Dr. Nasira Iqbal: The Keeper of our Past

December 13, 2006 by  


By Mahvish Akhtar

Dr. Nasira Iqbal is the daughter in law of the great poet and visionary Muhammad Allama Iqbal. She herself has achieved many milestones in her academic and professional life. I recently sat down with her to find out more about her life and her work.

W.O: How did you get interested in Law?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: Well to tell you the truth when I first got married I was studying media. I had done my part one in Mass Communication as they call it in those days they called it Journalism. In 1961 in Punjab University this department had just started and I joined in 1962. Than with small children my priorities were towards home making. Like anybody else I was looking after my two boys…and bringing them up. But when they start going to regular school after the first five years of school than they don’t need that much time. So, that meant I had more time. We had a very big law library at home. And that was obviously the thing that I had access to straight away. One day I found out that the law exam was going to take place and women could appear privately. So, I decided I was going to appear because this was something that had interested me always because you see law has a lot of practical applications. I sent in the application form for taking the exam and the exam was after a month so I got all the books that were in the syllabus and I prepared and I did well. I came in the first three positions in the university. So, the next year again when the time for the exam came I gave my second part and passed. In those days it was good fortune that you were allowed to do it privately and it was only two years course…now it’s become three years. So, I got the degree and I found that so many people needed legal advice. They were people in the family out of the family; they were employs and people that our employees knew. I would just give advice voluntarily because I didn’t go to court. Than there were women’s organizations that I was a member of where I was giving legal advice to all the people who were around me. They would all come to me because in those days there were not too many female lawyers because the department had just been opened up for women. And people thought that law was very violent subject so they didn’t allow their daughters to go into law colleges. But times have changed…now we have at least about 5,000 women who have been through law schools in Pakistan.

W.O: How did you end up in Harvard?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: I wanted to pursue my legal career further but my husband was on the bench. He was the judge of the high court already when I did my law degree. So, it was not proper for me to go to court because than there are cases of mal practice. I thought that its better not to. My children had crossed high school by this time. One of them was studying in the United States and the other was preparing to go there. Since one was there already I went to visit him, and I also looked at university for my other son. I went to Harvard and I was very taken by their law school. I asked for their application form and I applied. And I also applied to the University of Pennsylvania, which is also an IV league school, and they also accepted me. My younger son was also accepted to the Pennsylvania University and he didn’t take to the idea of me coming to his university. So, I decided to go to Harvard instead. I think maybe the main reason for wanting to go at that time was that both of my sons were in the States and it was an opportunity to be near enough but still at arms length so that they wouldn’t feel that they were tied to my apron strings and I would do something constructive myself. It was a three- semester program. When I came back by that time my husband had retired from the high court so I joined a private law firm but I still didn’t appear in courts except sometimes to go and assist the main advocates. I couldn’t still go to court because by that time my husband was in the Supreme Court. When he retired this is when I setup my own practice. Because I was successful and I had created my own credibility when women judges were appointed I was one of the judges to be appointed in the Lahore High Court.

W.O: Did you find any discrimination against women in the work place?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: I found that the judges did not have any mental block about women appearing. Because I was appearing in the high court, having a Master’s degree mean that you go straight into the high court. And in the high court you have judges who have 10 years of judicial experience so they are people who are older in age, more experienced and they would have been able to over come prejudices if any. Even at that level you will come across gender biases but they are less frequent than they would be in the lower judiciary. Also I was a middle-aged person, and that makes a difference. When a young girl is appearing I think the mindset will be different. So, I didn’t face the problems that the other women face. I did attend seminars and workshops on what the hurdles of women who join the legal and judiciary systems. And from my own experience and from other women who used to come talk to me I had a good idea of what problems they encounter and I have written papers about it. I have helping in formulate policies on how the women in the legal profession can be assistance to overcome hurdles and how the hurdles can be reduced for them.

W.O: Women don’t just have issues in entering the legal system they have problems no matter what profession they chose. What is being done about that?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: When I first started working I worked with different law firms. But I realized that they were not making me work to my full potential. So I finally decided that if I wanted to make this a profession I had to strike out on my own. I had a friend who was very much known for supporting women in these matters. He had a very small office in which he worked on a one on one basis. I asked him if he would let me use his office if I helped him and along with them did my own cases as well. That opened the avenue to do my own work and I started doing state cases. Some people found it very odd that my husband was the chief justice some years back and here I was appearing as a state council. But I thought that was the best to learn without causing determent to anyone that I am representing. I learned a lot from that and people had an opportunity to see my work in the courts and from there I started getting cases. You don’t necessarily have to be a man. If a woman does well in the court people will come to her. It just depends on the determination of the person and how hard you work. You have to work very hard. I think for women it’s an uphill task they have to work twice as hard.

W.O: What are you doing in terms of children’s rights?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: I am not working in a formal organized manner any more. As far as women and children are concerned there are many forums to help them. For instance, PTV used to have a program called Women’s Time Online, every morning. There women would phone in or send in letters to ask about their problems or I would tell them if you want to call me at home call me to find out what can be done about your problem. As far as children’s rights are concerned, children here are in a very bad condition. Always their interest has to be catered to so there is the convention of the rights of the child, which has now been adopted by Pakistan. I have been in the pulmonary discussions before it was adopted by any of the Muslim Counties. In fact I attended a meeting of all the Muslim countries in Cairo where we had to decide what are the terms, which are acceptable to us. So before exceeding the rights of the child we know what we are talking about. Now Pakistan had adopted the Convention of The Rights of The Child and we also have our own juvenile justice system, which means that children have to be treated in a manner different from adults especially if they are under the ages of 16 or 18. And when they are tried in a court of law they are not amendable to the same kind of punishment as an adult because they don’t have the same kind of mental capacity. Also while they are incarcerated they should be kept separately. Because when they are kept in custody in the same place as the adults they are always subject of abuse by the people who are keeping them in custody and the other inmates. The reason for this is that the other prisoners are hardened criminals, and they are looking for this kind of thing. They are more like reform institutes rather than jails. I am a member of the Pakistan Law and Justice commission. This commission examines all these matter. Than it makes recommendations to the legislature as to what needs to be done. Since it is presided over by the chief justice of Pakistan and 5 members are the 5 sitting chief justices of the court. Besides their recommendations for legislation in administrative and enforcement matters these chief justices can in their own courts also direct how a matter should be decided. At the last meeting which was held in February of this year we were deciding how the jails should be run and how the inmates should be treated, and etc. Also an Administrative enforcement Judge comes and inspects regularly. So this is to insure that the treatment of women and children is not injurious or abusive as it has been. Recently I have prepared the rules of business under the local government and other donor agencies that are helping them. We are setting up in every union something called the ‘Musalihat-e-Anjuman’. This is a forum, which resolves disputes through a conciliatory process. This is very important because so far women and children were not able to get to us they were far away. Second the procedures are very expensive, they didn’t understand the procedures and they didn’t know where to go. This council would comprise of three members of each community who are known for their good judgment and their honesty. And who people show confidence in. These people are selected by the Union Council, which had already been elected. And these three, which includes two men and one woman, would together comprise what we call ‘Musalihat-e-Anjuman’. And you or I or anybody who is living in the village and feels aggrieved by some act which had caused violence or deprivation of property or some other basic right could go to that forum put in an application and without any fee or lawyer can be heard. You see Lawyers are not allowed to appear because lawyers can be good and they can also harm. And they are not free which the people of the village cannot afford to pay. After the form has been submitted the three members write down or record the grievance or the complaint and than they would call the other side and try to reach a settlement and see to it that the party, which has suffered harm, is made some kind of recompense. So at the moment in every province two pilot districts have been selected by the local government to operate these programs. If it’s successful than they are supposed to have this in every Union Council. In children’s cases I have put in those rules the principle that if a neighbor or some other person in the neighborhood finds that a child is being abused or mistreated they can report to the Musalihat-e-Anjuman and after verification of the fact the council can make sure that the problem is taken care of. And if people don’t come voluntarily to the council than the Musalihat-e-Anjuman has the authority to report the matter to the police or to the court of confident jurisdiction. All these things are open to abuse also but I am hoping that in this case it will be something sustainable. We need a system that carries on because governments will come and go. We need a system that will stay no matter who comes and goes.

W.O: We don’t have enough information and awareness about children and women issues. What is being done about that?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: Part of the job of this Anjuman-e-Musalihat is to keep people aware of what’s going on. Like having small gatherings in the local schools, local health center or local play grounds. I have not recommended having it in a Mosque because that could have its own ramifications. This is part of the dynamics of how this thing is going to work.

W.O: What is your take on education system for women in our country?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: The education is inadequate. Only 16% of women in Pakistan are considered literate. What we call literacy according to the census we had in 1990 is anybody who can read and write her own name. And that does not really mean anything. That means they cant even read a letter, they cant write a letter, which is a basic criterion on which I think literacy should be judged. So, something has to be done. The government I think definitely has taken it up as a priority. As long as we are in a state where we are constantly spending 90% of our budget on defense social spending is going to be restricted and even now I think total spending on health and education is not more than 5%. It used to be 3% of our GNP, now its 5%, which may be a little bit of a progress but still not adequate. And unless we can all become aware in this region that peace is the only way to overcome all these problems. And we recognize that we have to priorities our spending in a different way so that we spend less on these means of warfare and more on social sector development.

W.O: What else are you working on these days?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: Now I am confining myself more to the academic side. I teach in Punjab University. I teach in the law college. I am teaching in the gender studies department. Which is a relatively new department. It opened about 10 years a go and I have been on their board of graduate studies from the date of conception. I am happy to see that more and more people are joining. And we have men courageous enough to attend a gender studies class. The reason is without the help of men women cant get too far.

W.O: This brings me to my next question; did your husband support your endeavors?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: Yes he did. When first I took my law exam he felt that I was not likely to get through because I didn’t have any educational background in law. He said its impossible you can’t pass and law is a very tough field. He thought it couldn’t happen. But when the result came out and we saw the results he couldn’t believe it. He said this means that the standard of the tests has gone down. Than when I passed the finals with flying colors as well he realized that maybe I have some kind of ability in this field. So, now when people ask him for legal advice many times he says I don’t know about these things why don’t you ask my wife. When he retired and I told him that I am thinking of going into this profession he was very encouraging and he took over all the household responsibilities. I think he is a role model for husbands as to how they have to be supportive if they expect women to work. Now more and more men are marrying woman with professional degrees; the reason for that being that they thing that if the wife is also earning they will have a better standard of living. Of course it’s also a part of enlightened self-interest. But when it comes to sharing the household responsibilities they still have this male chauvinistic attitude that the domestic chores are to be done by women. So, the wife has to do her professional work and than come home and still have all the household work to do. But my husband was very cooperative when I came home there was nothing for me to do. He took these responsibilities on voluntarily. Of course the children were grown up so there was no child raring involved but everything else he did happily. He used to say that if my wife can wait all these years and devote all her time to the house for my sake the least I cant do is assume the responsibilities that she had so that she can pursue her career. He didn’t feel threatened and part of the reason for that was that he was successful himself so I think more men need to do that for their wives.

W.O: How does your father in law’s life and influence affect you?

Dr. Nasira Iqbal: Well you have to meet certain standards. It’s a self-regulation because you are aware that you have to maintain a certain standard of integrity and of morality because he is a role model. When you belong to such a family than you are living in a glass house, everybody is looking towards you. I think it sets a very high standard of intellectual achievement as well. Maybe a part of what I did was also because I felt that I was under educated. And I had come into the family where both my husband and his father were highly educated. Of course my father in law’s level no one can achieve in many centuries even. Also, there are many things I would think twice about doing in public because everyone would like to have a standard maintained of our family. So, people’s perception of what you should do and what you should not do is very important. I also tried to instill this thing in my children that they have to always remember the family that they belong to and also you have to set standards for others to follow. It’s important to make sure that the image of the founders of Pakistan is not diminished.

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