ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan cleared the way for the first woman in the country’s history to become a Supreme Court justice, when a judicial commission on Thursday approved the elevation of Justice Ayesha A. Malik to the top court.
The nomination of Justice Malik, a justice on Lahore’s High Court, was hailed by lawyers and activists who saw it as a rare victory after decades of struggle to secure greater representation and rights for women in Pakistan’s largely conservative and male-dominated society.
“This is historic,” said Aliya Hamza Malik, a member of parliament from the governing Tehreek-e-Insaf bloc. “It is a defining moment for women’s empowerment in the country.”
Her nomination, which was backed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, will now go to a parliamentary committee, which is expected to confirm her appointment to a 10-year term.
The path to Justice Malik’s nomination was not smooth. She has faced bitter opposition from a large section of the legal community, and some lawyers have threatened to go on strike if she becomes part of the Supreme Court bench.
Last September, the judicial commission rejected Justice Malik’s elevation after four out of its eight members opposed her, citing her lack of seniority. Justice Malik is fourth in seniority on the Lahore High Court, which she joined in 2012.
Despite the opposition, the country’s chief justice continued to support her elevation to the top court, and legal advocacy groups have discounted the argument that lack of seniority is a disqualifying factor for nomination.
“This elevation has come 74 years too late, and we should all celebrate that some change to an all-male bench has finally come,” said Benazir Jatoi, an Islamabad-based lawyer, referring to the creation of an independent Pakistan in 1947.
“Our judicial system is alien to female representation,” Alia Zareen Abbasi, another Islamabad-based lawyer, noted. “Despite years and years of struggle and having very able female judges, none was able to make it to the Supreme Court. Even in high courts, the low, almost negligible percentage of female representation is very alarming.”
Some observers cautioned that one victory for women was far from enough in a country where sexual assault and discrimination remain largely unpunished crimes.
“If women continue to be shackled by patriarchy and regressive interpretations of Islam, we will continue to not progress in terms of developing the human capital required to succeed nationally and globally,” said Zarmeeneh Rahim, an Islamabad-based lawyer.
Still, she said, “to finally see a woman sit on the highest court in the land is a small step forward in that struggle.”