Syrian lawyer and international women’s rights campaigner Laila Alodaat tells of how she was stripped of her right to practise law in her native country, and how lawyers have been targeted by the Assad regime
‘I’ve met people who think refugees are the biggest burden on the UK economy,’ she says with a grimace. ‘I am a refugee. I got asylum in my first interview. But I’m mindful that this is not the norm. I am a lawyer and I know how to provide evidence and keep track of documents while many others might not have the means to do so and they receive very little support.’
The use of the term ‘inspirational story’ has become hollow in modern times. From celebrities with God complexes to reality TV stars with sob stories, the term is thrown around with little care for its true meaning. But the story of Laila Alodaat, a Syrian corporate lawyer who claimed asylum in Britain at the beginning of her county’s bloody civil war and who has gone on to develop a career in human rights law, could safely be described as such.
I first met Alodaat at an event hosted by international firm Allen & Overy, which celebrated female human rights advocates. During the evening she spoke passionately about the pressures placed on both male and female lawyers to comply with cultural and profession stereotypes, arguing there were more women in the field of human rights because it is ‘acceptable’ for a woman to sympathise and fight for a cause. But has Alodaat’s career mirrored this stereotype?
With secondary school grades directly dictating the career paths of its students, the Syrian education system is very different from that of the UK. ‘High achievers go to medical or engineering school,’ explains Alodaat when we meet in a crowded North London coffee shop a few weeks after the Allen & Overy event. ‘Law doesn’t fit within that because it is rarely attended by those who obtain a baccalaureate in science like I did.’
Despite her family’s expectation that she would become an engineer, Alodaat had her heart set on becoming a lawyer after six years volunteering for the Red Cross. ‘It was one of the few things you could volunteer for; the regime restricted any sort of activism. We did first aid, social work, and international humanitarian law. When deciding on a career, I felt that studying law might give me the space to understand and one day challenge the repressive practices of the regime.’
Graduating from Damascus University in January 2007, Alodaat trained and practised corporate law at Meethaks, a law firm in the Syrian capital. ‘There were very few law firms but it was a much-needed domain as the country was opening up economically with new international investments. It was an interesting and challenging place to be. Our firm grew and I grew within it.’
Unfortunately, the young advocate soon realised that while her country had lawyers, it had little appreciation for the rule of law. ‘In Syria, you live in denial of human rights violations, but in corporate law you see more,’ she admits. ‘You see money leaving the country. You see certain families run the economy. You see it all used as a tool for these people to flourish while continuing to abuse and persecute the rest of the population. I felt I was using my time and energy to help this small minority and that was not why I studied law.’
Remaining in the Syrian legal profession was particularly difficult, she explains, after the Assad regime turned the legal system into a ‘tool of repression’. ‘They changed our constitution, with the president taking full control of the legislative, executive, and judicial systems. In such circumstances, practising law becomes particularly difficult for women. People didn’t expect much from us. Sexist comments and actions were common and went unpunished,’ she says. ‘I never thought I was inferior. However, the general atmosphere was limiting to women: I’ve seen amazing women just [keep quiet] because they’re told to. Who wants to go through an excruciating fight every day just to survive? It’s draining.’
When asked to make a decision on her future at Meethaks, Alodaat decided her path lay elsewhere. She applied for a scholarship to study human rights law in the West – a big decision, as she had little prospect of practising in Syria where there are no ‘human rights lawyers’.
‘It would be dangerous,’ she explains. ‘In 2008, I was invited to a legal conference in Canada. As a lawyer, however, you need a pass every time you leave the country. Because that conference included a human rights aspect, I was not given a pass. It was dangerous to go anywhere near human rights in pre-revolution Syria.’
Nonetheless, Alodaat was undeterred and remained hopeful that a career in human rights might allow her to seek justice for political detainees in a future Syria, unencumbered by the present regime. ‘I started learning about transitional justice before the revolution started,’ she says. ‘There are so many people who have been in detention for years without compensation. I thought, maybe I can provide a plan for some sort of justice for these people. There’s no way we could give them those years back but maybe some of the ongoing harm could be remedied.’
Accepted with a full scholarship to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Alodaat’s plans were thrown into disarray when, on 15 March 2011, the Syrian civil war began in earnest as the Arab Spring protests reached boiling point in Damascus and Aleppo. Working with the Red Cross and Red Crescent to provide first aid to peaceful demonstrators injured in the demonstrations, the aspiring human rights lawyer had to decide whether to stay in Syria or move to London and pursue her studies.
‘We were trying to provide neutral and impartial health care but it was very dangerous,’ she recalls. ‘There was a couple of hundred of us doing this. I thought, maybe being a lawyer, this would be a good time to learn more about Syria from a bigger context, and inform others about Syria.’
In hindsight, her decision to leave in September 2011 was fortuitous. In the weeks and months following her departure, the Syrian conflict escalated dramatically. ‘I thought I was going for eight or nine months. But things got worse and worse. The regime targeted lawyers and human rights activists. Many of the people I had worked with were detained; some were killed. The same happened at the Red Crescent, where many of the first aid and medical staff I worked with were detained or killed.’
While studying in the UK, Alodaat used her relatively new-found freedom, and the press’s interest in the Syrian conflict, to highlight the atrocities being committed in her home country. Appearing on BBC radio to discuss the conflict, she also commented on the Caesar report on torture and death in detention in Syria, and made statements to the Human Rights Council and at the European Parliament.
Then, with her master’s completed, but still unable to return home, Alodaat took a job at Leigh Day as a paralegal in the firm’s international group claims department and began preparing to qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales. However, her media activism had brought her to the attention of the Syrian Bar Association, with serious consequences for her hopes of dual-qualification.
‘In Syria, our regulator and law society are one entity,’ she explains. ‘It is supposed to regulate solicitors’ work but also to protect their rights. However, it has been used as a tool of repression against lawyers who challenged the wrongdoings of the regime. In July 2013, as I was working to qualify in the UK, I discovered that the Syrian Bar Association had disqualified me. Not only did they dismiss me from the Bar but they took away my legal qualification.
‘They found out I was trying to get my file to qualify somewhere else. They obviously don’t want people dual-qualified because that’s a threat to them. That’s what’s in common with the other lawyers who were disqualified. They didn’t even justify their decision. It was a hand-written decision that I only knew about by complete coincidence.’
Eleven lawyers have been disqualified for political reasons by the Syrian legal regulator, according to Alodaat. ‘They wanted to hinder our efforts to highlight what’s happening in Syria. At that point I was a paralegal with no chances of becoming a solicitor because I no longer had a qualification.’
Fearful that she would be barred from sitting the qualified lawyers transfer scheme (QLTS), Alodaat reached out to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the International Bar Association, and the Law Society for assistance.
‘The Law Society asked me for loads of documents, which I provided and proved my qualification and good standing during my practice,’ she says. ‘They realised this was an arbitrary decision passed only to punish me for my political views. They issued me a certificate of eligibility to qualify, which allows me to sit the qualification exam.
‘I truly appreciate the support of the Law Society, they went out of their way to correct an unjust situation and that hasn’t happened to me before. I was ready to move on with my career at that point but now that I know I can sit my exam and practice whenever I want.’
Peace and freedom
Since February 2014, Alodaat has been the crisis response programme manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an international non-governmental organisation that aims to bring about global disarmament and create a world where there is racial, social, and economic justice for all. Lofty goals indeed.
Splitting her time between her home in London and WILPF’s headquarters in Geneva, as well as frequent visits to New York, Alodaat is responsible for analysing women’s rights and security issues in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. ‘We support women to analyse and eliminate the root causes of war, mainly militarism,’ she says. ‘We monitor military expenditures and exports and we do a lot of capacity building and advocacy.’
The nations under WILPF’s microscope make up a who’s who list of conflict zones, where women are particularly affected by abuses to human rights. However, of the ten countries in North Africa and the Middle East, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine, there is one country in particular that attracts more attention than the rest.
‘Syria gets more attention but for the wrong things,’ says Alodaat. ‘Suddenly ISIS became the major attention and all the factors that led to its expansion are systematically overlooked. Syria is the best-documented conflict in history; you can even go on the internet and have a 360-degree view inside the destroyed cities, yet people here remain ill-informed about what is actually happening. The mainstream media has a lot to do with that.
‘Every single thing that has happened over the past five years, activists and human rights organisations had predicted. They said that if the mass extermination of civilians didn’t stop there will be violent extremism. They also said the regime would start using even worse weapons if not stopped. But international leaders kept drawing red lines and allowing the Assad regime to cross them. Consequently, it became a de facto carte blanche for the regime to exterminate the population, knowing that they will go on unpunished.’
With refugees pouring out of a war-torn Syria, the Mediterranean migrant crisis exploded in the summer of 2015. The reaction to the crisis has shown both the best and worst that the West has to offer. While many – including a host of international lawyers – banded together and raised money for some of the most desperate people on the planet, others have hysterically warned that amid the throngs of frightened displaced peoples lurk criminals and jihadis.
‘Some of the worst terrorists committing atrocities in my country came from Europe, uninvited and definitely not welcomed!’ exclaims Alodaat. ‘Unfortunately, growing racism and isolation in Europe is allowing hatred and terrorism. It is evident that Syrians and Iraqis are by far the vast majority of ISIS victims, yet instead of receiving the protection we need, we are put in a place where we need to explain ourselves. Some of the worst threats to us are portrayed as a problem for “the West” not for us, the real victims.
‘Having to deny unfounded accusations does not create the best base for integration. When the floods happened in the north of England, it was refugees who went to help because they felt indebted to the country. Extremism happens for all sorts of reasons. Where you come from is not one of them.’
Equality of opportunity
Alodaat’s experiences as a lawyer, campaigner, and refugee have given her a unique perspective on the challenges facing women in the UK legal profession, one which she is keen to share at every opportunity. ‘Many foreign women who qualify in this country fear that if they are not born and raised here – with education from particular universities – they have little chance of making it, no matter how brilliant they are. That’s even worse as a barrister where the profession is dominated by middle-class men. There are so many glass ceilings for foreign lawyers, particularly women. Genuine diversity has a long way to go.
‘Although many steps have been taken towards diversity, there are limitations to people bringing their diverse cultures and experiences into practice. There is not enough support for self-employed women: this applies to barristers, particularly regarding maternity and parenting. It is an area that suffers from gender stereotyping. Whether in a large law firm or a small practice, women still face great challenges. And despite making extraordinary efforts, they are far less likely to get to the top of the profession.’
The polarising debate over the need for gender quotas in the profession shows no sign of being resolved. Though legal powerhouses such as Ashurst, Eversheds, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Clifford Chance – to name but a few – have all set female partnership targets at between 25 and 30 per cent, such goals remain far from true equality at the senior end of the profession. But while the argument rages between male and female – and even female and female – lawyers, Alodaat believes there is a place for a quota system.
‘Equality is that of conditions, not only opportunities. It is not enough to provide equal opportunities when we know there are many factors that hinder the potential of a large group of people. We need to take positive measures to limit these factors and compensate the low participation of women in decision-making positions,’ she says. ‘I would love for quotas not to exist but the past 10,000 years have proved that if men are not obliged to involve women they are unlikely to do so. Quotas help speed up the process towards a point where such measures are no longer needed.’
As I sit enthralled, I realise that almost two hours have passed since our interview began, yet it is clear Alodaat’s story is far from over. Her drive and tenacity shows no signs of abating. So what does the future hold for her? ‘I still need to sit my [QLTS] exam and consider going back to practice, but just having that option is extremely important to me,’ she replies. ‘In Syria, you have very few choices. Being a lawyer was the one choice I made that nobody made for me. Taking that away was very difficult. So, yeah, that’s my story.’
This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal and is reproduced with kind permission.