International Women’s Day 2016: Interview with Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director, Equality Now
Yasmeen Hassan is the Global Executive Director of Equality Now, an organisation that advocates for the human rights of women and girls around the world by raising international visibility of individual cases of abuse, mobilizing public support through global membership and wielding strategic political pressure to ensure that governments enact or enforce laws and policies that uphold the rights of women and girls. Halebury Co-founder and Chairwoman Janvi Patel was honoured to interview Yasmeen about her work at this incredible organisation in celebration of International Women’s Day 2016.
What was the trigger or the motivation behind the move to your current role?
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to work on legal rights for women. I grew up in Pakistan and when I was 10 years old, a military dictator “Islamicized” Pakistan’s laws, effectively making women second-class citizens and leading to the birth of the women’s rights movement. Thousands of women took to the streets and were tear-gassed, beaten and imprisoned. This made a lasting impression on me and made me determined to study law and work for legal equality of women. I came to the US for undergraduate studies and then law school. I was introduced to Equality Now in 1993 (the organization was formed in 1992) while interning at a law firm, and since that time I have always been associated with the organization. I worked for a corporate law firm for almost 8 years where about 30% of my work was pro bono and focused on Muslim women. At the time of the fall of the Taliban, I was recruited to work at the United Nations on integrating women’s rights into the new legal system in Afghanistan and on building Secretary-General’s report on violence against women. From there, I “came home” to Equality Now, as Program Director and then for the past four years as Global Executive Director. I am honored to have the opportunity to support grassroots groups around the world, help integrate women’s rights issues into national and global policies, and change laws to better protect women and girls and promote gender equality.
Which law would you change/implement, which would have a fundamental impact on women?
It is hard to pin down one law to change. There are different priorities across the regions of the world, but every law that treats women and girls as less than men and boys has an adverse impact on women and girls realizing their potential and holds us back. We have seen legal discrimination against women in nearly every walk of life – Women are not given equal rights (i) in marriage (rights to enter into or leave marriages, wife obedience laws, polygamy); (ii) to participate in the economic realm (laws that restrict women from working in certain jobs or at certain hours, laws that require permission of a husband or father to work, unequal inheritance laws, laws that restrict women’s rights to property); (iii) with respect to their personal status (nationality laws that don’t allow women to pass their nationality to their husbands or children, laws that restrict women from giving evidence, restrict their rights to travel); and (iv) with respect to violence committed against them (laws can actually help perpetuate violence against women such as laws that allow husbands to chastise wives and those that allow marital rape or give lower or no penalties for honour crimes). We have a lot of work to do as each of these laws has a fundamental impact on the status of women and the opportunities available to them.
Which laws have been implemented that you consider have made a positive impact on equality?
In the last twenty years or so we have seen a sea change in laws on violence against women. We have come a long way from domestic violence being seen as just “life” (in the words of Gloria Steinem), to over 119 countries having laws against such violence and many have criminalized marital rape. More than 125 countries have enacted laws against sexual harassment. We also have positive changes in governments recognizing their responsibility to end harmful traditional practices: 23 African countries that have the practice of female genital mutilation ban it by law and most recently, there is a great impetus in Pakistan to change the laws that allow perpetrators of honour crimes to go free. Enactment of such laws is the first step; implementation is critical and needs political will.
Who is your inspiration as an equality champion?
It is difficult for me to pin point one inspiration, as there have been many great women who have been so influential in moving the dial forward on women’s rights in many different contexts. A few of my heroes are: Asma Jehangir, who has worked tirelessly for women’s rights in Pakistan and beyond, was a big early influence on me; Fatima Mernissi, whose writings on Muslim women have inspired me to continue to fight for change in very difficult contexts, and Gloria Steinem, who has taught me important lessons on grassroots organizing and active listening.
What one thing would you encourage other lawyers to do to contribute to change?
Always try to improve the legal system so that it works for those most vulnerable. No part of our legal system is set in stone and it requires legal activism to propel change.
What can in-house lawyers do in their roles to improve equality for women?
I think they have a great role to play in moving corporations to lead by example through better internal policies for women (whether it is paid maternity leave, flexible work hours, sexual harassment policies, or hiring policies). They can also get involved in helping the corporation pick causes that promote women’s rights for employee engagement and their CSR projects.
The number of women joining the legal profession is rising. What impact do you think a more representative split at the top of the profession would have on society?
The legal profession around the world has traditionally been very male dominated. I think that more women at the top would result in some important cultural shifts, including, hopefully, a more practical and humane legal system that is more responsive to the needs of more vulnerable groups.
For more information on how to support Equality Now, view their website on www.equalitynow.org.
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