Omnia Gadalla: Her Honor Setting the Bar

Balancing between the constitutional law and the Sharia requires mindfulness and openness to possibilities. Omnia Gadalla is an Egyptian lawyer and instructor of Law and Sharia at Al-Azhar University whose passion for law is unbeatable. She believes that women’s rights cannot be reclaimed before reclaiming the rights of all citizens in Egypt, despite their gender, faith, and social orientations. Omnia is determined to reach her goals no matter how much time it takes her and no matter what sets her back. Omnia always finds a reason to continue in her pursuit of justice in Egypt.

Omnia comes from a high-achieving family that supported her decisions. In her family, she was always surrounded by judges and lawyers, her father being a law professional. She was inspired by her father’s work and believes to have always been surrounded by and engaged in deep legal arguments and socio-political conversations at home. This spiked her interest in pursuing the same path as her father, and not her mother who was a medical doctor. At home, Omnia remembers not having television as she grew up out of fear that it would waste their time. Her mother, however, invested in a large library where Omnia spent most of her time reading and learning about social phenomena and influential characters around the world.

Omnia has always seen herself as a strong independent woman with a vision for her life who refuses to be controlled by others. Omnia learned that it was okay to want to be financially independent even when being a part of a family where more than one person has a job. She refused to conform to social constructs and the fact that women should only be stay-at-home moms–unless this is her choice or preference-unless she decides that. This notion came up more than once in Omnia’s life as she was told by many men that being a lawyer would negatively impact her life, as she proves to be outspoken and takes critical cases. This, however, never affected Omnia and became a reason why she wants to proceed in her pursuit of justice.

To pursue an education in law and Sharia, Omnia was enrolled at Al-Azhar University as an undergraduate student. Being a well-known university in Egypt, she did not think that her first experience with discrimination would begin there. Al-Azhar University is known to have separate sections for men and women. Her first experience affected her life decisions and impacted the effort she had to put in to compensate for the injustice. The university has sections in English and Arabic for almost all majors, for both men and women, however, only had an Arabic section for the Law major for women till 2017, while men had sections taught in both languages. This affected Omnia’s pursuit of higher studies where she had to relearn her subject materials in English to pursue her graduate degree abroad. Being dictated by a linguistic choice that seems simple led Omnia to put unnecessary efforts to continue her education. This first experience made Omnia well-aware of the subtle injustices that are not spoken of but cause needless individual pressures on students and women.

Believing she can achieve great things was not enough for Omnia. She felt that the judiciary system should also be on her side so that equality can be achieved. Omnia explains that there are five positions that judges can apply to in Egypt. Out of all these five, women are only allowed to apply to two of them, competing against men there too. Omnia further discusses how these two positions equate to administrative positions where the judge cannot take any decision before sending the case to one of the three other judges who can decide on the final action. She began an initiative in Egypt “Her Honor Setting the Bar” that files cases on behalf of other female law graduates, and holds conferences, symposiums, and sessions in collaboration with feminist NGOs. The goal was to shed the light on issues related to the role of women in decision-making processes as well as to publish about women judges around the globe in Arabic to inform the public about their contributions and break the stereotypes that women cannot be judges. These initiatives raised awareness that shifted the perception of the role of women in the judiciary system in Jordan, as reflected in the recent governmental steps to appoint more women judges.

Omnia likes to differentiate between her engagement with the media and the social media as it vastly differs. Omnia states that social media has helped her a lot in spreading her message about the role of women in the law profession. It has helped her reach many organizations that offered help and the space to speak up about this matter. Omnia, as an instructor at a public university, however, refrains from speaking on national media or TV channels. She believes that it would be wise not to speak up on national media fearing being charged with commenting on judgments or interfering in independent judicial authority affairs. From this, Omnia shows that there are several ways to speak up and defend one’s rights without having it affect their personal life and means of survival.

Omnia’s advice to schools was one of a kind. Acknowledging that changing the entire curriculum and structure is very difficult, Omnia suggests schools acquire educational material that promotes awareness. She recommends that schools, especially at the primary or elementary level, introduce books and novels that portray role model women in leading positions. Omnia further explains that growing up, she never read a book at school about a female judge, a queen, or a famous entrepreneur, as all novels were about men and kings and male presidents. She highlights the importance of books and especially women’s biographies on the upbringing of girls and reinforces their impact. Since reading had a major influence on her choices and decisions, Omnia believes that inspiration stems from reading about people who lead by example, and in this way, girls can decide what they want to be, despite their gender, faith, or affiliation concerning society.

This story was written by Tamara Sleiman

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