An immensely successful lawyer is what you think of when talking of her – but Nihad Kabir’s achievements go beyond just the legal profession.
FINDING A BALANCE
Almost thirty years ago, in a version of Bangladesh where women in law were an unfamiliar sight, Nihad Kabir began paving her way to becoming the prominent lawyer she is now. She obtained her B.A. (Hons) degree in Law as well as her LL.M. from Cambridge University, and upon her return to Bangladesh, she was also enrolled as an Advocate with the Bangladesh Bar Council. She is now entitled to appear before both Divisions of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
Unlike many before her, she is in her fourth consecutive year as the President of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dhaka (MCCI) now. But what she finds more challenging, she says, is being on the board of so many different companies and entities at the same time. She is currently associated with Square Textiles Ltd., BRAC Bank Ltd., IDCOL, Bkash and Kedarpur Tea Co. Ltd. to name just a few.
“For someone like me, especially being a lawyer, it is very uncomfortable to go into a board meeting without having read the files or prepared at all. With the number of companies I am a part of, maintaining this can get quite difficult. But I always try to do the best I can,” states Nihad.
When asked about her work as a lawyer, she answers with some dissatisfaction. Given her multitasking personality, even amidst her constant engagement with MCCI, Nihad Kabir seems to manage quite a good amount of time for her legal work, but not as much as she would like, she confesses.
Good health lies in knowing when to take a break, however, and out of her chaotic day to day schedule, Nihad Kabir ensures time to relax through photography – her favourite subject being birds.
She was elected the President of MCCI for the first time around two weeks after her husband, who was also an excellent photographer she mentions, had passed away. Because it is such a public role, she barely had scope to go through the grieving process properly. When she finally took some time off, it was a wonderful February afternoon relaxation at her home when she discovered her love for bird photography.
It all began with a stork-billed Kingfisher she spotted. It had just caught a fish and was sitting with its meal on a mango tree, and despite being a bit out of focus, this shot she took of the bird garnered good responses on social media, including one from renowned photographer and friend Ihtisham Kabir. From there on she realized that this home she had been living in for over half a century, with its gardens and their neighbour’s garden and pond, was home to about thirty-five different species of birds. She also recalls capturing a very rare female blue rock thrush on its way back in its migratory path from the lower Himalayas to the South of India. “If you watch them long enough, you know that all the different species have very different characteristics. I find observing their behaviour interesting and extremely relaxing, but I don’t go for specific bird watching tours as such. It’s mostly all from my home here, or at the village, and at the tea plantations,” says Nihad Kabir.
Taking a good shot of a bird is all about that perfect timing, and if you are wondering how she had a camera lying ready, this is not the first time Nihad Kabir has tried her hands at photography. She has been taking pictures from a very young age, having started from her father’s days of the Rolleiflex, Yashica and even a Polaroid. Every Saturday she would head over with her father to Bongshal to the offices of Sangbad, her family-owned newspaper, where having met legendary photographers like Rashid Talukder and M.Alam, she learnt a great deal about photography, including how to develop prints from negatives.
Aside from the fascinating experiences she has had surrounding photography, Nihad Kabir has also travelled far and wide, including places she admits she probably would not have gone on her own, thanks to the opportunity she got, working as Counsel in the Office of the General Counsel of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, the Philippines from July 1996 to February 2000.
Prior to that role, she had been working in the Chambers of Syed Ishtiaq Ahmad, Senior Advocte and Barrister. Having grown up comfortably in Dhaka where both her parents were quite well-known, she hadn’t needed to live away from home before, other than to pursue her higher education in the UK. So this was a first big move, especially being the youngest of her siblings, in a scenario where her older brothers had never gone off for work as such.
She fondly recalls how her father, who was never one for demonstrating his emotions much, couldn’t help but look sad as his only daughter packed to go off for the next few years. “He made me pack the entire set of Rabindra Rachanabali and the Bankimchandra novels!” she chuckles in nostalgia.
As the youngest one to have been recruited directly, and the first Bangladeshi in their legal office, Nihad Kabir found her experience in the Philippines overwhelming at first. ”But it certainly helped me grow both as a person and a lawyer. Being a lawyer in Bangladesh is very different from being one in a multilateral organization where your work is scrutinized very thoroughly. But in institutions as such, even if you are the most junior lawyer in the room, your opinion will often count the most,” she says with a sense of contentment.
The Philippines is where Nihad Kabir learned scuba diving. She also had the opportunity to visit places like Mongolia, Vietnam, and Cambodia because of the work she was doing there. She goes on to talk about the people she had met, including some Bangladeshis who she says truly took her under their wings and became her mentors. “Different kinds of people and their expectations, their styles of working, and all the different experiences – one really learns a lot. All of it since then has helped me in my professional life in Bangladesh as well.”
Women in the Law profession
You can’t help but wonder, however, has it always been such a smooth sail for this accomplished woman? Nihad Kabir says no.
Nihad Kabir mentions that because of her good fortune of having worked with two very prominent lawyers during those difficult days for women in law – Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed and Mahmudul Islam – she has managed to get to where she is today. While that remains true, she did face her share of harassment.
Women had a hard time being taken seriously back in the day. But by dint of sheer determination and hard work put together by the women in the law profession, this scenario has definitely slowly shifted. Now many more women are actively practising in both the Dhaka District Court and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, creating various tales of success. Little things such as providing essential physical facilities for women, from the common rooms to the bathrooms, are now much better too.
“There was a time when families often feared sending off their daughters to remote postings in case of government jobs, but Bangladesh is changing, and this quaint notion that ‘women need protection, not independence’ was actually more of a politically-correct way of saying that a woman is physically vulnerable and incapable of protecting herself!” Nihad Kabir opines.
There are still instances of lack of security, which prevents women from staying late at their chambers, and consequently not getting better cases. Regarding violence against women, Nihad Kabir says, “It is still a societal issue. It is ingrained in the minds of our men that it is okay to physically chastise women. What they forget is it is not okay to physically chastise anyone, let alone women!”
So how do we end violence against women in this new decade? Continued implementation of the laws is necessary as always, but additionally, the proliferation of electronic and print media in Bangladesh should be utilized, she thinks. In addition to being with the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) which has provided legal aid to many women for a long time now, Nihad Kabir has recently been speaking to Dhaka’s advertising agencies and large corporates regarding the need for more public awareness campaigns. “It is not just women. You hear all these horrific incidents of violence on children as well. Laws will only go so far. We also need a constant social movement,” she adds.
Patronising Women Empowerment
More women in Bangladesh are now seen getting into direct economic work. But it appears that the more they try to assert their freedom, the more there is a backlash. Nihad Kabir finds the cause: “Even now the current generation of men are not used to the fact that their wives or sisters are not like most of their grandmothers. Not a lot of effort is being made to make the men more secure about the changing social and economic status of women. Women are transitioning, but men are still expected to be the way they were a hundred years ago. Men also need to be helped to adapt. It will take time of course, but it should change faster rather than slower.” Families and schools can contribute a lot to this positive change, she believes.
In the case of Nihad Kabir, knowing a lot of great women has inspired and helped her tackle such issues. In its one hundred and sixteen years of history, she happens to be only the third female president of MCCI, her predecessor being another eminent name in the industry, Rokia Afzal Rahman. Incidentally, the very first woman to become president at MCCI was Nihad Kabir’s mother, Laila Rahman Kabir, known as a social activist and for being an extraordinarily brilliant mind in business as well as a firm believer of women empowerment.
Recently, MCCI has started engaging with WEConnect International, a World Bank project that is a global network connecting women-owned businesses to qualified buyers around the world. They are also working with a couple of other institutions to try and identify where the roadblocks are in getting finance into the hands of women-owned SMEs. Nihad Kabir, in particular, has been trying to promote the new generation young women who are going into family businesses in Bangladesh or into large corporate businesses, deliberately focusing on them to bring them into MCCI activities.
If in this day and time such a notion still exists that women can’t have it all, Nihad Kabir is definitely one of those women who constantly defy it. “I’ve seen my mother at work since I’ve been in school, and I can’t say I’ve gotten any less attention because of that. I myself have been working from a fairly early age. I qualified as a lawyer when I was about twenty-three years old. I have looked into – not a lot but – various family businesses on and off. I’ve worked at Sangbad, our newspaper, and for our tea plantations. But I make time for my family just as well. There are many people who work and don’t have a good family life, many who don’t work and still don’t have a good family life, and many who have both. There is no set rule or formula to it. What you make of your life really depends on you.”
Nihad Kabir with her head held high points out that there is not a single thing women cannot do. And to the aspiring legal professionals, as well as all the young women out there, she has just one advice – “If you have a dream, pursue it. Do not ever let somebody tell you that you cannot do something. You can absolutely do it!”