Pakistan's Chief Justice Saqib Nisar. Photo: Supreme Court of Pakistan

Pakistan’s Chief Justice Saqib Nisar has apologized for his “skirt” remarks during a tax case hearing last week.

“I apologize for my remark if it hurt anyone’s sentiments – I was merely quoting Winston Churchill,” Nisar said, noting that “some people tried to make an issue out of this statement”, in reference to the backlash that his comments stirred.

The speech in question was delivered during a judicial conference in Karachi on Sunday, when he referred to Churchill’s quote comparing the length of a speech to a woman’s skirt. “I was always told that a speech should be like a woman’s skirt. It should not be too long and neither too short that it doesn’t cover the subject,” he said.

A video of Nisar’s speech went viral on social media, with his words drawing instant criticism.

The Women Lawyers Association in Pakistan had condemned the chief justice in a statement issued on Monday. “It is disappointing to hear the highest judicial authority in our country using women’s bodies to illustrate a point about public speaking in this manner,” it said.

There was also widespread condemnation from rights activists, groups and feminist forums calling out the chief justice for his “sexist and misogynistic” comments.

‘Nothing new about sexism in the judiciary’

Veteran lawyer and co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Asma Jahangir said there was “nothing new” about sexism in the judiciary. “I’m not surprised [by Nisar’s comments] because the judiciary has been sexist throughout – also because they have no idea what a sexist remark is,” she said to Asia Times. “What surprises me is that they are now training judges on gender sensitization. All these international donors are giving money for this to those who are illiterate on gender issues.”

Founder of Digital Rights Foundation and lawyer Nighat Dad agreed that there was nothing surprising about the chief justice’s comments. “They are neither new nor restricted to the lawyers’ fraternity at all. Sexism is rampant in all state institutions, indicating men’s lack of respect for women, and the general obsession of looking at women as objects,” she said to Asia Times. “This is why many women who do have degrees and license to practice law choose not to. Having a license is one thing and having the liberty to practice law is another.”

On Tuesday the Women’s Action Forum wrote a letter to the Chief Justice calling on him to issue a public apology for the statements. “It is shameful that WAF Karachi has to quote for our highest judge Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which ensures non-discriminatory spaces and equal rights for women. The issue of intimidating and sexist work environments has long been neglected and no reform policy ever discussed,” it said.

Low conviction rate for sexual assault cases

Rabbya Shoaib, director of Legal Projects AGHS, a legal aid cell, also lamented that the country’s top judicial authority had reinforced a notion about appropriate yet stimulating ladies’ apparel to make a point. Shoaib said these sorts of attitudes explained the low conviction rate in sexual assault cases.

“The lack of gender sensitivity, stereotypes and biases in judicial proceedings is reflected in the low conviction rates for perpetrators of sexual assault. More attention is paid to the character – including apparel – of the woman rather than the violation itself,” she told Asia Times.

But the outrage voiced by women’s rights groups, especially on social media, could draw positive outcomes, Pakistan Feminist Watch founder Nabiha Meher Shaikh said. “Even though the [Chief Justice’s] words show that sexism remains normalized, the most fascinating thing about this case is that women have challenged the statement and the female lawyers have taken the lead,” she said to Asia Times.

“The public backlash is also something you don’t see. This shows that patriarchy that has had impunity, is now being challenged,” she added. “This is what we at Pakistan Feminist Watch have observed. While earlier we had to go and explain why saying something is wrong, now there’s a lot more awareness.”

Dad believes people’s outlook needs a complete overhaul to address misogyny in Pakistan. “The first step should be to look at women as human beings and not objects. And then think that they deserve the equal level of autonomy as men demand for themselves in any setting whatsoever.”

However, Asma Jehangir doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“You can’t fix [the problem]. I’m invited all over the world to teach people about the same subject, [but] I’ve never been asked by a judge to do the same in a judicial academy in Pakistan. They are actually threatened by gender sensitization,” she said.

“Prejudice, partisanship, politics, and time pass, this is what’s reserved for aspiring female lawyers and judges.”

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