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Shahla Zia — A Tireless Champion Of Pakistani Women’s Legal Rights

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This piece is part of a series recognising the efforts and struggle of Pakistani women who challenged the status quo and paved the way for other women.

Shahla Zia, affectionately known to her friends as Shelley, was a Pakistani lawyer, activist and one of the founding members of Women Action Forum (WAF). She also remained the joint director of the Aurat Foundation for over a decade. Shahla was one of the four women who founded AGHS Law Associates in Lahore that provides legal services to women. In 2005, she was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz for Public Service by the government of Pakistan. She was among the 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, but the nomination was not accepted.

Shahla’s father, Mahmood Ali Khan, was an activist with the Pakistan movement. Her mother, Satnam Mahmood, worked in the education sector. Shahla graduated in law from the University of the Punjab in the 1960s — during the time when women hardly chose legal profession. Shahla was one of the first practicing female lawyers in Pakistan. As a tireless advocate for political participation of women, Shahla worked with lawmakers to push for reserved seats for women in elected bodies.

In 1994, Shahla along with others filed a petition in the Supreme Court against construction of an electric grid station on the grounds that it risked public health. The SC issued a landmark judgement in the case, and ruled that the Constitution of Pakistan protects the right to a healthy environment and this right fell within the right to life and dignity. The case is known as “Ms. SHEHLA ZIA and others—Petitioners. versus. WAPDA—Respondent”, and is still widely cited in discourses around environmental issues.

While struggling against attacks from religious hardliners and regressive legislation during the Zia-ul-Haq era, Shahla continued to guide her comrades at the WAF to collectively fight for social change. She contributed various research and legislative writings to spread awareness about the legal rights of women which were systematically denied at the time. Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) was Shahla’s brainchild. Shahla also contributed greatly to a report by an enquiry commission headed by Justice (r) Aslam Nasir Zahid about women’s legal rights. The report is considered the best reference book about the state of Pakistani women.

Shahla passed away after a brief illness in 2005 in Islamabad.

Legendary human rights defender Asma Jahangir had written the following words about Shahla Zia in an article paying tribute to her following her passing.

“Shahla was one of Pakistan’s first practicing women lawyers. She initially worked in the chambers of barrister M. Anwar and then with Dr. Pervaiz Hasan. After the birth of her second child she took a break from professional life. It was during this gap in her practice that I met her; together we were to start a life of activism. Barrister Shahid Rehman encouraged me to team up with her to explore the possibility of starting a law firm. It only took a few moments to convince Shelly.

Four partners, Shahla Zia, Hina Jilani, Gulrukh Rehman and myself set up AGHS Law Associates in Lahore. An all women’s law firm was a bit of an amusement for our male colleagues. Some even suggested that we change the name by placing “h” before the “a” and more appropriately call it “hags”. Others predicted its early demise or disputes within the partners. Nothing of the sort happened. The firm thrived and the partners bonded over the years. Shahla shifted to Karachi and eventually to Islamabad but her association with AGHS remains even to this day.”

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Naya Daur