Maarya’s Winning Essay:
“Am I allowed to say?” For a moment, I held the phone to my ear, twisting its cord around my finger. The Egyptian American woman’s thick Arabic accent came through the other end. In the span of the last 10 minutes, I have learned everything about a woman I have never met. She has two young sons, her funds are restricted, and her husband has limited her communication. Soon, following her timid question, she will identify herself as a victim of domestic violence. It was one of the first calls I took when I started my position as a screener at Bay Area Legal Services, and one that remains ingrained in my memory. I prepared to use our shared native language to assure her that gender inequity, which both of us experienced culturally, does not have to persist. That with the right legal aid, things will be different. I opened my mouth, but the words refused to form. Her hesitancy became my own. I was no hero; how could I promise change for her and the thousands of women around the world who faced the same situation?
Conversations like these with clients at my job in the firm shaped my undergraduate studies and curated me into an aspiring women’s legal advocate. Working as a screener at the largest non-profit law firm in Florida exposed me to several local legal issues. Soon after the above experience, I requested to be assigned to the firm’s domestic violence victims task force. Not every case was a success, and I faced this reality several times. However, each time I spoke to a client after their case, there was a new energy on the other side of the phone. Hearing a victim take a step towards change, armed with the legal knowledge to do so, was always powerful.
After I began working in the firm, I was inspired to use my undergraduate studies to explore worldwide women-centric conflicts. In my Women in the Middle East course, I led a group of female students virtually from Universidad del Norte in Colombia through an internship titled Operation Global Action (OGA). Collectively, we created a proposal to elevate women’s rights reform in Iran and Lebanon and our project received university-wide recognition. I was left with an abundance of knowledge on the issues that women face worldwide and a desire to understand the legality behind these issues. Thus, I decided to take multiple legal studies courses including Business and International Law, which introduced me to new analytical legal skills in research and writing. By pursuing both my OGA internship and legal coursework, I was able to envision a fulfilling future as a legal advocate.
Beyond the classroom, I continued to explore women’s issues on an international scale by representing my university as a Mark Orr Foreign Affairs Fellow with the American Committee of Foreign Relations (ACFR). Over the course of a year, I was exposed to international politics dealing with women’s rights directly from foreign professionals. I was also selected to attend the ACFR Young Leaders Initiative in Washington D.C. This experience fostered discussions on the status of women with government officials such as former Afghan Ambassador Omar Samad and members of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. Through the fellowship, I cultivated a newfound understanding of international affairs, enlightening me further on the necessity of legal reform for women all over the world.
That day, when my phone hovered between my desk and ear, and the woman’s uneasy voice, came through the line requesting permission to speak her truth even though it was culturally taboo, I found myself momentarily speechless. Following the call, I embarked on a journey both academically and professionally to gain confidence in the power of legal aid. I reflect now and realize the answer is that I cannot guarantee success. However, as an attorney, I can arm her with the knowledge necessary to realize change is possible. In these calls, I contemplated the attorney I aspire to be, one who not only serves as an advocate but an ally in times of great trauma for all victims. I intend to use my time at Emory Law School, through scholarships such as The Feminism and Legal Theory Project, to develop the necessary skills to break new ground in women’s rights and beyond. So that one day, I may respond to my client firmly with the declaration that it is always okay to say.