|High Court Judge and member of the Australian Virtual Centre for Leadership Women Nazhat Shameem talks about her career choice, opportunities for other women and leadership.Q: What experiences and insights have led you towards choosing a legal career? Nazhat Shameem: I went to a multi-racial school in Fiji, and I was a compulsive reader. My mother was a school-teacher and my father a poet, philosopher and playwright. I always saw the law as a vehicle for non-violent social change. The concept of equality before the law I saw as protecting the underdog and disadvantaged from the tyranny of the majority. The combination of my home and school environment, with everything I read about the law, led me to choose the law as my career.
Q. How did you break through the “glass ceiling” and are there similar opportunities for other women in law or other fields in Fiji?
Nazhat Shameem: Fiji’s glass ceiling is tough, because our community is driven by both ethnicity and patriarchy. I am a Muslim, Indo-Fijian woman, and the combination of my race, religion and gender is very hard for many people to stomach.
I was made Director of Public Prosecutions in 1994, after acting in that position for one year. I believe I was appointed firstly because there had been a severe “brain drain” after Fiji’s 1987 coup, and secondly because I always maintained a non-political position in the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding our legal system post-1987. The hard part was not the breaking through, but was the maintenance of my position after my appointment. Sexual stereotyping led many to try to pressurize me or manipulate or simply to bully me, into furthering particular economic/legal/political positions. It was a most difficult and testing time. Ten years later, there are many more women who hold senior legal and judicial positions.
Q. What have been some of the positives and negatives of being at the top of your profession and the only Indo-Fijian female Judge in Fiji’s High Court?
Nazhat Shameem: The most rewarding part of being in a position of leadership, is that you are in a position to forge social and legal changes. You can persuade governments to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Commissioners of Police to set up specialized units for offences against women and children, and Ministers of Education to abolish corporal punishment in schools. But the down side is that the more change you personally drive, the more of a threat you become to the establishment. So the stronger and the more determined you become to effect change through the law, the more you become the victim of stereotypical and hostile attacks. The stereotypes accompanying the strong woman image, are then compounded by racial stereotypes accompanying the Indo-Fijian. And in recent years since September 11th, the stereotypes accompanying the Muslim.
So in turn, I have been called hostile, spiteful, manipulative, devious, cunning and power-hungry. It is not surprising that many women in Fiji decide that it is too difficult to continue to forge change. For all the rewards attached to my position as an Indo-Fijian female High Court judge, there are an equivalent number of sanctions.
Q. From a legal perspective, what have been some of your observations about women’s conditions in Fiji and the impact of crime and justice on their lives?
Nazhat Shameem: In my opinion, women in Fiji continue to be affected adversely by poverty, lack of education, lack of access to housing, legal services, and civil services, and by the legal system. Although our courts have abolished the law on corroboration in sexual cases, and although our Constitution guarantees the right to equality and freedom from gender discrimination, the women in Fiji remain disadvantaged in real terms. As I have said, Fiji has deeply entrenched patriarchal communities. There is a danger that judgments and laws which declare the right to equality have no real meaning to the lives of most of our women.
Q. Do you see yourself as being a leader? How would you describe your leadership?
Nazhat Shameem: I accept that as a High Court judge I am in a position of leadership. Whether I always make correct decisions in that position I cannot say. I only know that I try to get it right. I think my style of leadership has been described as consultative and egalitarian. For myself I like to be part of a stable work environment with maximum transparency and daily social interaction. I find that such an environment prevents conflict.
Q. You have spoken out about prison conditions for remand prisoners in Fiji. Do you see this as demonstrating leadership that is beyond the role you have? Did your views on prison conditions and mandatory imprisonment for drug offenders in Fiji lead to change?
Nazhat Shameem: My judgments on prison conditions arose out of bail applications. Fiji’s Bail Act 2002 lists conditions of custody as a relevant factor in a bail application. I visited the prison and ruled on the conditions, as part of my judicial duty. The conditions were unacceptable under the Bail Act and section 25 of the Constitution which provides for freedom from inhumane and degrading conditions. My decision was not popular with the government of the day and with many people who believed that prisoners deserve whatever they get. However a judge cannot be concerned with what is popular, only with what is right and just.
In that sense I did not act beyond my judicial role. However, my decision (and that of the other judges at the time) led to an improvement in the remand conditions. In relation to my decision in State v. Audie Pickering on mandatory imprisonment for young offenders, the Drugs Decree was later repealed and replaced with the Illicit Drugs Act 2004, which left sentencing open to the discretion of the courts.
Q. What have been some other initiatives that you have undertaken outside of your role that are aligned to your passions and direction?
Nazhat Shameem: I chaired the Children’s Coordinating Committee from 1993 to 1999, and in that capacity was able to see many changes effected to Fiji’s laws on children. I was National Co-ordinator for Judicial Training from 2002 to 2005 and was able to ensure that all judges and magistrates were exposed to a continuous programme of judicial training. That was very satisfying. Also satisfying was working with the media on making our court processes more transparent to the public. That project in 2005 and 2006 involved ensuring access to all criminal judgments by the media and the public. Finally, I currently chair the Criminal Justice Council, a body made up of the Commissioner of Police, Commissioner of Prisons, Director of Public Prosecutions and Permanent Secretary for Justice. The Committee discusses important issues in relation to the criminal justice system, with a view to changing what is not serving the people of Fiji well.
Q. How do you support other women professionally? Do you see this as being important?
Nazhat Shameem: I believe that supporting other women is very important, provided it can be done without losing judicial impartiality (both perceived and actual). So in a rape case I cannot support the victim. What I can do is to show sensitivity to the way the justice system has impact on women’s access to substantive justice, and to implement the law to effect such substantive justice. Out of court I enjoy a network of other women judges and lawyers. I am a member of the International Association of Women Judges.
Q. What would you like to change for women in Fijian society?
Nazhat Shameem: I would like to see substantive equality for women. I would like to see a greater voice for women. I would like to see every girl and woman educated to the level of her wishes and ability.
Q. What is your vision as High Court Judge?
Nazhat Shameem: To do justice for all people, without fear or favour or ill-will, and to uphold Fiji’s Constitution in all things.