'I Want Women To Have Rights Like Men,' Says Lawyer In Pakistan's Swat Valley : Parallels A dozen lawyers are helping other women in the Swat Valley with divorce, custody and inheritance cases. Some of the women lawyers defied the Taliban to study law and continue to endure threats.

'I Want Women To Have Rights Like Men,' Says Lawyer In Pakistan's Swat Valley

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There's a part of Pakistan that was once ruled by the Taliban, the Swat Valley. During those years of Taliban rule, it was deadly for girls to study. But some persisted, some even making it through law school to fight for women's rights, sometimes at their own peril. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the court here with a lawyer - her name is Mehnaz Naz - when this scene unfolds.

NOORSHAD BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: A woman in a brown burqa hovers near the entrance. She's holding her son's hand, and she clutches a slip of paper.

BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She shows it to a court guard who immediately walks over to Mehnaz. She's the only female lawyer here. Mehnaz is also distinctively dressed in a white headscarf and face veil over long white clothes. Over that, her black lawyer's robe.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD: (Foreign language spoken).

BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: The guard asks Mehnaz, are you free? And the woman, Noorshad Begum, explains her problem.

BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: "My husband married another woman, and he abandoned me. I have five children. He doesn't bother to ask about us."

BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Begum says when she complained to the police, the officer wrote down Mehnaz's name. He said Mehnaz would help.

MEHNAZ NAZ: (Through interpreter) I often fight cases free of cost for poor people. This woman can't afford to pay for a lawyer.

HADID: Minutes later, the guard stops Mehnaz again. He directs her to a woman holding a baby. She's crying. They chat. And then Mehnaz tells me...

NAZ: (Through interpreter) She wants justice and her rights. I want women to have rights like men.

HADID: Mehnaz says this happens all the time. She's a criminal lawyer, but she's taken on hundreds of these kinds of cases for free. It's important work in Swat, where there's around 500 male lawyers but only 12 female lawyers.

Mehnaz says she risked her life to be here. She decided to become a lawyer as a teenager after she saw her female relatives get cheated out of their inheritance. But she says she couldn't study in her hometown because the Taliban took over. They shut down the girls' school, and Mehnaz had to flee to her aunt's house in a town still under government control. She began studying law. But the violence followed her. And in 2009, clashes erupted around her aunt's house.

NAZ: (Through interpreter) I did my exams under very difficult circumstances. There was curfew, clashes. And I was afraid of the Taliban too, that they might kill me for getting an education. They also threatened my parents.

HADID: Her father insisted, despite the threats, that she continue. Within a few months, the army pushed the Taliban out of Swat. Mehnaz finished her studies and a couple of years later began practicing law. She says her first days were hard.

NAZ: (Through interpreter) People found it strange. They'd say, why has she joined a male profession? They said, why isn't she a teacher? Why doesn't she get a job that suits a woman?

HADID: Even going to the lawyers' cafeteria for the first time was terrifying. She says there were no women there at all.

NAZ: (Speaking foreign language).

HADID: And even though the Taliban were defeated - this was now 2012 - their insurgents were still threatening women who studied or worked, like Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A Taliban insurgent shot her in the head because she was advocating for girls' education. During that period, Mehnaz says threats against her family continued.

NAZ: (Through interpreter) My father was threatened. He was threatened through letters, mobile phones, sometimes through the post. They were terrible years for me.

HADID: Those years are over now. There's no more threats. Mehnaz says her male colleagues respect her, and they appreciate her work. Now Mehnaz has taken on another challenge. She's joined a movement demanding rights for her ethnic minority, the Pashtuns. A few days after we meet, she sends me a photo of herself at a small protest. She's the only woman in the photo. She holds a sign, and she stands in the front row. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Swat Valley.


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