Justice Champions of Change:
Salma Zeb is a Legal Aid Officer for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Pakistan, working on access to justice in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She comes from the conservative area of Dir, where women’s career opportunities are restricted. Despite societal pressures, however, she pursued her law degree, graduated to become the first ever female lawyer from her district, and became a front-line justice champion for the women of her region.
The Task Force’s Shazia Razzaque interviewed Salma to find out how this self-described “daughter of the soil” uses her skills, her knowledge of the community, and the love for her region’s women and girls to fight for justice.
Shazia: How did you first become interested in the law?
Salma: My uncle is a lawyer and he sometimes visited for work. A few times he took me with him to the courts in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. There I saw some women lawyers and was inspired by their confidence and boldness. I felt like lawyers were empowered and independent. And I think I was right, because the decision to pursue a law degree not only rescued me and changed my life but helped me to assist other women as well.
Shazia: Can you tell us about your career path after that?
Salma: I was a good student and enjoyed debating. My school nickname was jagroo larki (argumentative girl). I knew I wanted to be a lawyer but there were also family expectations. While I was still in high school, it was arranged that I would be married to a family friend. I didn’t want to be married and was scared. Everyone tried to convince me that it was a good decision, that I would be fed and happy. I wasn’t — I felt like I was the property of my in-laws.
But they say that every failure gives you more strength and that if one door closes, hundreds open. I saw going back to my studies as an escape. With Allah’s blessings, I enrolled for an LLB [a law degree]. During my final exams, I had my first daughter, so it was not an easy time for me.
I went on to pursue a Masters in theology, specializing in Islamic jurisprudence. Many times in my life I have cited Islamic jurisprudence when fighting for rights in our community, especially women’s rights.
Shazia: You were the first woman from your area to become a lawyer. Were there particular obstacles that you had to overcome?
Salma: There were many, but I felt courageous or I was stupid! (laughs)
First I had to deal with family pressure. When I became a lawyer, my grandfather did bit of a social boycott of me. My brothers didn’t approve. I had a cousin who offered to pay me to stay at home! However, my father supported me in my studies. He was a doctor and I think he understood the importance of education. His support was very important to me.
The second obstacle arose after getting my qualifications to be a lawyer. I went to the local courts to try my luck there. I saw becoming a lawyer as an opportunity, that I would become more powerful to face society right away. (laughs) But they threw me out of the courts!
Shazia: Why did they do that?
Salma: When I went to the local court for the first time, it was a strange day. People were talking about me having an LLB and a license to practice. I could hear people around me saying, how can a woman be a lawyer? She should be a teacher — this is a not a job for a woman. When I entered the courts, it was like I set the entire patriarchy on fire.
For some time I faced these comments. And I had no allies in the court system, especially a male relative like a brother or an uncle, to support me in the face of these endless criticisms. Finally, I was basically thrown out of the courts, out under the open sky. It was the second time in my life that I felt scared and hopeless. I remember crying every day.
I think why it hurt the most was that I was really trying to find a way to fight the subordination and oppression of women. I had a goal. I could have tolerated being tagged as a “bad woman,” the looks, the criticism of family members. But I wanted a different world for my girls and to financially support them. So I started working again. Allah gave me the power to stand on my own feet.
I started working on women’s empowerment with a women’s organization in my district. I used my legal training and skills to engage with village development planning, while also working on social mobilization and building the capacity of other women’s organizations. Later I started to work throughout the region, using my legal knowledge for tasks like drafting agreements, running procurement processes and being a focal point for audits. At the same time, I was becoming more engaged with the women of my region and trying to find ways to increase their participation in the social, economic and political world around them.
Shazia: What does your current work involve?
Salma: I am a Legal Aid Officer and Gender Focal Point in the Rule of Law Program for UNDP-Pakistan. My role is to empower women through access to justice initiatives in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Soon that will expand to other parts of Pakistan. We empower women via mobile legal aid clinics, community awareness sessions, legal aid desks and other legal empowerment activities. I am the lead on women’s legal aid clinics.
Shazia: What kinds of problems do women most often come to you with?
Salma: Most women ask about family law and inheritance issues. Inheritance is a major issue for us. My own mother was denied her rightful share. Typically, I will listen to the woman explain her problem and then direct her to one of our legal aid partners to help with mediation or litigation.
Unfortunately, even when these women decide to go to court, societal pressure can force them to withdraw their cases. Some people say that a woman’s greatest virtue is to have sabr (patience), to withstand injustices without complaint. This is why women tolerate all kinds of violence in the family. They feel they need to bear it. Sabr. It’s a societal tactic, this belief that an honourable woman bears all of this and does not utter a single word.
Shazia: How do your legal aid clinics respond to women’s justice needs?
Salma: The clinics are tailored for our realities. For example, we organize them in places like the courtyards of local homes, to which women can more easily travel. We hold an awareness-raising session on a legal issue and then leave time for participants to meet with a visiting female lawyer in a separate room. After receiving advice, women are often referred to the legal aid desks we have helped set up at the local courts and provincial bar council offices. Our partners working at these desks help them with mediation or litigation.
Shazia: What other activities do you undertake to empower women?
Salma: We do many things, but I especially want to focus on how we encourage young women, the next generation, to enter the practice of law. We offer scholarships to young women for their law degrees. We then work to bring them into professional networks, we offer additional training, and we are in the process of developing specialized women lawyer groups, such as on taxation matters. We plan to expand this women lawyers’ network throughout the country with the support of partners like German Cooperation for International Development (GIZ), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Bar Council.
Younger women often approach me for career counselling. I tell them the sky is the limit, they can go anywhere! It is also important to have mentors, like I have at work, to provide advice and guidance.
Shazia: You work in environments where there is resistance to your approach. How do you make yourself heard?
Salma: I have worked for some of the most depressed and isolated women. I think I have internalised every bad memory, which enables me to understand the problems of others. When I hear troubles and problems, I start to think of solutions and use those to convince people to hear me. Also, society is changing, life is getting complicated. Men don’t have the option but to let women work.
I also learned different approaches. One, it is important to bring people with resources together with those that are without. For example, wealthier women with transport can bring women to legal awareness-raising session who don’t have the means to come. Two, in the early days of my work, when we would organize legal awareness sessions in the community for women, we knew their men would sit in an adjacent room. So we would speak louder, intending that they listen and hear what we were saying in the sessions. This helped us build our reputation and make a place in the community. We had nothing to hide and over time this allowed us to build respect and trust with local leaders.
Shazia: You often refer to yourself proudly as a “daughter of the soil.” Why do you think that’s so important for the work you do?
Salma: Being from this land gives me inner strength to face opponents and oppressors. It gives me courage to support other women. I know the tricks, how to break the chains of patriarchy that disempower women. Patriarchy controls a woman through various tools like creating the concept of a bad or good woman. Like a woman who wears a headscarf should be treated well and that those who don’t are bad women. Those who stay at home are good, while those who don’t are bad. Well, I wear a headscarf and I go out of home to work!
Shazia: What is the most difficult part of your work?
Salma: I understand that women’s subordination is in the favour of men, but when I travel around the region, many elderly women try to convince me to stop working and that I am not a good woman. These are hurtful words to me. Society is continuously teaching me that I should know my place as a woman. I have just one request for the fathers, uncles and brothers: please, please, your lack of trust in our daughters and sisters makes life hard for them!
Shazia: What are you most proud of?
Salma: First, I am proud that I am a woman. Second, that I have three daughters. I am proud that I have survived in this man’s world, a world they have created for themselves. I am proud that I am part of an organization that believes in women’s legal empowerment. I am proud that today my male family members ask for my advice, that they consider me wise and experienced. One of the most empowering moments in my life was when a male relative of mine who is a lawyer, who did not support me when I started practising, told me I should run for a position in my district bar association.
Shazia: How can the international community support this work?
Salma: In many ways. It can support girls’ education and make them aware of their rights while they are in school. It can create support services for them and support them to access justice. And in general, focus more strongly on the need to make girls and women socially, economically and politically empowered.
Shazia: Finally, looking back and then looking forward, do you feel the future looks brighter for the daughters of your community?
Salma: It is improving. I always say I was weak and that if I can survive and fight back, so can you! I see many courageous women and girls who can change the future. I believe tomorrow will be brighter and better than today.
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