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Meet Justice Ayesha Malik, Pakistan's first female Supreme Court judge

In this photo provided by Pakistan's Press Information Department, Pakistan's Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad, left, administrates the oath of office to Ayesha Malik in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday. Malik is the first female judge to serve on Pakistan's Supreme Court.
Press Information Department via AP
In this photo provided by Pakistan's Press Information Department, Pakistan's Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad, left, administrates the oath of office to Ayesha Malik in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday. Malik is the first female judge to serve on Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Justice Ayesha Malik made history on Monday when she was sworn in as the first female judge on Pakistan's Supreme Court, where she will serve alongside 16 men.

Her accomplishment — which followed a particularly contentious nomination process — is being celebrated by government officials and human rights activists as a defining moment for the country and its male-dominated judiciary.

"As the first woman judge appointed to the apex court in the country's judicial history, this is an important step towards improving gender diversity in the judiciary, where women reportedly account for only 17 percent of judges overall and just under 4.4 percent in the high courts," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement, adding that these disparities are structural and require more investment in women in the legal profession.

Pakistan is the only South Asian nation to have never had a female Supreme Court judge, according to Human Rights Watch. Here's what to know about its first.

Malik's legacy on Lahore's High Court includes outlawing virginity tests in sexual assault cases

Malik, 55, completed her basic education at schools in Paris, New York, Karachi and London, then earned degrees from the Government College of Commerce & Economics in Karachi, Pakistan College of Law in Lahore and Harvard Law School in the U.S.

She worked at two different law firms before becoming a high court judge in the eastern city of Lahore in 2012, according to a court biography.

She's also taught banking and mercantile law at various colleges, served as pro bono counsel for NGOs focused on poverty alleviation and contributes to publications including the Oxford Reports on International Law in Domestic Courts. And she's a mother of three.

Malik has appeared as an expert witness in family law cases in England and Australia involving issues of child custody, women's rights and constitutional protection for Pakistani women.

She developed a reputation for integrity and discipline on the court, where she helped deliver several landmark verdicts on major constitutional issues, according to The Indian Express.

In 2021, for example, the court outlawed the invasive and medically-discredited virginity test performed on women who reported rape or sexual assault, with Malik writing in the 30-page opinion that the practice "offends the dignity of the female victim" and discriminates on the basis of gender.

Her nomination process was contentious — both times

Despite her credentials, Malik's journey to Pakistan's highest court was not an easy one, in part because she was the fourth-most senior judge on the bench in Lahore.

She was appointed to the position last year but was voted down, the BBC reports. This year — when she was nominated to fill a seat made vacant by another judge's retirement in August — the nine-member commission approved her appointment by a 5-4 vote.

Some lawyers and judges had voiced their opposition to her appointment in the months ahead of the vote, accusing her of cutting ahead of more senior male candidates. The Pakistan Bar Council even said it would strike, according to Pakistan's Geo TV.

The contentious process came to an end on Monday, when Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed administered Malik the oath at a ceremony broadcast on TV.

"Justice Ayesha has been appointed on the basis of her merit," he said, according to Geo TV.

Supporters say her groundbreaking role bodes well for women on both sides of the bench

Many Pakistani public figures took to social media to offer their praise and congratulations.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari acknowledged the historic day in tweets, while Federal Minister for Science & Technology Shibli Faraz called it "an inspirational moment for women of this country."

Supporters are cheering the effect that Malik's groundbreaking role could have for women on both sides of the bench.

"This will have an impact on cases, not specifically those related to gender, but having a woman judge there will be increased confidence among women to access justice and reach out to the courts," Nighat Dad, a digital rights lawyer and human rights activist, told DW.

"She has broken all barriers in the judicial system and it will allow other women in the system to move forward," lawyer and women's rights activist Khadija Siddiqi told Al Jazeera. "I hope this will lead to more women-centric decisions by the judiciary in the future."

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.