assume that she is “easy,” and if she wears open shoes with her toes exposed, it doesn’t mean she is trying to entice every male lawyer in the building.

Nevertheless, women in our courts are still considered anomalous, especially those who continue to work even after they are married and have had children.

Recently, one of my male colleagues was sitting in the court’s cafeteria, where he addressed some of the young female lawyers sitting around him.

“How can you women handle court?” he said with surprised disdain. “With so many men around? And the heat, my God the heat! Don’t women’s bodies require warmth and attention instead of being broiled in this mad heat? Aren’t only men supposed to be lawyers?”

Oblivious to the growing animosity around him, he continued.

“You all should join corporate practice or practice as in-house council or work at an NGO – women are more suited to those kinds of jobs. It gives them time to run their homes. And you know, we will still consider you lawyers even if you don’t come to court.”

He continued with his words of wisdom for the next 10 minutes to the dozen or so female litigating lawyers sitting at his table, presenting his ever conscientious oral arguments and passing his summary judgments upon us. Needless to say, he only barely survived the deposition.

To top it off, while he was uttering his judicious testimony, a number of lawyers – all male – seemed to heartily agree with him. What he was saying seemed to be the general consensus carried by these men. One of them addressed me and asked me how my husband “allowed’’ me to come to court with so many men around. Did my husband not know of the discriminatory attitudes all the male lawyers had against women lawyers?

“Do you know what men say about women lawyers behind their backs?” he asked me, and then answered his own cross examination by testifying that he would never let his wife come to court because he knew everyone would look at her “the wrong way” and that everyone would “pass comments.”

Thoughts of me smacking the man across his face whirled in my head and I felt like giving him a piece of my mind. I wanted to scream at him and say that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to come to court. Instead, I calmed my nerves and told him that my husband supported me in whatever career choices and goals I wished to pursue. I thought that this should have ended the discussion, but the lawyer did not take that hint. He continued to interrogate me and probe me, asking me personal details of how I managed to balance my professional life with my personal life and how I was able to “look after’’ my husband with my late hours at work.

What he was actually insinuating was that I was a bad wife because I had a demanding career and that women were not supposed to behave in this manner.

It is at times like these when I realize that the expectations of women to act in their stereotypical roles have not changed in our typically patriarchal society. Today, female lawyers may get to stand in courts to prosecute criminals and grill suspects and witnesses, but when most of the men in that courtroom look at them, all they see are women who should be at home cooking, cleaning and looking after their husbands and children.

It makes me happy to see an increasing number of women coming to court and practising law. I’d like to think that this is a progressive move and that women are finally being accepted and taken seriously as litigators. I want to believe that things can only get better from here.

But a few minutes in the cafeteria with my colleagues, and all my hopes are disillusioned. How am I supposed to keep hopeful when everyone keeps telling me to fix my dupatta because the faintest outline of my bra is showing under my black coat and my white uniform? I know that I would be a happier and more productive lawyer when people stop telling me to tie my hair so that I do not “entice’’ the male lawyers; when people stop questioning my choice of career in this “male oriented profession” and stop wondering how I can continue working as a lawyer and look after my family at the same time.

All of this is especially frustrating to me because I want to ask the men the very same questions. For once I want to be the plaintiff and not the defendant in this trial of genders. Why do all the male lawyers think that it is difficult only for the women to balance their professional and personal lives? What about the men themselves? Do they not also have to balance their lives? Be lawyers and be good husbands and fathers? Don’t they also have to spend time with their families after putting in long hours of work? Why are only women questioned about balancing their lives and not the men when it takes both a man and a woman to make a family?

It saddens me to think about the place of women in our society and how we have only taken a few steps forward towards women’s empowerment instead of the leaps and bounds that we feel we have taken. Yet, I persevere. I continue to take pride in my work and myself. I know that this lawsuit to fight for our rights is going to be long and difficult. It would require a lot of patience and optimism, not just from other female lawyers and myself, but also from our overall judicial community. I know it’s going to take many days in the court, back and forth examinations and cross-examinations, lots of testimonies and depositions, early adjournments, allegations, appeals, and arraignments, but I am positive that it would all work out.

I take solace in the increasing number of women lawyers in Pakistan, especially when I see them diligently showing up in court and working just as hard, sometimes harder, than their male counterparts. This keeps me optimistic and that’s what keeps me going.

And beware all men: the next time any one of you asks me a stupid question, I will simply object to your line of questioning, pass the verdict that no one can forbid women from being here, from taking our place in the public space, and sentence you to a smack across the face by yours truly.



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