Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Female Lawyers Fight for Equality

Women attorneys maintain that discrimination in the courts runs rampant.
By Zaineb Naji
Rasmiyyah al-Ubaidi, a 35-year-old lawyer from Baghdad, views the court as cerebral battlefield where attorneys can fight equally regardless of gender.



Unfortunately, she said, many Iraqis do not share her view.



"Some people view the judiciary as a physical, not intellectual, boxing ring," said Ubaidi.



Clients often prefer male attorneys, believing that female ones - particularly those who are younger - are weak and lack experience, she and other female lawyers maintain.



The latter say they fight gender stereotypes not only with clients, but also with their colleagues and judges. Ubaidi said some judges refuse to hear cases with women lawyers - who make up around 30 per of the profession - and some have changed their specialisations to focus on marriage and divorce cases because they are not respected in other courts.



Samra al-Rees, a 30-year-old lawyer in Baghdad, said women in particular are leaving criminal law "because the client believes that a female lawyer cannot deal with police and criminals".



Sexism is deeply and historically rooted in Iraqi courts. In former president Saddam Hussein's era and today many female lawyers have faced difficulties because their work defies customs and traditional female roles.



The dishonesty of the judiciary under Saddam, which was tainted by bribes, made it difficult for women to work with ministries and police conducting criminal investigations. Citizens at that time did not seek legal expertise but rather fixers who could get them out of their predicament by any means.



A report on women in Iraq issued by the rights watchdog Amnesty International in February 2005 said Iraqi women had generally high levels of education and many were qualified lawyers, but they still suffered discrimination under the post-Ba'athist government. Discrimination against female judges is particularly harsh, Amnesty maintained: of about 700 judges in Iraq at the end of 2004, fewer than three per cent were women.



"Yes there is sexual discrimination, but it is not that prevalent," argued Sajida al-Kubaisi, a female judge with the court of cassation.



Beyond sexism, the dangerous security situation makes it difficult for lawyers to handle some cases, particularly those in criminal courts, she said. Criminal lawyers have been threatened and some killed.



Kubaisi maintained that if the security situation improves and the new constitution is implemented correctly - particularly the articles ensuring women's equality - women will feel more empowered in the workplace.



In a number of areas that have grown increasingly conservative since Saddam Hussein was ousted in April 2003 - including central and southern Iraq - women lawyers are facing more barriers than before. Some religious parties narrowly view women's roles as marriage partners who stay at home rather than work partners.



A female lawyer from Ramadi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said colleagues of hers in the city are suffering from sexual discrimination. Ramadi, in Anbar province, has been under siege since September as US and Iraqi forces battle with insurgents based there.



"I can't work as a lawyer because the poor security situation and the [strict] Islamic trend prevailing in the city means men are exclusively working in the field," she said. "So I quit the work entirely."



Asma' al-Bayati, a 37 year-old lawyer from Baghdad, said sexism runs rampant in both criminal and civil courts. She said the problem is so severe that the judiciary should conduct a sweeping review of the role of female lawyers, judicial assistants and judges.



Haider Adil, a 38-year-old lawyer from Baghdad, said being a lawyer is a difficult job that often requires the "male traits" of force and self-restraint.



But this does not mean that there are no successful female lawyers, he said. Many specialise in religious law cases involving divorce and marriage. "And most of their clients are women," said Adil.



Zaineb Naji is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.

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