Memories came racing back for Ubongabasi Obot during a recent book launch at the ISS. The book’s theme? Breaking through the glass ceiling as an African woman. Obot’s own journey to become a female lawyer in Nigeria had been fraught with challenges, and she identified with the seven female Africans who are now judges in international tribunals and whose stories are captured in the book. Here she reflects on the launch, and on trying to make it in a male-dominated sector.
I remember the day that I was called to the Nigerian Bar Association as an admitted attorney. How happy and proud I was. But after graduating, people around me already began giving me unsolicited advice. Get a job in a private company! You should join the civil service and push the ranks! Get married, have children and build a good home! I wanted to engage in legal practise, and by that I mean litigation. A courtroom-style kind of life is what I yearned for. However, it was already made clear to me that litigation was men’s turf and that the perception existed that you could not be a successful litigation lawyer and a good wife.
I began practising as a lawyer in a private law firm. I also engaged in voluntary work for non-governmental associations, pursing my passion. Not too long after, I got married and moved to a different state. I became engaged in voluntary work, again while looking for a paid job. Oh, how tough and glaring it became. This was now the survival of the fittest, and by fit, I mean you had to be a “man”!
I wrote examinations for many private legal firms. I wanted the best, so I applied to those. I had the grades to match it. I passed the written examinations, moved to the oral interviews, and then the rejections kept on coming. I was broken. How was I ever going to get to the top? I had bills to pay, too. It was better to work in good law firms, as this would help me acquire more knowledge, build my clientele, and I could be on big profile cases. If I did well, worked with the right crowd and won the right cases, I could eventually be recommended for the position of a judge.
However, I did not get the big law firm jobs. I never understood why until one day, I received a call from one of the law firms I had applied to. ‘Hello is this Ubongabasi,’ I replied. ‘Yes, oh, I thought you were man,’ said the recruiter on the other line. You see, my name is quite masculine, which some may feel is misleading, but I do not apologise for that. The recruiter continued, ‘we received your application. Are you single or married?’ I answered, ‘I am married.’ The recruiter responded, ‘I’m sorry, but we cannot give you the job.’ No other explanation. I was denied the job by reason of being female and married. Therefore, in their opinion, I could not be a good lawyer.
I received the next blow from a regional manager of one of the top banks in Nigeria. Here, I did have connections. The manager and my uncle were friends. He mentioned that they had a vacancy for a legal / loan recovery officer. My uncle told him he knew a young and intelligent lawyer who fitted that profile. He asked that I send him my CV. Not bad, I thought—I could still go to court. The manager later called my uncle after and said I could not get the job, stating: ‘a married woman could not do that kind of job.’
The importance of sharing narratives
Thus when, on 7 May 2018, the book International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives was launched at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, the stories of the powerful women resounded with me, and resided with me. I had dreamed of a life in the courts, but my reality was different. It is so important for those who did make it to share their journeys through such books. And it is equally important those who didn’t make it to do the same.
The book launch was attended by numerous dignitaries from the International Courts and other organisations, was sponsored by the African Foundation for International Law, the ISS, and the Institute for African Women in Law. Edited by Dr. Josephine Jarpa Dawuni and Akua Kuenyehia, this book narrates the lives of seven female African judges who, through hard work and determination, now sit as judges of International Tribunals. Drawing on legal theories, feminist legal theories, post-colonial feminism and feminist institutionalism, it provides an intersectional analysis of how gender, geography, class, politics of the judiciary and professional capital contributed to shaping the lives of these women. Dawuni, who attended the launch, explained how the book celebrates the lives and laudable achievements of great African women judges.
The launch was followed by a panel discussion, beginning with Judge Julia Sebutinde of the International Court of Justice. She remarked on a number of questions that people ask her. Questions such as: ‘what you regard as the most important achievement of your life?’ This, she said, is a “curious question”, insinuating that women who did well in their careers had to sacrifice their family life to get to the top or that connections secured their jobs.
Listening to Dawuni’s and Sebutinde’s words, I knew I was in the right place! Daniela Kravetz talked about the Gqual campaign and their strategies to promote gender parity in international tribunals and bodies. When Judge Liesbeth Lijnzaad, the third and final panellist of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, later referred to the books on the shelves of her library, there were four books on how to succeed in the legal career—and none was written about women. All were about men who had succeeded in the legal field.
The book is thus also an important contribution to scholarship. The personal narratives of successful women in the legal sector have not been systematically written about. Women often find it very difficult getting to the top of their careers and if they do so, many in society immediately draw a number of presumptions. For example: they ‘had connections’; or ‘it was just by a stroke of luck’; or ‘they are not doing well as family women.’
We will see each other at the top!
I am glad that I attended this event. The words of these women continue to resonate in my head. As Lijnzaad offered me a bitterbal and smiled at me at the reception, I asked her, ‘how can I make it to the top?’ She answered, ‘become an expert in your field, work hard, and you will be able to play with boys on the same field. You will shine.’
I agree with her, but thought about how, in addition, some structural and cultural factors work against some women especially in less developed societies. These factors can be challenged through legal recourse, and through continuous and consistent exhibition of the works and achievements of successful women in all fields. We can also create movements to pressurise the government to create/implement laws against discrimination of married women in this and other professions.
Women should not be discouraged. These women judges have made it to the top, and there are other women who are extremely successful in their careers, too. We need to read about them more often. Every young girl or woman can make it if they put their mind to it. We will work hard, and we will see each other at the top!