Before 1974, it was illegal for a woman to become a judge. When this legal bar was lifted, Nazmun Ara Sultana seized the opportunity.
She passed the civil services exams in 1975 and joined the judicial service as a "Munsif", now called assistant judge – firmly etching her name in time by becoming the first ever female judge in the history of Bangladesh.
Nazmun Ara went on to become a district judge, also a first, and later the first woman justice – as judges of the higher courts are called – of the High Court Division. In 2017, she became the first ever woman to become a justice of the Appellate Division, the highest court in the judiciary.
Nazmun Ara Sultana attributes her success to her parents, especially to her mother's prudence and open-mindedness.
"It was not long ago when women pursuing higher studies and a career were considered rebellious in our society. But my mother understood that this orthodoxy was robbing women of their dignity and rights," Nazmun Ara told The Business Standard.
Her mother wanted to change the norms of the prevailing patriarchy and realised that the best place to start would be at home.
"My progressive parents gave me full freedom. They gave me a dream to chase. Studying law was part of this dream," she said.
Born in Mymensingh, Nazmun Ara Sultana grew up with five siblings and was educated in her hometown. She graduated from the Mymensingh Law College and enrolled in the district bar as a lawyer. After passing the BCS exams, she was appointed as the judge at the Khulna District Court in 1975.
Nazmun Ara says her husband, who she married right after joining the judiciary, was as supportive as her parents.
"My husband has been an inspiration to me throughout my career," she said.
In 1987, she was appointed as an additional district judge, before being promoted to a district judge four years later, serving in Brahmanbaria, Chandpur and Cumilla in her new role.
In 2000, she was appointed a district judge to the High Court Division.
According to Nazmun Ara, her mother's vision – and hers – finally materialised when after a long period of service at the High Court she took oath as a justice of the Appellate Division on 23 February 2011.
"I felt I received the ultimate recognition for my work and dedication on that day," she told TBS.
Nazmun Ara Sultana retired as a justice of the highest judicial forum of the country on 7 July 2017. She had heard numerous important cases and delivered a number of landmark decisions, some of which have had a monumental impact on contemporary Bangladesh.
Among her notable verdicts were the ruling on "fatwa", which the High Court bench comprising herself and Justice Golam Rabbani declared illegal in 2001, a decision upheld later in the Appellate Division.
In 2010, she was the sitting co-justice of the High Court bench that ruled that the lease on former prime minister Khaleda Zia's house was illegal, leading to Khaleda's eviction from the military-owned property.
In the 2012 landmark ruling on the caretaker government system, Nazmun Ara Sultana was one of the two dissenting judges who disagreed with the majority decision of scrapping the provision for an election-time caretaker government, arguing that the system did not contradict constitutional principles.
Her work spanned outside of judicial duties as well. She founded the Women Judge Association and was the international director for the International Association of Women Judges until her retirement.
Looking back, the trailblazer realises how much the country has changed since she became the first woman judge. "Back then people would just come to watch me. I used to attract a crowd when I visited any place," she recalled.
Despite the progress, women still face obstacles, she said. But the best answer to all the naysayers and doubters is becoming skillful and qualified at one's work. "If you are courageous and have the right set of skills, you can overcome the hurdles. You also need the support of your family," she said.
After retirement in 2021, the former judge was appointed the director general of the Judicial Administrative Training Institute, making history again as the organisation's first DG.
"The institute frequently organises training for women judges. Hundreds of judges get training here. It feels great to see that women are progressing so much," Nazmun Ara said.
Nazmun Ara often talks to young aspiring judges. She offers counsel and advice to young professionals, who look up to her.
Her role as the director general is to oversee the training of lower court judges, with the aim of quality improvement of approximately 3,000 district and assistant judges.