Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – There have been a number of important stages in the life of Shada Nasser – the first female lawyer to work in Sanaa, and the first female lawyer to stand before the [Yemeni] courts unveiled – that have helped build her character and refine her talent, which has allowed her to become one of the most feted Yemeni lawyers on both the national and international levels. Perhaps many people recall the picture of Shada Nasser taken less than a month ago when she jointly received an international prize in New York [Woman of the Year Prize from Glamour Magazine] along with Najood Ali. Shada Nasser represented Najood Ali in court, successfully securing a marriage annulment for the girl who was only ten years old at the time. This resulted in the two receiving international fame, since this was an unprecedented event in Yemen and has encouraged other girls [in the same situation as Najood] to do the same.
Shada Nasser was born on 1 May 1964 in Aden, which at the time was a British colony. Her father, Mohamed Nasser Mohamed, was a well-known politician and diplomat who died under mysterious circumstances in an airplane accident in 1973 along with a number of other diplomats from South Yemen. Shada graduated with a Law degree from Charles University in Prague in 1989, and completed a one-year postgraduate degree from the same university. Shada worked as Director of the Drafting Committee for Legal Affairs for the University of Sanaa between 1990 and 1996, and she also founded the first female only law firm in March 1996. Shada Nasser also participated in the Yemeni parliamentary elections of April 1997, acting as Assistant Secretary-General of Technical Affairs for the Electoral Oversight Commission.
Shada Nasser was one of three female Yemeni lawyers to found the pioneering female law firm in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, where it was unprecedented for women to work in law, in comparison to the city of Aden where women work as lawyers, judges, and police officers.
Shada believes that her determination is what has allowed her to overcome these professional obstacles and barriers to become the first female lawyer in the city of Sanaa.
The first day of Shada Nasser’s professional life as a lawyer was a strange and busy one. Shada told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I hailed a taxi cab and asked the driver to take me to the Bani Al-Harith Court which is located in the north of the city. The driver was very curious, and what served to increase his curiosity was that I was unveiled. This was ten years ago when I was younger and more beautiful! The driver asked me ‘You must have a case in court?’ I answered yes. He said ‘Are you filing for divorce?’ I said no, I’m a lawyer. He did not believe me and continued to believe that I was going to court to file for divorce. He continued to ask me questions and in the end he said to me ‘If it won’t embarrass you, tell me who your husband is, and I will hit him for you!’”
Inside court Shada Nasser found a number of tribal men and others who were waiting for their legal cases to be heard. They looked at her in shock and said ‘What is this girl doing here?’
Perhaps Shada Nasser was frightened at the prospect of standing before a traditional Yemeni judge who would not have been used to dealing with female lawyers. However she was surprised as the judge was completely calm. Of her first day in court Shada said, “In my first case, I was in front of Judge Mohamed Hamran, and to be honest he welcomed me as a member [of the court] and he encouraged me and my other colleagues, and we did not feel that he was treating us as women or girls with no experience or unable to handle our responsibilities. Some judges in Sanaa’s courts also [treated us] in the same way such as Judge Mohamed al Wadaey and Judge Mohamed al Sharfi, who encouraged the role of women.”
But judges and indeed Yemenis in general, are not all the same, and do not all encourage the role of women in the judicial system. One of these, according to Shada Nasser, was a judge who later went on to become a minister, and Shada Nasser has bad memories of him. Shada said, “He did not welcome me. Another judge would ask me to move from [sitting] in the front row to [sit] in the second row. When I asked why, he answered, ‘You are a woman, and the front row is for men only, no matter whether you are a lawyer or not.’ But my insistence in doing my job in a professional manner eventually forced him to respect me.”
Shada Nasser, who was born in Aden and studied in Eastern Europe, returned to her country at a time when North and South Yemen were being reunified, and the new capital city became the conservative Sanaa, rather than the liberal Aden. Shada Nasser, who grew up in liberal Aden, was thus free from the social customs and traditions that were and are still prevalent in Northern Yemen, including wearing the Hijab [headscarf] and the Niqab [face veil]. Speaking about this Shada remembers, “Once I was trying a case in front of a judge and suddenly my Hijab fell off my head – which I did not [ordinarily] wear in any case but had opted to cover my hair in accordance with society [in Sanaa]. The Secretariat of the Court asked me angrily ‘What is that on your head?’ meaning your Hijab has fallen off and you are standing in front of the judge with an uncovered head. Then I started to fasten a pin to my Hijab to avoid such situations [in the future].”
The daughter of a liberal politician and diplomat, it was expected that Shada Nasser would follow in the footsteps of her father, either into politics or diplomacy, or journalism. Her father was also a journalist and founded the newspaper ‘Al Tariq’ in Aden in 1966, which is now run by his son, Ayman Nasser. However Shada Nasser chose the path of law, and she confirms that she chose to enter law because her father died under mysterious circumstances which went uninvestigated, and she hoped to prosecute the persons who, in her own words, “killed my father.” This is not the only
reason that Shada Nasser decided to enter law, but also because she wanted to stand up for the oppressed.
Shada Nasser is one of the few female [Yemeni] public figures not to have affiliated themselves with a political party, and she was particularly influenced by her father’s political ideals. She explained this saying, “Since my childhood I lived in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [South Yemen] which was built almost along socialist lines. My father read widely and followed the news to the point that we had a small radio in our bathroom, and newspapers next to it, and he would listen to the news and read in the bathroom so as not to waste time. He dreamt of an equal society with regards to human rights and duties, he dreamt of helping the workers and peasants, but he was not a revolutionary!”
Despite the large number of legal cases that Shada Nasser has undertaken over the previous years, both nationally and internationally, her victory in the case of the child-marriage of Najood Ali represents a pivotal moment in her professional career, according to many observers in Yemen. Shada believes that Najood is just one example of a phenomenon that affects thousands of lives “but Najood was the only one to reach the court and say no to an early marriage, and her voice has reached the entire world.”
The environment that Shada Nasser was born into and grew up in is very different from the environment that she currently lives in, for society in general, and women in particular, had more freedom the ‘People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen’ or ‘South Yemen’ but after the unification she moved to live in the new capital of Sanaa, which has been the capital of the ‘Yemen Arab Republic’ or ‘North Yemen.’ In Sanaa, she found many differences including high rates of illiteracy, and the oppression of women’s rights, even though the law said that they – to some extent – are equal to men, reality showed otherwise.
The new reality faced by Shada Nasser may have caused some kind of shock in the beginning, and perhaps it can be said that she has adapted to [this new reality] today just as many of her counterparts have. Many men have also adapted to this new reality, whether they moved from Aden to Sanaa after the unification of the country, or whether they returned to Yemen after studying abroad. This is why we find many people, including Shada, who speak about the regime and the laws in the former South Yemen, and of the privileges that they experienced there that allowed Shada Nasser to study in Europe and go on to become a famed lawyer today. This is why she feels that there are “many oppressed people in our society, especially women and children; this includes a group female prisoners in the Central Prison in Sanaa who are imprisoned along with their children [after giving birth in prison].”
Even among the educated women of Yemen, Shada Nasser has been lucky to accomplish all that she has, especially in comparison to many girls who graduate from university in Yemen but are unable to enter the work force due to their husbands wishes. Shada Nasser is married to Dr. Mohamed Ali Al Saqqaf, a professor of international law and Sorbonne graduate; he is a “southerner” like her, who shares similar beliefs as her about living in a “male dominated” society, which does not occur within the tribal community alone, but can also be seen within the educated elites of Yemen.
There can be no doubt that Shada Nasser is proud of her many [legal] victories, but of course these are a drop in the ocean when looking at the reality of Yemen. What cannot be denied is that there are those [in Yemen] who see Shada Nasser merely as a woman, and there are those who completely disagree with her and the principles that she represents. However this does not preclude others from looking at Shada Nasser’s experience and how this might influence the next generation of Yemenis, not only in Aden but in Sanaa also.