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Pakistan appoints 1st woman Supreme Court judge

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Judicial appointments are never without controversy, not in the United States and not in Pakistan, where, for the first time in the country's 74 years, a woman has been appointed to its highest court. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Lahore.

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DIAA HADID, BYLINE: The black silk robes of lawyers billow as they stride around a Pakistani court complex. Rattling motorbikes drop off black-suited advocates.

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HADID: A barber offers shaves and haircuts nearby to smarten up lawyers and petitioners before court appearances. Amid the chaos, one thing stands out - Pakistan's legal fraternity is dominated by men.

TASAVUR KHANOM: This is a profession of males and not for females.

HADID: Tasavur Khanom is one of the few women in the complex. She says she's heartened by the appointment of Pakistan's first woman, Ayesha Malik, to the supreme court.

KHANOM: She has created a road map for us, and it's a great encouragement.

HADID: Malik was sworn in as a supreme court justice in January. It came after months of controversy. Male lawyers across Pakistan went on strike, refusing to attend court sessions, like Hakim Ali.

HAKIM ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He speaks to me and NPR journalist Abdul Sattar.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says they were angry because there were more senior judges than Malik who deserved to be chosen. They're all men, but he insists this isn't about gender.

Maryam Salman disagrees. She's an advocate who also works to increase women's participation in the judicial system.

MARYAM SALMAN: They just could not accept that, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, a female judge, for her merit, is being appointed in the supreme court.

HADID: Ayesha Malik graduated from Harvard Law School. After a decade in corporate law, she was appointed as a judge to the Lahore High Court. She was only 1 of 2 female judges on the bench - alongside 45 men. At a conference, Malik said, having more female judges would help women access justice.

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AYESHA MALIK: Gender does make a difference. It does matter. Those experiences are important. That's why we say bring more women judges.

HADID: Her own experience underscores how rare it is for a woman to have a senior judicial role. Advocate Saroop Ijaz remembers arguing cases before Malik in the Lahore High Court.

SAROOP IJAZ: I have seen lawyers calling her madam-sir.

HADID: Lawyers tell me she's worked hard to ensure people pay attention to her work, not her sex. They say Malik wears boring clothes so her appearance is never discussed. She avoids familiarity with lawyers. She addresses them with a gender-neutral title - learned counsel. She's also renowned for being tough and fair. This is Maryam Salman again.

SALMAN: Whenever I have appeared in front of her, I thoroughly revise my files because I know that she's somebody who is a perfectionist as a judge. She doesn't want a lawyer to waste any time of the court.

HADID: Malik rose to national prominence last year after she outlawed the practice of so-called virginity tests for females who reported they'd been victims of sexual assault.

MARIA FAROOQ: The test is to see if the woman is a virgin or not.

HADID: Advocate Maria Farooq worked on that case. She says the test was conducted by medics using their fingers, or even matchsticks, assaulting women all over again.

FAROOQ: And if the result is that she's not a virgin, then there is a conclusion drawn that she would have somehow consented to this assault.

HADID: In her judgement, Malik called virginity testing a, quote, "humiliating practice" which put the victim on trial. She added, even the most promiscuous victim does not deserve to be raped - words that caused a stir in conservative Pakistan.

A few months later, news emerged that the chief justice of the supreme court wanted to appoint Malik to his bench. After controversy and protests, her swearing led the news in Pakistan.

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GULZAR AHMED: I...

MALIK: I, Ayesha Malik...

AHMED: ...Do solemnly swear...

MALIK: ...Do solemnly swear...

AHMED: ...That I will bear true faith and allegiance to Pakistan.

MALIK: ...That I will bear true faith and allegiance to Pakistan.

HADID: She swore upon the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

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MALIK: May Allah almighty help and guide me.

HADID: Lawyers like Maryam Salman say, finally, there will be a female perspective on issues like Pakistan's rape laws. But Salman says much more is needed - not just big changes like female judges, but practical changes, too, like allowing day care centers in court complexes and making that as common as barbers offering shaves for men at the gate.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEI BEI AND SHAWN LEE'S "BEI'S BOSSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.