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Legal Scholar Zeina Jallad Says More Women Lawyers Would Help Palestinian Society

Zeina Jallad, a groundbreaking Palestinian woman lawyer and human-rights scholar, says supporting more female lawyers would benefit Palestinian society generally.

Law in Palestine is a “masculine profession,” says Jallad, who became the first woman lecturer at Birzeit University’s Faculty of Law in 2008 and recently became the first Palestinian person to receive a doctorate in law from Columbia Law School, in New York.

The stereotypical image of a lawyer in Palestine is male, she said. “Palestinian society to this day places more confidence in the masculine appearance of the lawyer and in the presence of the male lawyer.”

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Jallad said this reality was reflected in the low numbers of female lawyers in Palestine, despite there being large numbers of women in the law faculties of Palestinian universities.

This stereotyping “pushes the majority of women law students to work in the public sector or in other professions,” she said.

She wants the Palestinian Bar Association to introduce a strategy easing women’s access to the profession and promoting female lawyers in legal education and services. She believes encouraging women lawyers would help women advance in Palestinian society as a whole.

Life Under ‘Absolute’ Israeli Laws

Growing up “in a place devoid of law … motivated me to study law, so I could understand why the laws in my country were turning into a means of coercion, not of improving life.”

Zeina Jallad A Palestinian lawyer and scholar

Zeina Jallad’s interest in studying law started in her youth when she saw the “absolute” laws of the Israeli occupation authorities. She felt a strong urge to study law “with the aim of exploring its true functions.”

Jallad, who was born in Ramallah, said that she lived her childhood “in a place devoid of law, after laws became a means of oppression, coercion, and intimidation of people. This motivated me to study law, so I could understand why the laws in my country were turning into a means of coercion, not of improving life.”

Jallad is currently working as an assistant professor of law at Columbia University, where she was awarded a Doctor of the Science of Law (J.S.D.) degree this year. She is also starting postdoctoral studies at Harvard University.

Katherine Franke, a professor of law at Columbia Law and founder of its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, praised Jallad’s “stunning” doctoral dissertation on the promise and limits of human rights law. In a statement on Facebook, Franke wrote that Jallad had “passed her defense—not just well, but with the highest distinction.”

Studies in Jordan and Palestine

Jallad’s legal education began at the University of Jordan, where earned a bachelor’s degree in law in 2004. She went on to earn a graduate degree in practical and professional legal skills from Birzeit University, before winning a scholarship to pursue a Master of Laws degree at Columbia Law in 2007.

On returning to Palestine in 2008, Jallad worked as a lecturer on criminal and international law at Birzeit and Al-Quds Universities. She also led a three-year European Union project to develop the Palestinian Bar Association and raise its members’ standards.

She returned to Columbia Law in 2012 to teach there and work on her doctorate.

Jallad, who is a member of the Palestinian Bar Association and the New York Bar Association, said her desire to change her country’s legal system was behind her drive to continue learning, especially after discovering while practising law in Ramallah the “big gap” between Palestinians’ problems and the official legal and judicial system.

This gap exists because judicial authorities apply civil criminal laws that “do not keep pace with changes in society and have become a burden on the citizen,” she said.

Developing the Study of Law in Arab Universities

One weakness of Palestinian legal education is that it follows the “traditional or classical method of education, without the intersection of law with other sciences, such as social sciences, artificial intelligence, and sports.”

Zeina Jallad

Like many academics from conflict areas in the Middle East who go abroad for graduate study, Jallad faced difficulties because of the big differences between education systems.

Jallad believes the Arab legal education system does not prepare students to be competitive in international universities and that law as a door to research does not exist in the Arab world.

One weakness of Palestinian legal education, she said, is that it follows the “traditional or classical method of education, without the intersection of law with other sciences, such as social sciences, artificial intelligence, and sports.”

She also believes that teaching legal subjects in Arabic has “weakened the linguistic abilities of law school graduates.”

According to Jallad, universities need to attract academics with diverse skills and backgrounds so that students acquire skills that enable them to work after graduation in research, advisory, and professional fields of law.

She calls for updating legal education in Palestinian universities with a focus on the law’s connection with social and economic life and new technologies. She thinks law students should keep pace with science and technology and not be limited to traditional education.

Jallad also wants partnerships between Arab universities and leading international universities to better prepare Arab students for postgraduate study, which requires strong research skills.

Difficulties for Women in Studying Law

She also wants to see more support for Arab women in getting past the obstacles they face in studying law.

She said that despite the encouragement of her family while a student, she was taunted by male lawyer colleagues and some of her relatives about her motives for going abroad to get a doctorate.

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The social and cultural challenges facing Arab women working in the legal field make her continuing her postgraduate studies “a rare matter,” she said.  She wants support for those studying the relationship between law and society, “to erase this legal legacy.”

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