The roots of Ramla Baig’s unrelenting advocacy for women in Pakistan began growing the day she was born.
“As cliche as it sounds, I didn’t choose this path; this path chose me,” she says. “Being born a girl in my country, your rights and liberties are automatically limited while your male counterparts gain an advantageous position — from birth — to establish and enjoy the perks of financial power and dominance. Experiencing this injustice was enough to spark my interest in the role that laws and human rights organizations played in tackling such issues.”
A 2019 Berkeley Law LL.M. graduate, Baig has become a leading figure in Pakistan’s surging movement for gender equality. She was a founding member of a digital platform that provides citizens free legal consultation and representation, has produced digital content to increase legal literacy in Pakistani citizens (especially women), co-hosts a national television show highlighting Pakistanis’ legal options, and gives talks at several educational institutions in her country to raise the legal awareness of young women and girls.
Baig has served as a legal and policy advisor for various governmental bodies on issues concerning women and children’s rights, organized training sessions on Pakistan’s mental health laws for the judiciary and prisoners, and drafted guides on these mental health laws and policies. She recently dived into the world of international business transactions and currently serves as a legal counsel at Wateen Telecom Limited, a subsidiary of Dhabi Group, a company based in the United Arab Emirates.
Now in the process of creating an organization to elevate the legal literacy of young women and girls, Baig received the 2023 Inspiring Woman of the Year award in Paris, given jointly by France Ameriques and the Berkeley Global Society. She says legal empowerment holds the key for women in Pakistan improving their economic and cultural standing, and that legislation alone is insufficient to address sexual violence, domestic abuse, and workplace harassment.
Baig, who calls her LL.M. year in Berkeley transformative for her career trajectory, recently discussed her wide-ranging work in Pakistan — and what drives it.
What are the main problems women in Pakistan face regarding freedom, empowerment, and equal treatment under the law?
On paper, Pakistan checks most of the boxes when it comes to providing a reasonably appropriate framework offering protections for its female citizens to freely and fully exercise their rights and liberties. The reality, however, is far from it. Deeply embedded cultural norms, misogynistic and patriarchal justifications for the existence of such norms, and the imbalance of economic power remain an impediment for Pakistani women in exercising their constitutional, legal, and human rights. While necessary and constructive dialogues have begun in many spaces, systemic discrimination and archaic customs continue to prevent real action and change.
Another factor grossly affecting Pakistani women’s ability to exercise their rights has been a lack of implementation of the relevant laws and policy measures in place to protect women against violence. While this area is heavily legislated with the judiciary taking a strict stance on the subject, the deteriorating law and order situation of the country as a whole continues to prevent material change. Such conditions hamper women’s ability to access public transport, institutions, and workplaces, which affects their freedom to exercise their constitutional and legal rights.
What factors are driving the growing support for women’s rights?
Baig: While traditional advocacy and activism continue to be a constant force, the impact of digital and social media has greatly increased support of this cause. In the pre-digital era, women’s rights issues were discussed and advocated for on limited forums by NGOs or lawyers working on the cause. In recent years, social and digital media platforms have served as a medium of information — and a forum housing conversation heavily influenced by global perspectives on various issues — leading to the emergence of legally and socially informed stakeholders.
In Pakistan, this shift can be seen in increased citizen participation, especially by young women and men, in national dialogues on legal and policy issues concerning women’s rights. Such activism, online movements, and advocacy across the country, and a call to be “on the right side of history,” has shifted the tide and produced legislative and judicial action with private organizations following suit.
What have been the greatest achievements so far in advancing gender equality in Pakistan?
Baig: In recent years, there has definitely been an increase in legislative and judicial action to protect Pakistani women against gender-based violence. The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2010 provided legal protection to women against workplace harassment. A huge cause for celebration was when our Supreme Court extended the definition of harassment under the act to include gender-based discrimination. This was done to ensure that any discriminatory behavior against women at a workplace besides a sexual or physical act is also penalized. To further tackle this problem, several anti-harassment cells were recently established at police stations around the country along with a website to process online harassment claims.
The Anti-Rape Investigation and Trial Act also passed in 2021, which provided for a specific procedure to ensure efficient reporting and investigation for rape cases and afforded protections for rape victims going through trial. Recent case law has also directed officers to prioritize the mental integrity and dignity of rape victims. Another moment of triumph was the inauguration of the anti-rape crisis cell that recently opened at a leading hospital in the capital city.
How does your television show cover these issues?
Baig: The show is called “Bolo Janab,” which means “Dear, Speak Up.” I sit on the panel with a recognized journalist and a comedian. We have three episodes each week: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The show began in November to take a satirical approach on current affairs to allow viewers to somehow find humor in these turbulent times. It was later decided that while speaking on the relevant legal issues Pakistani citizens are facing, our viewers should also be educated on the recourse, rights, and remedies available to them. Previously, I’d also been involved in production and dissemination of content designed to raise legal awareness in Pakistan through various digital platforms.
Why is helping and educating young women and girls in particular a priority for you?
Baig: The same reason why we focus so much on educating boys and young men; it increases the chances for financial independence, which in turn results in individual autonomy and empowerment. When one gender is not given equal access to education in their early years, it automatically deprives them of equal opportunity and a level playing field in the later stages.
While education may not always be a necessary requirement for financial empowerment of an individual in Pakistan, it certainly expands one’s mind and exposure beyond that of their households. This is extremely important as, culturally, most Pakistani girls and women’s mobility is severely restricted by their families.
Education also enables one to acquire skills necessary for active and independent public participation and social life, increasing one’s chances for securing financial independence. Most importantly, education enhances one’s ability to think and speak coherently, a tool essential for women to effectively advocate for their rights before any forum, be it their male relatives or their workplace employers.
How has being a single mother impacted your approach and commitment to this work?
Baig: While I questioned my status as a second-class citizen throughout my life, becoming a mother to a girl indeed strengthened my will to first, regardless of all forms of opposition I face, fully and freely exercise my own rights — rights that are as inherent as my very own existence and did not need to be granted — and second to play any part I can to make this world more equitable towards girls and women.
One of my favorite scholars, Professor Catherine A. MacKinnon, whom I later had the pleasure to meet at a conference in Berkeley, had already instilled in my mind the idea that the laws and legal justice system were inherently biased. Experiencing the legal system in Pakistan first as a litigant and later as a lawyer further substantiated my views.
Hence it wasn’t just being a single mother in Pakistan and trying to live a “normal” life while being perceived and treated as a taboo. It was also the experience of going through the legal process as a female litigant and a mother at the mercy of archaic laws — laws lacking female perspective — that confirmed to me how the world and the legal system was, in fact, designed by men and, in effect, severely discriminatory towards women.
What sparked your interest in Berkeley Law’s LL.M. Program?
Baig: Due to domestic constraints, I was only able to do an online, external undergraduate degree in law. When I decided to pursue a Master of Laws, I looked toward the highest ranked universities in the U.S., with a specific goal to acquire professional skills and an on-campus experience that could give me the skill set required to successfully navigate my way through the global landscape. Of all the schools that accepted my application, Berkeley Law was the only one that offered a program flexible enough for me to attend law school while fulfilling my responsibilities as a mother back home.
What was the most meaningful aspect of your time here, and how did it shape your professional path?
Baig: For me, every day was as meaningful as it could get. Dean (Erwin) Chemerinsky’s inspiring combination of exceptional intellect and humility will always be a benchmark for me. Our professors, each and every one, taught us the best professional education you could acquire but also trained our minds to think, analyze, and question the world in a manner that, to this day, stands out. It was a dream come true; I sat alongside the greatest intellects from around the world and was taught by the sharpest of minds.
Every single experience, from participating in class discussions and bag lunches arranged by the Advanced Degree Programs Office to organizing events as a member of Student Organization for Advanced Legal Students and collaborations with the Alumni Relations Office, played a significant role in bringing about the person that I am today and all that I’ve accomplished so far.
I also made some of the most meaningful and rewarding friendships at Berkeley, which have only grown stronger since.