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Law, Arabic language students learn from trailblazing women in Middle Eastern, North African judiciary

Oct 2, 2023

Judge Latifa El Khal Judge Latifa El Khal, a member of the Constitutional Court of Morocco, spoke on a panel at the Maurer School of Law as part of the conference “Her Excellency: A Conversation with Women Judges From the Constitutional Courts in the MENA Region.” Photo by James Boyd, IU Maurer School of Law

The first female judge in Jordanian history and an appointee of the United Nations General Assembly to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Another path-breaking woman on Jordan’s Constitutional Court and a former law dean at Al al-Bayt University. The only woman on Lebanon’s Constitutional Council, a body similar to the U.S. Supreme Court. A female member of the Moroccan Constitutional Court who has spent four decades in the judiciary.

These are the trailblazing women who students in the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies had the opportunity to learn from last week during the IU conference, “Her Excellency: A Conversation With Women Judges From the Constitutional Courts in the MENA Region.”

The conference, hosted by the Center for the Study of the Middle East and the Center for Constitutional Democracy at IU, included a public discourse in the Maurer School of Law’s DeLaney Moot Court Room on Sept. 25. The talk was mediated by Maurer School Dean Christiana Ochoa, the school’s first Latine dean.

“Given the recent appointment of women to many of these courts, it is now possible for them to meet as a cohort in order to share experiences, discuss the issues facing their courts, and build a network of connections among the judges and with legal academics who study the work of constitutional courts,” said Susan Williams, director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy and W. Foskett Professor of Law at the Maurer School of Law.

During the panel, the judges discussed recent shifts in female representation in the judiciary in their respective countries and the impact of those changes. Each judge agreed that the majority of people in their countries have more confidence in the judiciary now that women are a larger part of it.

“When you have both genders, it can be complementary and you can have both perspectives, which is an added value,” said Judge Mireille Najm from Lebanon. “But we always approach issues with the same goal: to apply the law.”

Increased female representation in the judiciary is not consistent throughout the region, however. For example, Ochoa said in her opening remarks that as of 2018, only 1 percent of judges in Egypt were women. The panelists also shared tales of resistance on the path to their current positions.

Two judges speak to a classroom full of students Judge Latifa El Khal, left, and Maysa Bydoom meet with students in the IU Arabic Flagship. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Taghrid Hikmet, Jordan’s first female member of its Constitutional Court, said her father wouldn’t allow her to go to law school, so she began her career as a teacher. When the King of Jordan appointed her to the United Nations General Assembly, a group of leaders presented their objections to the prime minister.

Hikmet said she welcomed the challenge. When the judges were asked to share women who served as role models for them, she replied, “I am my own role model.”

Judge Latifa El Khal, a member of the Constitutional Court of Morocco, had a different answer to the same question.

“My role model was every patient and persistent woman,” El Khal said through a translator. “Every woman who had goals and tried their hardest to reach them.”

Promoting gender equality around the world is core to the mission of the Center for Constitutional Democracy. The center raises awareness about the intersection of gender equality and constitutional design, and empowers women to have a voice in their constitutional process.

The Center for Constitutional Democracy and the Center for the Study of the Middle East have a longstanding relationship with the Constitutional Court of Jordan, fostering discussions of constitutional law across national borders. This particular conference aimed to build a network among female judges in the wider region to share knowledge, experience and support.

In addition to participating in panels, these four judges met with students in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies’ Arabic Flagship Program. They provided context and answered questions about the different legal systems in their countries, and the conversation was conducted fully in Arabic.

The Arabic Flagship — an IU program whose students participate in accelerated language study and a capstone year in Morocco — is part of The Language Flagship, an initiative of the National Security Education Program within the U.S. Department of Defense. The initiative aims to increase the number of Americans who are proficient in languages critical to national security. In addition to the Arabic Flagship, IU boasts a Chinese Flagship and a Russian Flagship — the most Flagship programs of any public university in the U.S.

Two female judges meet with a group of students Judge Taghrid Hikmet, left, and Judge Mireille Najm, participate in the conversation with foreign language students, which was conducted completely in Arabic. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Hayleigh Keasling, a senior studying international studies and Middle Eastern languages and cultures, said the meeting was invaluable not only for her language acquisition but for her deeper understanding of the region’s laws and judicial procedures.

“This experience was a great way to get exposure to different accents and dialects,” Keasling said. “Even though all of the judges were speaking formal Arabic, words and sounds are pronounced differently depending on where you’re from. There are so many words in Arabic for a single thing — for example there are something like 14 words for love — so watching them choose which word to use for particular contexts was fascinating.”

Keasling chose the Arabic Flagship because of her interest in joining the United States Foreign Service after graduation. She knew she needed to be fluent in a critical language and felt like Arabic could be the most versatile. Keasling said that hearing from these judges provided her with knowledge that she can employ while working with foreign governments and shaping foreign policy in her future career.

The meeting was just one of many ways IU’s leadership in languages and cultures and deep connections to the region have shaped her career path and broadened her understanding of the world.

“Ambassador (Feisal) Istrabadi, a former representative of Iraq to the U.N., is one of my professors and mentors; I was invited to sit in on his 3L law course on international human rights violations,” Keasling said. “I just know that I couldn’t get these types of experiences at any other institution.”

Istrabadi, who is also director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East, agreed that opportunities like this make an IU global education unlike any other.

“This event shows the effect that federal Title VI funds can have for our programs,” Istrabadi said. “It allows programming at the Hamilton Lugar School to connect directly with other schools throughout the university in ways that would be almost impossible without that funding. It is a part of what makes IU Bloomington unique.”


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