Nadia Al-Khulaifi

The First Woman Pleading at Sana’a Courts
Safa Nasser
September 19, 2020

Nadia Al-Khulaifi

The First Woman Pleading at Sana’a Courts
Safa Nasser
September 19, 2020

It is not easy to interview a character like lawyer Nadia Al-Khulaifi. However, I have interviewed two personalities, not one. When I asked her about the cases she was defending, the experienced lawyer's club would show up, her voice would rise, her face would be determined; she would wave her finger in the air explaining the case and reciting the rules, making you feel that she had moved from the living room to the courtroom.
However, when I ask her to tell me a little about herself, the lawyer hides, to make room for Nadia the Human, who speaks sparingly, intertwines her fingers and covers her face with a shy smile, and she answers, "I don't know.. What would you like to know?" - Madam, there is so much I want to know, let's start from the beginning...
Nadia Saeed Abdullah Al-Khulaifi was born on October 21, 1959 in the Sheik Othman neighborhood in Aden City. She does not remember anything about the city or the neighborhood. Her family left Aden when she was five years old in 1964 for Egypt, on a treatment trip for her father, who was suffering from a chest disease. In this interview with Khuyout, Nadia describes her parents, saying, "My mother had a strong personality, her orders were not negotiable, while my father was more tender and gentle, perhaps because I was the only daughter between two sons." She smiles and continues, "I remember that my mother beat me because I broke a cup, and my father punished her by smashing the sets of cups she kept in a special cupboard.”
After a year of the family's residence in Egypt, the mother decided to return to Yemen, and the father stayed to complete his treatment in a Cairo hospital. The mother and her children settled in Taiz in 1966, and soon the father returned from the treatment trip. He stayed with his family for some time and then returned to southern Yemen, where he had political activity within the Liberation Front. After independence in 1967, he was arrested and imprisoned in Abyan Governorate, and in the following year the news of his death in prison reached them. She chose a profession that is based on argument. She continues to talk about her childhood in Taiz, where their house overlooks the front yard of a low-wall building, and when she grew up, she knew it was the headquarters of a security agency.
She continues, "I still remember a boy who ran off over the fence and police dogs were chasing him. They caught him and beat him violently. Another man I saw coming out to fetch food and his back was covered with wounds and dripping blood." She acted contrary to her high school teacher's advice to stay away from debate and argument, since her family's tragedy was a sufficient reason to reject this advice, and at the end of her high school year, the feisty young woman had chosen a profession that is based on argument.
The political events that have characterized that period, such as the November 5, 1967 coup in Sana'a, the war between the north and the south of Yemen in 1972, and before that the circumstances of her father's death in prison, the details of which she has not known until today, and later the arrest of her brother. All this left her with a bitter sense of injustice.
She says about her brother, “The National Security arrested him in Al Rahida, when he was 14 years old. He stayed in prison for more than a year, then he came out psychologically disturbed, we tried to treat him but to no avail, it seems that he was subjected to horrific torture. The one who went out was not my brother.” This is how she remembers that moment with pain, “He was the wreck of that intelligent boy with a passion for poetry and literature. Today he lives in another world; he did not complete his studies, did not work, and did not marry.”
The tragedy fed the family members with negative feelings towards the security services, and they refused to receive pensions that the FLN used to pay to the families of the martyrs through the National Security Agency. The resentment against the security services and their repressive practices was greater than the need for a pension for a widow and her orphan children.
In the school years, what was most distinguished by Nadia was her craving for reading, as she says, “We did not have a library in the school, so I used to go to the neighbor’s house. They had a huge library with all kinds of books. I remember that most of my time at school was spent on reading.” The reading, which shaped her awareness and understanding of that stage, combined with the political environment in which she grew up, the shock of her father's and then her brother's arrest, sharpened the spirit of opposition and protest. At a young age, she became inclined to criticize the regime and denounce its repressive practices. She also did not hesitate to discuss things that contradicted her mind.
In high school, her teacher insulted and rebuked her, saying, “Neither discuss nor argue!” and that is when she discussed the Prophet Muhammad's eating of the poisoned sheep. Nadia didn't take her teacher’s advice, but acted contrary to it. In her final years of high school, the feisty young woman had determined her future career which is basically based on arguments; to be a lawyer. First years of Study and Party Activity In 1977, Nadia entered the Faculty of Sharia and Law at Sana'a University. Convincing her mother to travel to Sana'a was no small feat. Nadia used her talent for persuasion, pleaded for her first case, and won it, promising to stay with her maternal uncle in Sana'a, a promise she could not keep; her maternal uncle's family was big, and the atmosphere at their home was not suitable for studying, which made her submit a request to the university to let her move to the female students' dormitory, which was free for the Faculty of Education female students only. She had to pay 200 riyals a month, which was a hefty sum at the time, but Nadia did not have to ask her parents for money. When she was a first-year high school student, she became a teacher officially appointed by the Ministry of Education, and from her salary she spent on herself throughout her college years.
Her first year at university was full of events, as Nadia's interest was not limited to studying. She says, "Some colleagues offered me to join the Labor Party, an offer that I had always wanted to come from my maternal uncle, who was a member of the party, to offer me, and who refused to let me join the party from the principle that membership is not inherited." I believed that the party was a means to achieve justice and equality between people. "Its activities have been clandestine, distributing leaflets to raise public awareness, protest demonstrations, secret meetings, and movements to establish a student union." "Members from the Muslim Brotherhood Group stormed Gamal Abdul Nasser Hall in Sana’a University and announced the establishment of the Yemeni Students Union," Nadia said, recalling that period.
She adds, "We rejected the union, which was established without elections, and we considered it illegitimate, and my female colleague/roommate and I would come early in the morning and remove the wall banners they hung." That same year, Nadia joined the Yemeni Women's Association and worked for the Ministry of Planning's Central Statistical Organization (CSO). On the extent to which girls wanted to enroll in the Faculty of Sharia and Law at that time, Nadia says, "In each batch, there were not more than three or four female students. They were heading towards teaching, and I was the first woman to practice as a lawyer."
In 1980, Nadia Al-Khulaifi was about to graduate. In the years that followed, she had two events, preparing for marriage and establishing a new life, and preparing for the battle of joining the court. Woman in Court It was not a common sight at the time to see a woman wandering the halls of court, and it was a shame for women to enter it. Nadia Al-Khulaifi was well aware of this, as she wandered about on her first day in court, wearing a long gown, and small a tied handkerchief behind her head; “The court’s awe makes you tremble,” she says. The court's awe wasn't her biggest worry, but she didn't care much about people's opinion that the one who goes out to work is a woman in need, whose parents couldn't feed her. She did not submit to her brother, who was blocking the door to prevent her from going out. “We have no women to go to court,” he said. She was not afraid that the halls were full of men and she was the only woman, and she was not disappointed that the Ministry of Justice, which was in charge of granting licenses to practice the profession at that time, refused to grant her the card justifying that there is no law that allows women to be granted licenses to practice the profession, and even when she wanted to train in a law firm, she heard the same excuse.
The response of all the law firms was, "We are not allowed to train women," Nadia said, adding that she felt rejected as an outsider to the profession, obstacles that were enough to crush the ambition of a fragile young woman, but Nadia Al-Khulaifi had never been weak. She knew very well that she was qualified, that she was in the right place.
She didn't give up, and she kept trying. "I went to Judge Abdullah Al-Wraith, President of the Court of the West Secretariat, who was an open man who believed in women's rights, and complained to him that colleagues refused to train for them." When he heard her, he chanted, "It's okay, come to me in court, attend my hearing sessions and I'll help you."
Nadia says, “It encouraged me a lot,” she says, “and I had to self-train myself. I would attend the hearing sessions, review the laws, and keep in mind every little and big detail." But the judge sitting back of Al-Warith was not of the same mentality, and on the pretext that she was working without a license, he was rejecting her petitions submitted to him, and he did not forget to write on her petitions the words "This woman seems to understand the law" in recognition of her legal qualification, but then the custom was stronger than the right and justice. Nadia didn't forget an affront in the courtroom from a lawyer; He said publicly that a woman is good only in bed, and she replied that "Manhood is not mustache." She did not allow herself to be weakened, and her husband supported her, and so she continued to defy herself and others, until the chance that she was waiting so long came to prove her abilities. The first case was the case of a man who killed a gang leader who tried to break into his house. Nadia prepared a note that resembled a complete study of the right to self-defence in both Shariat and legal terms, and the prosecutor was impressed by her defence. He was amazed at how a junior lawyer prepares such a strong, integrated note, making him order the release of the defendant. It was the first time in the history of Sana'a courts that an accused was released from the prosecutor's office, not from the court. However, Nadia did not obtain the license card to practice the profession but after the unity between North and South of Yemen established. The card number was (65). Deliberate Harassment In 1991, elections for the Central Committee of the Yemeni Socialist Party were announced, and Nadia al-Khalifi was nominated and became a member. She then began to notice the influence of political action on her work as a lawyer.
She says, “After the 1994 war, I was harassed at work, as complaints were filed against me, and by the turn of the second millennium I was fired from the Ministry of Planning." At the time, she was delegated to the Ministry of Defense, as it did not intercede for her that she pleaded for 12 soldiers from the Military Officers, and saved them from death sentences, they dismissed her on the pretext that she was absent from work. Al-Khulaifi described her dismissal from the job as political revenge. I asked her, how did she make sure of this? She replied, "It is known that after the employee's secondment period ends, they give him the choice between staying in the entity to which he was seconded, returning to his original work, or sending him a warning. All this did not happen to me, and my dismissal was immediate."
She added, "It is also assumed that after dismissing of an employee, they send his file to the civil service to address his situation, either to return him to work or to refer him to retirement, and send his file to Insurance and Pensions so that he will have a retirement pension, instead they threw it in the archive."
Prior to the 1993 parliamentary elections, a fire broke out in “Bab Al-Yemen” market. I stood with the sellers at that time, and demanded compensation for them. My demands were not met, but the sellers did not forget my support. They said, "We will not vote but for the lawyer." Her dismissal from the job continued until the National Dialogue Conference was held in 2013, and its activities included demands to restore the politically dismissed people to their jobs. She says, "They brought us back, but only on paper. I got a minister's degree, but without a financial settlement. They also canceled my job grade, and dropped me to the tenth grade like any junior employee, where I was, before the dismissal, qualified for a general manager rank." The Disappointment of Elections In 1993, Nadia al-Khulaifi was nominated by the Socialist Party for the House of Representatives elections. She says she entered the election unaware that a "secret agreement of the party's higher bodies" had determined that the candidates in the capital city secretariat who are members would not win even if they get more votes. Nadia continued, "I was ranked third in my district, after the Popular Congress and Islah Parties. I was the only woman who received votes, due to a fire broke out in “Bab Al-Yemen” market. I stood with the sellers at that time, and demanded compensation for them. My demands were not met, but the sellers did not forget my support. They said, "We will not vote but for the lawyer." After the elections, Nadia learned about the agreement, which she said required that the constituencies of the capital’s secretariat be reserved for the Popular Congress Party only, and this is how Nadia described it, “The Congress Party was keen to dominate the largest number of constituencies within the secretariat, or even the entire Republic, in a game in which everyone even schoolchildren were exploited." I asked her, "Do you not feel that the party has let you down?" She replied, "No, the party did not let me down. Those who let me down were some figures who made the agreement at the expense of party members. Where I am not a member of people, I am a member of a party with values and principles, and I still believe that it is a way to change reality." Marginalization and Ignoring Nadia says her clash with the Yemeni Bar Association began after the death of its founder Abdul Fattah Al-Basir; because her problems with the union — she explains — were of a political rather than not a professional nature. Nadia criticized some illegal practices in the management of the Association, and her penalty was to be subjected to an undisclosed punishment; Marginalization unbecoming of a founding member of the Association bearing card number (65), a number that makes those who see it bow out of respect for a lawyer who is a veteran of the profession. The irony is that Nadia was recognized internationally and ignored locally. In the 1990s, Amnesty International nominated her for an award in Kuwait in recognition of her humanitarian work. She says, "I used to send them death row cases, so the organization sends delegations to Yemen to convince the president to issue an amnesty for detainees." "The organization praised its volunteer initiative, offering the position of Middle East desk officer." Nadia refused this for "family reasons," but she still continues her humanitarian efforts to this day. She works on it in silence, and Nadia has never been a celebrity seeker. She confirms that out of every four cases, there is one case where she volunteers for free. She adds, "The essence of our existence in this universe is to serve others." Unfortunately, these efforts are met with punishment and exclusion from any Association activity. Rather, it came to her trainees, as she says, “They punish any of my trainees because of me, procrastinating in giving them a training card, and they do not nominate them for any training courses; they want to convey to me that I am an unwanted member of the Association.” The matter is not much different with the Yemeni Women's Association, which has come to be known as the Yemeni Women's Union. She says that she faces the same marginalization and exclusion from any invitations or conferences. "This was not the case at the time of the Women's Association, but after the establishment of the Union it changed. Women with high positions and ranks were called for such events, not active women in society." The Path and Struggle Companion The meeting with Nadia Al-Khulaifi was in the presence of her husband, Abdul Hafeez Mohammed Ali, who intervened here saying, "I got to know her through political activism; I was a member of the Labor Party, and I was attracted to her because she was serious and she seemed to be strong and honest, so I proposed to marry her and share life together" Abdul Hafeez Mohammed says, “I carry the values and the principles of the party that calls for equality, and it is inevitable that our actions must be compatible with our values,” they are the values that made him support her in all difficult situations. This is how Abdul Hafiz describes his first encounter with his wife, Nadia Al-Khulaifi. They got married in her last university year. After graduation, she told him that she wanted to pursue the profession of being a lawyer. He continues, “It was a sensitive area, access to which was restricted to certain families by heredity. We had the challenge of making a breakthrough at any cost, and I tried to support her with my best ability. "Our life was not free of the difficulties at the beginning and the anxiety imposed by the nature of her work, but we have overcome them.” He says that some of those around him frowned upon his support and encouragement of his wife to practice law, but he was clearly not the type to be easily shaken by his convictions. And Abdel Hafeez added when he spoke to "Khuyout": "I carry the values and principles of the party that calls for equality, so shouldn't our actions be compatible with our values?" And about her other human characteristics, he describes her “She has an overflowing with kindness and tenderness of the heart.” He adds, "I have a daughter from a previous marriage whose mother died when she was a child. Nadia raised her as her own daughter and now she is taking care of her sick brother and her disabled mother. She also took care of my mother during her illness."
Abdul-Hafiz looked proud of his wife, mentioning what he likes most about her, "I like her patience and endurance that has withstood so many crises." He also remembers how she made treatment grant transactions for her sick brother, while she was pregnant in her last month; "At that time, I was being chased by the security services, and I had to hide in the house of a friend. She was about to give birth, and I did not know that she was delivered our first child but 10 days later. Then, I was imprisoned and she was subjected to pressure from her parents to ask for divorce, but she refused."
Abdul Hafeez did not hide his deep concern for his wife, due to her "deep involvement in work," especially in recent years, “She exhausts herself too much.” Friendship of Lifetime Nadia Al-Khulaifi has got a friend for more than 30 years; Dr. Samia Abdul Majeed al-Aghbari, head of the journalism department at Sana’a University's Faculty of Media. Dr. Samia talks to Khuyout about this friendship and its beginnings, describing it as a lifetime friendship. "At first, we became friends because we were colleagues in the party, and then our relationship became stronger when I was in charge of the family page in Al-Thawra Newspaper. At that time, I dedicated a column to Nadia titled "Your Legal Advisor", which discusses women issues from a legal point of view. I visited her in her office before a missile destroyed it during the war, and present to her the cases that I received, and she would give me her legal opinion. She would give it for free; she was interested in spreading a legal culture, and she always said, “How to punish a person who is ignorant of the law.” About Nadia, the lady of the house, Al-Aghbari continues continues, "I often visit her house because of our adjacent residence. I see her returning from her work, taking off her 'balto' (Robe) and entering the kitchen to prepare lunch for her family. Her skills at home are no less than her legal skills. She performs all her family duties despite her preoccupation. She is a simple person who dislike showing off or pretending”
After my conversation with Nadia Al-Khulaifi, and before I said good-bye to her, it occurred to me to ask her, “have you been threatened or exposed to bribery attempts?” She said, "There are many bribery attempts that have been exposed to, but this depends on the lawyer and the strength of his principles. As for the threat, I have not. But I survived a certain death one time, in a session held between two hostile families. When I arrived, I saw the bodies of six dead on the floor of the court, and I learned that a gunman from one of the families opened fire randomly on the audience. What saved me was something that happened in the house that required me to be late for a few minutes. "If I had arrived on time, I would have been killed."
For decades, Nadia Al-Khulaifi has been fighting a double injustice; Her life is filled with oppressed people, and she is one of them. "The difference is that I've lifted the injustice from others, and I couldn't lift from myself." Her problems with the Association, her state job that would have benefited her in her time of weakness and aging, her years of service for more than 25 years were wasted in vain, as if she had never worked one day for the benefit of the country. It is shameful that her sacrifices and struggles are repaid with ingratitude. It is even more shameful to mention her name in front of someone and they ask who is she? It is not proper to use her humility and her love to work in silence, and to engage in the disregard and absenteeism she faces. Nadia Al-Khulaifi suffers from injustice that does not befit her position as the first female lawyer in the Arab Republic of Yemen before the Association, a woman who paved the thorny path for women's legal profession coming after her. The least she deserves is appreciation, celebration, and gratitude.

Safa Nasser

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