Throwing Caution to the Wind in the Face of Repression

Posted March 22, 2009 from Switzerland
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Meet Sarab Hassan—Iraqi woman, business lawyer, human rights defender, caretaker, provider, trailblazer.

Born in Baghdad to a family of seven children, Sarab overcame a myriad of socio-cultural barriers to achieve the success she has today. One of the most transformative moments in Sarab’s life was when her dad married a second wife (technically his legal right under Shariah law). After witnessing the anguish this caused her mother and the trauma imposed upon her family, Sarab vowed to never depend on anyone but herself and to always provide for her family. This experience fueled Sarab’s determination to look opposition in the face and to join the forces of women who break the mold of Iraqi woman.

Sarab became fluent in English and French, earned two Bachelors degrees (Political Science and Law) and a Masters in Law, specializing in gender and human rights, and worked her way up the corporate ladder to become a partner at the Nuri Yaba Law Office. Sarab now works endless hours in a day to support her mother and 6 sisters—no small feet for woman in Iraq.

Like most Iraqis, Sarab has been directly affected by the US-led invasion of her country. Power outages, enforced curfews, bombings, death, destruction and great fear for safety have become a common reality for Sarab and her fellow country men and women. These bleak conditions did not stop Sarab, however. After the ousting of Saddam Hussein, Sarab became the Human Rights Program Manager for the American Bar Association’s Iraq Program (ABA) and joined forces with international experts to assist with drafting the country’s new constitution. She was particularly driven to ensure that women’s rights were enshrined and secured within the legal instrument. She also took it upon herself to apply for a Hubert Humphrey fellowship and travel to the country of her invader in 2006, to earn her LL.M degree at American University-Washington College of Law (WCL) and to be an ambassador for her country.

While in the United States, Sarab continued working with the ABA and bore witness to the conditions in her country, the infrastructural barriers to progress, and the subordination of Iraqi women, often under the guise of (mis)interpretations of Shariah law.

During Sarab’s second semester at WCL, her 17 year-old nephew was tragically murdered, along with 6 other young Sunni men, in a bout of sectarian violence initiated by Shiites in Baghdad. In Sarab’s own words, this “destroyed my world.” Amidst immense emotional pain and miles of separation from her family, Sarab pulled deep from within to complete six papers and graduate from WCL with the highest marks. Sarab and her family wore nothing but black for one year to mourn her nephew’s death, in accordance with Iraqi tradition.

Undoubtedly, Sarab has a lifetime of insight and experience to share with women and men of the world. When asked what is the foremost global issue affecting girls and women’s lives today, Sarab responded, “education, health, self confidence, freedom and [opportunity] . . . .” She also noted that women’s place of birth has an immense affect on the quality of their lives. Simply put, women who are born in the countryside, without access to resources, walk very different paths on this earth.

When asked how she would address these issues if she was “Leader for the Day,” Sarab responded that she “would do many things, not just for women but for all of humanity.” She would provide free education through college and make it compulsory for girls to ensure that no one could prevent them from obtaining a proper education. She would also provide “free health care, allow gay marriage everywhere, [impose] capitol punishment for rape, declare shopping as a sport and so many other things.” Finally, if Sarab could do anything in this life she said she would “work less, travel more . . . and change most of the laws in my country.”

On a personal note, Sarab has been one of the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. She broadened by conception of realities in Iraq, she challenged my understanding of the purported “War on Terrorism,” she embraced my life, despite walking such a starkly different path, and she reminded me that life is not black and white. While she does not approve of many of the actions of the US government, she is capable of distinguishing between a country’s government and its citizens. In that spirit, she welcomed me into her life with open arms. We could all use a little more of that. We could all benefit from meeting someone like Sarab Hassan.

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