YT Person of the Year 2008, lawyer and human rights advocate Shada Nasser:”I wish for Yemenis to take more care of their children because they are the wealth of our country” [Archives:2009/1222/Reportage]

January 5 2009

Exceeding expectations

Born in an educated family, Nasser was bound to have a bright career, yet her family and friends say she has truly exceeded expectations. Her father was a journalist and a diplomat and her mother was a school principle.

“My father was one of the freedom fighters who fought against the British occupation,” Nasser remembered. “He established Al-Tareeq newspaper, which my brother runs today, and he established Aden News Agency before he became an ambassador in Lebanon. Even there he could not help be a journalist and established a magazine called Democratic Yemen which was published from Beirut.”

Nasser was a student of law at Charles Carlova University in Prague on scholarship. She completed her JUDR degree, which is equivalent to a masters, in 1990, and returned to work Yemen. After the unity in 1990, she moved with her family from Aden to Sana'a, where she worked at the Sana'a University until she opened her own law office along with another two other female lawyers.

“We called our office 'The pioneers for legal consultancy.' It was out of the norm for women in what was known as north Yemen to work in such public jobs,” Nasser related.

She decided to become a lawyer after she lost her father in a plane crash in 1973 in Shabwa. “I wanted to defend those who have lost their rights or have been victimized by others and to find the truth and overcome injustice. I felt [the plane crash] was not just an accident and I wanted to know the truth,” she said.

“I met my husband who is also a legal advocate by chance at the commercial court. We married one year later,” Nasser said of her husband Dr. Mohamed Al-Saqqaf, a Sorbonne University graduate. They met in Sana'a as lawyers on different cases and married one year later. Today, Al-Saqqaf is working as a columnist.

In 1997, Nasser was the first Yemeni lawyer to sue international cigarettes companies through their agents in Yemen for encouraging people to smoke. Marlboro and Montana cigarette companies had launched an advertising campaign promoting a smoking competition by which the person who collects the largest number of empty cigarette packs gets a prize. She won the case and the competitions ended.

Human rights advocate

Shada Nasser has experience in all fields of legal work, whether civil, personal, criminal, or political.

“But I refuse to represent the accused in drug related crimes because they cause so much damage to the society, or child rape defendants because I will be fighting against a child who has already gone through much,” she noted.

In the past five years Nasser dedicated much of her time to human rights cases, especially that of detainees. She defended a number of political prisoners as well as provided continuous legal consultations to women inmates in Sana'a's central prison.

It fulfills her, she said, to go after criminals and those who violate the rights of others just because they can. During her years of work in Yemen she realized that much of the injustice done towards vulnerable groups such as women and children is done by powerful and merciless men who are in the position of being caretakers. That is when she met and defended Amina Al-Tuhaif, the young woman who was in jail for murdering her much older husband, and Fatima Badi, who was accused of murdering her abusive husband.

Over the past five years she worked in several contexts such as through a project of an Italian organization funded by the European Union. This project provides legal consultancy for children in conflict with the law.

In April 2008, she met Nujood, the first Yemeni girl who demanded divorce in court because of being married when she was nine years old, in court, took up her case and started her fight against early marriages.

“My advocacy against child marriages is targeted against the guardians such as the parents who marry their girls while they are little, and against the legislators who endorse such inhuman practices,” she confirmed.

She has also represented Reem, the girl who was forced by her father into marrying her cousin when she was 12 years old, and who is to date still struggling to get the divorce.

“When the father promised the judge in court that he would get Reem divorced once he had the 25 thousand Yemeni riyals he owed to his son in law, I thought everything will go fine, but just last week Reem's mother called me and said her daughter slit her wrist in an attempt to commit suicide because her father did not keep his promise,” Nasser explained about Reem.

She said that because the family sought to solve the problem amicably and outside the court rooms, she would back off a little and allow for such settlement to happen. But after she saw the slit marks on Reem's wrists, Shada Nasser promised to help the girl attain her freedom no matter what.

“She told me that she wants to live a normal life, like any other girl her age, and I am afraid that is not possible yet,” she said, referring to the unsettled state in which Reem lives, and how she can not go to school and has conflicted images of herself.

“Sometimes she just wants to play and enjoy life like a young girl, and other times she is talking about things like a mature woman who has been married for long. This marriage experience has made her neither a girl nor a woman. Reem needs expert help in order for her to restore her life,” Nasser insisted.

When asked why Nujood had turned against her after their joint award by Glamour Magazine in New York, she said that some people did not like Shada Nasser's name to rise, and those were jealous of her success must have pressurized the girl to do what she did.

“I don't hold any grudge against the girl per say because she is only a child. I had helped her and taken care of her, I even combed her hair and dressed her with nice clothes when we were together in the USA. I am a mother and could not think of harming anyone, let alone a child that had suffered from early marriage. Her father wanted money and he thought the award was in the form of money, so when Nujood did not return with any cash from New York, he was angry,” she explained.

Nasser feels there is someone else more cunning behind this, because she was received well by Nujood's family when they came back; the family even gave her flowers. Only a few days later did the attitude change dramatically. It is particularly suspicious considering that Nujood's father is not well educated or sophisticated, otherwise he would not be living in such miserable conditions, marrying two women and getting his nine year old daughter married off to a thirty something old man. Nasser referred to their meeting the German ambassador and the demands placed on her not to travel with Nujood to Germany, where they were going to appear on TV.

“Nujood told the embassy she would not travel to Germany if I did. The embassy simply called me, took my passport, and canceled my visa before returning it to me. I was greatly offended – they treated me as a terrorist who wants to enter their country,” she said.

She added that anyone with the right sense would read behind the lines and understand that this is an attempt to stop Nasser from pursuing her work. But she promised that this incident will not stop her from advocating for child rights or from helping little girls who are victims of early marriages. “I know there are many children who need my help,” said Nasser. “And even if Nujood comes back to me years later and asks for my assistance I will not withhold it from her.”

Protecting the children

Nasser has worked on a number of personal cases, and she explained that the worst types are when the children are used as pawns by the parents. “There should be some sort of measure within the legal system that takes children away from their abusive parents,” she said. “Some sort of child welfare or social services to protect the children.

“The Yemeni system is so child unfriendly, parents can get away with even murdering their children,” Nasser continued. “I have seen cases of torture and brutal beating. Just one month ago, I was involved in the case of Jihad, an eight year old child who lost her eye because of a brutal beating from her father and step mother.

She further explained that during the last few months she came across three similar cases where children are abused because of the bitterness between divorced parents or because of the ignorance of very young mothers. She had seen cases where teenage mothers allow their small kids to wander in the streets just to get rid of them for a few hours. The children are subjected to enormous danger in the streets such as car accidents, abusive children, infections, or even rape and sexual molestation.

“I wish for Yemenis to take more care of their children because they are the wealth of our country,” she said.

She hopes that one day she will have the time and the resources to create a civil society organization and to dedicate more time to advocating for policy change. Through her work, she wants to help give Yemen a better future where there is democracy and safety. Where the environment is protected and the children are happy.

“I want the developed nations to take Yemen's hand and guide it to a better future, to help Yemenis correct their negative practices and to endorse their positive ones,” she said.