It was their first day at Punjab Law College, Rawalpindi in 1999 and Ambreen Nawaz Chaudhry and Aaliya Zareen Abbasi were beyond themselves with happiness to have made it there, sitting among this group of future lawyers. When the lecturer asked who in the class had passed college in the first division, both their hands shot up in the air, not at all expecting what happened next.
The lecturer looked at them and said “you, get lost” – a command to leave the classroom. Confused and upset, both women stepped out, each wondering what they had done wrong as they took their punishment – an hour of standing out in the scorching sun.
When he finished the lecture, he brought them back into the class and asked what were they thinking when they made the choice to become lawyers. “Third division holders usually come into this profession,” the women recall him as saying. “This is your mistake and you will have to suffer forever.”
The professor could not have been more wrong. Some18 years on, not only are Abbasi and Chaudhry thriving in the profession, but they are also the proud owners of their very own law firm.
In an increasingly male-dominated profession, it is incredibly rare to find law firms in Pakistan that are owned and run by women. So, it is equally incredible that Abbasi and Chaudhry are breaking the glass ceiling and becoming an inspiration for hundreds of young Pakistani women.
Chaudhry and Abbasi have been practicing since 2002 and work in the lower and high courts. The journey to where they are today has been fraught with obstacles that they overcame in their stride.
Although Abbasi and Chaudhry are unrelated by blood, they share a more deeper bond as their foray into the field of law transpired from their personal and family circumstances, like a story straight out a Pakistani TV serial. Both have a similar family structure and back story – having only sisters and no brother in their respective families.
As it happens with a lot of women-only families in Pakistan, after the passing of their fathers, their properties and possessions were illegally acquired by other male family members. It was years later that they finally took their own cases into court after getting a law degree, and fought for their rights and won.
Chaudhry’s property dispute ended in 2009 after an 18-year-long litigation. Abbasi, who had decided to join the legal profession because she was not satisfied by how their family’s lawyer was handling their case, won her property case in 2006.
The duo has come a long way since they began their practice in 2002. They’ve established their own law firm – Muhammadans Advocates & Corporate Consultants – and take mostly corporate, family and criminal cases.
“Bringing a smile to an aggrieved person’s face gives us extreme satisfaction,” said Abbasi, who explained that resolving cases was more important to them than winning. “The law should excel. Don’t look at who is speaking, focus on what is being said,” she added.
Perhaps, the mark of a true leader is that they remember the criticism being hurled at them and instead of being discouraged, they learn from it. As such, Abbasi and Chaudhry vividly recall all the naysayers they encountered but didn’t pay heed to.
“Our seniors used to make fun of us, telling us to focus on making money instead of looking for gratification from each and every case. But we decided to do otherwise,” said Abbasi.
Chaudhry recalls one such case – a 73-year-old client who was involved in a property dispute. “We knew from the beginning that the lady would not be able to get her case resolved if it kept moving through the lower court and eventually higher court,” she said.
She was entitled to Rs170 million, but Chaudhry said they advised her to settle the case for a lesser amount.
“Our mentors had taught us that a penny coming through settlement is far better than a rupee at the end of a lengthy litigation,” said Chaudhry. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
But not all cases have been that easy. The duo admits that there were some complicated ones that they worked at late into the night and sometimes cried out of frustration. And then there were security threats of course – property cases are known to become fatal too. The women have learned from all these experiences.
“Now, we feel we are more stable and know who to contact in such situations,” said Chaudhry.
Speaking about the country’s legal system, they said it is not the existing 18th century laws that are a problem. Instead it is the non-enactment of news laws or passing “weak laws” that do no good for litigants.
“The recently enacted cyber law is defective and toothless legislation,” said Abbasi said, citing one example. She explained that the law does not address procedural technologies which are mostly used to argue cases.
“What benefit would you take from a provision of law when you know it is not effective at all?” she questioned.
The advice they give to women who are considering joining the male-dominated legal field is: “When you are in field, remove the tag of woman from yourself. Be practical and move on.”
This thinking, for them, is essential for equality and women empowerment in not just law, but all fields.
Clients who have worked with the duo praise them for their persistence and dedication. “In our broken legal system, a majority of lawyers only work to line their pockets by prolonging cases instead of having their client’s interest at heart,” said one client who asked not to be named.
“But their passion and commitment towards their work and clients is impressive. All these qualities are rarely found in lawyers in Pakistan,” she said. “For their line of work, their confidence, guts and bravery are unmatched.”
Abbasi and Chaudhry take pride in their work, the friendship that they have developed since that 1999 day they stood outside a classroom in punishment together, and how far they have come.
“We two are equal to 11. Allah has made us in a way that we complement each other,” said Abbasi with a smile.