“If you find yourself in a place that allows you to make a real difference in other women’s lives, obstacles will not stop you anymore,” says Ayah al-Wakil, a lawyer working at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza Strip.
Going to the Shari’a court every day to file cases on behalf of survivors of violence has been her morning routine since 2015. “So far, I have filed more than 300 cases and the number will increase as the women who I helped keep bringing family and friends,” she continued, adding that her job gives her a sense of purpose.
In Palestine, the Shari’a court deals with family matters codified in the Personal Status Law relating to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. “Due to some limitations of the Personal Status Law, Shari’a court rulings do not always reflect women and children’s needs and best interests,” said al-Wakil, pointing out the substantive lack of equality for women in the Personal Status Law. Growing up in Gaza Strip studying law, al-Wakil knew the shortcomings of the system. “I became determined to improve women’s lives in my hometown and started to look for opportunities. And soon after, Sawasya came to me.”
In November 2015, Ayah al-Wakil was selected as one of the four female lawyers for a training with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, supported by the UN Women/UNDP joint programme, Sawasya (meaning “equal” in Arabic), to defend women’s rights at the Shari’a court. “The training changed my life—I learned every essential skill during that year, from filing cases to arguing in court to defend women’s rights, skills that I still use every day,” she says.
After the training finished, al-Wakil decided to remain at the Centre to continue working with survivors of violence. “That was exactly what Sawasya wanted to achieve through the training—prepare and equip female lawyers to defend women’s rights in the Shari’a court, and Ayah made it,” said Areej Al-Ashhab, UN Women programme associate for the Sawasya programme.
Although al-Wakil’s day is full, preparing legal documents and going to court, she always makes time to talk to women who need her. Faten Ashour* is one of the women who regularly visit al-Wakil, even after her divorce was finalized with al-Wakil’s help. Finally free from her 13-year abusive marriage, Ashour is now preparing to finish high school.
“I was very scared and tense before my first appointment with Ayah,” recalls Ashour, who had experienced a series of obstacles at the court before meeting al-Wakil.
“Ayah was different from other people that I met in the court. She listened to me and respected me,” she added. Gone is the woman who kept things to herself and stayed silent when facing injustice. Faten Ashour now speaks up for herself and tries to encourage other women, including her sisters, to seek help when in abusive situations.
When asked about her future plan, al-Wakil says she will continue to support survivors of violence to claim their rights. Through the Sawasya programme, she and her colleagues at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights recently started providing awareness raising workshops on so-called “honour killing”, a tradition that sanctions the killing of women by their family members in the name of family honour, still prevalent in Gaza.
However, most men who attended the workshop did not change their opinion immediately about honor killing being a legitimate practice. Al-Wakil believes the solution lies in the law. “Law is above tradition, and that is why law should be amended to protect women. We should work hard and put all our efforts together to make necessary changes,” she concluded with hope and determination in her eyes.
Ayah al-Wakil participated in the lawyers’ training provided by PCHR as part of “Promoting the rule of law in the occupied Palestine territory”—or Sawasya, as it’s locally called—implemented jointly by UN Women, UNDP and UNICEF, and generously funded by the Government of Netherlands, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Union (EU).
Note:* The name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor