In celebration of International Women’s Day, Omnia Gadalla, a member of the Global Advisory Council of the Institute for African Women in Law was selected as one of 12 women judges from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to participate in the program "Women Judges from the MENA Region" within the framework of "Influential Programs" by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice that took place at The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht – Netherlands from March 9-11, 2020.
The program was enriching, bringing together legal and judicial institutions, civil society, governmental and non-governmental institutions. It was also a great convening of judges, legal and gender equality experts, leading to lively debates, discussions and presentations on what has been happening in the judiciaries of the participating countries. The first day’s program as introduced by Mr. Paul Peters, Senior Advisor Human Rights & Political and Legal Affairs Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who led discussions regarding the forthcoming national reports to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Council.
At the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (Clingendaelzaal), Ms. Marriët Schuurman, Director Stabilization and Humanitarian Aid at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave an inspiring speech about the empowerment of women in justice. She clarified the Dutch commitment to achieving gender equality and the importance of achieving female inclusion in justice and the policies towards female inclusion in justice, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice and Security.
The first roundtable session focused on Women, Peace, and Security— the inclusion of women in conflict resolution and the second was on Improving women’s access to justice—eliminating legal and cultural barriers through policy. The session was finalized with very practical solutions for historic issues that need to be transformed to strategies and action plans. The roundtable sessions were moderated by Ms. Baukje Dijkstra of the Taskforce Women's Rights and Gender Equality at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Marijke ter Voert, Research and Documentation Centre, Ministry of Justice and Security, Ms. Marieke Wierda and Ms. Sivan Fatah both from the Department for Stabilization and Humanitarian Aid (DSH) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Next, we visited Eurojust, where we learned about the European-Mediterranean Levant Program by Ms. Cecilia Thorfinn, Head of Corporate Communications, who presented about “Enhancing international judicial cooperation between EU member States and Southern Partner Countries” and introduced the missions and challenges of Eurojust. In addition, Mr. Lukas Stary, National Member for the Czech Republic at Eurojust, presented on the relation between Eurojust and non-EU states. We also met with Ms. Laila at Baali, Director of WO=MEN (Dutch Gender Platform) who discussed the work of the platform and its cooperation with other NGO’s to reach equality by cooperating at the social and political levels through projects in the Netherlands and other countries.
At the Academy for Legislation, one of the most productive and exchanging experiences session took place. A brief introduction about the Academy and its programs (LLM, training programs, tailored programs, etc) was presented by Mr. Bert Niemijer, Director at Academy for Legislation. Then, rounds & short presentations were conducted with different panel members from different backgrounds (University, Legal Women, Supreme Court, NGO’s). The discussion was about “The Challenges Female Judges face in the Netherlands and MENA Region.” The discussion included seeking solutions, and the importance of supporting eachotehr, women and access to justice and obstacles and opportunities that arise as a female judge, such as gender stereotypes and finding a balance between work and personal life. The panel discussion was moderated by Ms. Simone Filippini, Head of Leadership 4SGDGs Foundation, with the attendance of Her Honor Hester Wattendorff, judge at the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, Ms. Linda Nekeman-Ijdema, Board member of Legal Women, Ms. Maaike Voorhoeve, Lecturer, Arabic culture and language at the University of Amsterdam, Ms. Femke Zeven, Bureau Coordinator at Bureau Clara Wichmann.
At the Center for International Legal Cooperation (CILC), the session was led by Mr. Willem van Nieuwkerk (Director of the Legal education and training in the MENA region and Ms. Laila al Zwaini, Partner at CILC). They started by informing us about the center and the legal education and training of the organization. Ms. Laila co-moderated a discussion with the other judges on the challenges and opportunities of 'legal pluralism' in the MENA-region, that is, the influence of shari`a-rules and tribal, customary traditions within (or parallel to) the formal rule of law system. She also introduced insights about the 'dawla madaniya', a trajectory towards the civil state in the Arab/Muslim world.
At the Humanity House, the “Hague Talks” event was held under the theme “How do Female Judges from the MENA Region Stand up for Equality? Breaking cultural, social, religious and legal stigmas and barriers in the MENA region”. I was one of 3 speakers – women judges –, participated and spoke briefly about the story of Her Honor Setting The Bar. During my Hague Talk speech, I was asked “when will we see a woman judge preside over the Supreme Court in your country?” I replied “I do not know actually since we don't have women judges normally. I know there are women judges in the Dutch Supreme Court but let me ask you if the Dutch Supreme Court has ever been presided by a woman judge? They said no.” Two days later, Elsein -Public Diplomacy Officer at the Dutch MOFA and one of the program organizers sent me a text saying "First female president of Supreme Court was appointed here [Netherlands] on Friday! You brought us all good luck and spirit! Guess whenever we have a problem we just need to fly in you ;)."
Moving from The Hague (political capital and second largest Dutch city) to Utrecht (Fourth biggest Dutch City) the visit to “Training and Study Centre for the Judiciary (SSR) and Meeting with members of the Executive Board Mrs. A. E. Hopma, Senior Course Manager International Activities at SSR and Ms. Elise Bloem, International Event Manager. The meeting topic was “Vision on the quality of justice, investigation and prosecution through training and the role of SSR in facilitating international cooperation and exchange of knowledge.” We knew more about the Arab-Euro Judicial Network and discussed the opportunities for training and we suggested the 50/50 rule for sustaining gender equality among the training sessions. For the Euro-Arab network, we suggested creating a new policy that makes it easier for people to sign up for the SSR training sessions and to make its education more practical.
In Amsterdam, we visited the Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History (ATRIA), where we had an introduction to ATRIA and a guided tour through its amazing archive. Ms. Froukje Gaasterland, Senior Policy Advisor, gave us a lecture about the mission and values of the organization, history of (Dutch) feminists and pioneers in gender equality, gender stereotyping and ways to influence policymaking on gender equality. Needless to mention that each session the issue of “Her Honor Setting The Bar” was present and discussed since the ban on Egyptian women being appointed judges is still unresolved, despite international conventions and constitution of Egypt granting women equal rights.
In all, the program was very enlightening, aimed at exchanging knowledge and experience. Women judges from the MENA region agreed on the importance of having women judges and its positive reflection on the impartiality and independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, and development processes, which require the most qualified individuals in the country—both women and men, working hand in hand.