Striking at the Glass Ceiling: A Tale of Seven Judges (and a Lawyer)

** This post was originally published on BLISS: The ISS Blog on Global Development and Social Justice.

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, pursuing 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 t