She has crossed many a hurdle to become one of the four female lawyers of district Swat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa today. Mehnaz Khan belongs to tehsil Matta which, according to the locals, is an area badly affected by terrorism. People of her area don’t take well to working women and, when it comes to the profession of law, the reservations are even more pronounced.
“Despite all these hurdles, I chose this profession to assist helpless women,” says Mehnaz from behind her veil. For Mehnaz who badly needed a working space exclusive to women, the new space in the Swat District Courts, in Mingora, is a relief. “Most of our problems will be solved with the establishment of this space exclusive to women. Our clients will be able to discuss their concerns more candidly with us,” says Mehnaz, visibly more at ease.
The establishment of this all-woman lawyers’ bar room has not only opened new avenues for more female lawyers in the district, but is also a relief for women litigants of the district. Earlier most of them were wary of approaching lawyers and courts for justice as they couldn’t discuss their issues with male attorneys, especially those pertaining to issues like Khula or rights of inheritance. Now, the hesitation is replaced by comfort.
The initiative has been launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with Hujra Foundation. The Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court, Mian Faseeh-ul-Mulk, inaugurated the women’s bar room on March 25.
The people of Swat are considered moderate in comparison with people from other parts of K-P, as the ratio of educated persons in the district has remained high. Despite this, cultural hindrances have often come in the way of working women. But women like Saima Anwar, 24, decided to change all that.
Anwar, a female lawyer who made news in 2011 as Swat’s first woman counsel, shares that when she started law practice, the concept of female lawyers was unprecedented not only in Swat but in all of Malakand division. At the beginning, she faced a lot of hurdles, even from her family. Her family was not prepared to allow her to work in a male-dominated field. According to Anwar, the culture she belongs to considers it against norms that a woman shares work space with men. Anwar mentioned that with the passage of time, opposition died down and things took a turn in her favour. Now, the establishment of a women-friendly space in the courts will further facilitate more female lawyers to join the practice, she feels.
The more than 500 lawyers who are currently working in the Swat Bar room face many problems. General Secretary of the Swat district bar, Inayatullah Khan, told The Express Tribune that they had a very small library in the court with a limited number of books which does not fulfill their requirements. The court also has an inefficient system of parking of cars, and its canteen does not have enough space. With such basic issues as these, the fact that an all-woman bar has been established is encouraging, and Khan called it a good initiative.
President of Swat district bar, Muhammad Zahir Shah, expressed happiness over the setting up of the women bar in the district. He said that it would help both female lawyers and litigants to handle their issues.
Ayesha Bibi, a woman litigant, said that she was very happy when she came to know about the establishment of the women-exclusive space in the court, adding that her case had been pending in the court for a year. Initially, her counsel was a male, but now with an option available, she has shifted her case to a female lawyer. “I can now easily share all information regarding my case with my counsel without hesitation,” she says.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2014.