From Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai to Golda Meir and Corazon Aquino, women activists and political leaders have led the fight for gender equality and human rights around the world over the past century.
But as the tributes keep pouring in for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18 at the age of 87, we are reminded of the particular importance of sealing progress in the courts — and the judges and lawyers making it possible.
While a recent OECD study shows that 54% of judges are women in developed countries, it also pointed to a lack of women in top-ranking judicial positions, making profiles like RBG all the more outstanding. From Brazil to France to Malaysia, here are six exceptional women who, like RBG, have made a lasting impact in the courtroom:
Gisèle Halimi (Tunisia/France): Less than 2 months before Ginsburg's passing, women's rights in France mourned one of its fiercest advocates. Tunisian-born Gisèle Halimi, a renowned lawyer, author and Member of French Parliament, dedicated her life to gender equality, changing a male-centric judicial system to protect women and their rights over their own body, as recalls Le Monde in her obituary.
• In 1972, during what is now known as the Bobigny trials, she defended a 17-year-old student accused of having an abortion after being raped, along with her mother and three of her colleagues who helped terminate the pregnancy. Thanks to Halimi, the victim and two of the accused were dismissed. The verdict later played a part in the adoption of the Veil Law, legalizing abortion, in 1975.
• In 1978, she defended in two victims of a gang rape. The case attracted significant media attention, and her defense strategy contributed to a clear legal definition of rape, officially criminalizing it in 1980.
Gisèle Halimi dedicated her life to gender equality — Photo: Licra
Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat (Malaysia): In May 2019, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat made history when she became the country's first female Chief Justice, reports Malay Mail.
• The 61-year-old mother of four boasts a long legal and judicial career. As a Court of Appeal judge, and then a Federal Court judge, she has presided over multiple high-profile cases.
• Seen as a progressive judge, women's rights groups hope her appointment will help to tackle the issue of lower prosecutions in rape and domestic violence cases and bring "more justice to women."
• Her nomination, according to Free Malaysia Today, came as 2019 marked a milestone for women judges in Malaysia, many of whom were appointed to top positions.
Lady Brenda Hale (UK): Appointed as the first female Law Lord in 2004 (becoming Baroness Hale of Richmond), Lady Brenda Hale was named the Supreme Court's first female president five years later.
• In 1984, she was the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission, where she took part in the groundbreaking Children Act of 1989. The reform obliges government and public entities to place a child's "best interests" at the center of their decision making.
• In 2011, as the leading judge in Yemshaw v. LB Hounslow, Lady Hale participated in redefining "domestic violence" to include verbal and psychological abuse, no longer limiting it to physical assault, reports Family Law Week.
Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat was appointed Malaysia's first female Chief Justice — Photo: Majlis Keselamatan Negara
Sudha Bharadwaj (India): Law was not this mathematics student's first love, but after seeing the working conditions of certain minorities in India, Sudha Bharadwaj's pursuit of justice, as described by an editor of The Wire, led her to obtain a late law degree.
• Before becoming a lawyer, she joined the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) as general secretary of the Chhattisgarh branch. She was also a member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha labor party, where she fought corruption among bureaucrats and pushed for fair wages.
• In 2005, Bharadwaj started working in the High Court of Chhattisgarh. Her cases mainly targeted big corporate groups exploiting the Adivasis, an indigenous people, and ruining the environment. She talks more about this particular commitment in an interview on the Socialist Project.
• In 2018, Bharadwaj was arrested along with four other Human Rights Defenders following a TV program claiming they had a link to Maoists. Her arrest was highly criticized as a government move to silence her, and she has been denied bail multiple times by several courts (including the Supreme Court).
Joênia Wapixana (Brazil): Joênia Wapixana became Brazil's first indigenous female lawyer in 1997 and the country's first indigenous congresswoman in 2018, reports O Globo.
• A member of the Wapixana tribe in northern Brazil, she was the first indigenous lawyer to win a case before the country's Supreme Court. The case defined the boundaries of the indigenous territory Raposa Serra do Sol and ended violence against indigenous people who refused to cede their lands to agribusinesses.
• Her role as an activist defending the rights of indigenous people led her to win the 2018 United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.
• Following the dam disaster in Brumadinho, she presented her first bill proposal as a congresswoman, which aimed at legally designating environmental crimes as "heinous crimes," which would subject them to more severe penalties.
Joênia Wapixana was the first indigenous lawyer to win a case before the country's Supreme Court — Photo: Mariachiara Pisapia
Arwa Al-Hujaili (Saudia Arabia): There are, of course, some countries that have a particularly long way to go in terms of gender parity. But even women continue to hold court, wherever they may be — like Arwa Al-Hujaili, who became Saudi Arabia's first woman trainee lawyer in 2013.
• Al-Hujaili was only 22 when she graduated from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah in 2010. Yet she would have to wait another three years to be able to practice as a lawyer, which is certainly not the case for men who follow the same educational path. She spent those years working as a "legal consultant", receiving no recognition as a lawyer.
• But Al-Hujaili did not take no for an answer, tirelessly petitioning the Ministry of Justice. On April 8, 2013, The ministry licensed Al-Hujaili as a legal trainee, allowing her to finally practice law. After a three-year apprenticeship, she became a fully licensed lawyer.
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