“I am a woman in law.” Such a simple phrase that contains so much. It is a phrase which I, personally, define myself by, and I assume that almost all women of my generation (let us not discuss age any further!) with a similar educational or professional background, do too.
It goes without saying, though, that these two words (‘woman’ and ‘law’) could not coexist in the same sentence, in Greece, for instance, 100 years ago (given that it was in 1925 when we could talk about the first female Greek lawyer). We would not be here, and I would not be who I am, if it were not for our female ancestors around the world, who decided to refuse to be part of the patriarchal norms of their societies and acted for a better future for all of us.
But, is this much longed for future all it should be, or is the promised land of equality still quite far from our reach? Well, in my view, during the last few decades, we have witnessed massive movements towards gender equality, which have been fruitful and have made a positive impact on the daily lives of women across the globe. Despite this, the answer is still not straight-forward.
On the occasion of this brilliant centenary project, in which, needless to say I feel honoured to participate alongside outstanding colleagues, I have given some time to myself to reflect on what I, personally, as a woman in law, have experienced so far. Surely, on such reflection, I cannot but think of all the inspirational and brave people involved in my life; my wonderful hard-working parents and my exceptional grandparents who have been my role models and have helped me reach my full potential; my two amazing and bold sisters, who, throughout the years, have been the driving force towards my personal and professional evolution; as well as my female and male friends and colleagues, together with whom, I have challenged the status quo with the aim of improving the lives of our fellow people.
As the famous quote from Nelson Mandela goes, “for to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” It was in fact, this kind of human-centric perception of life, along with my genuine passion for human rights, that gave me the impetus to study law and pursue my specialisation in International Law at the University of Glasgow. During my studies there, I interacted with brilliant colleagues and academics and conducted my thesis on the international legal context of domestic violence against women, which allowed me to develop my critical thinking, along with my research and drafting skills. Following this exciting experience in a multi-cultural and vivid Glasgow, I decided to fervently commit myself to use the full strength of the law to help people in need.
I feel that, today, I am at a point in my career where I can say that I have accomplished some things in this direction. Even from a young age, I always felt passionate about helping others and as an undergraduate law student, I voluntarily participated for 3 years in programmes that targeted the phenomenon of discrimination, aiming to build a bridge of communication among law students and young prisoners. Through my involvement in these projects, I had the opportunity to help promote the social inclusion of young prisoners after their release from prison. Following my graduation, both as a legal intern and an attorney-at-law at various law firms and court houses, I provided legal advice to clients, attended Court hearings and handled several legal cases. I also participated in the trial process and assisted Magistrates in building up the legal reasoning of the Court’s decisions.
In the subsequent years, having been selected to work for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)/ICMC (International Catholic Migration Commission) in the emergency context of Samos Island, I was called, as part of the protection team on the ground, to help the authorities respond to the massive migratory influxes there. I was tasked with safeguarding the rights of all asylum seekers who were de facto detained in the closed facility of Samos’ Reception and Identification Centre, by promoting capacity building of relevant stakeholders and monitoring, inter alia, the quality of work of all actors involved, as well as by facilitating their coordination so as to exchange information, practices and policies.
Due to my interest in gender-related issues and my specialisation in human trafficking and gender-based violence, I was appointed as the focal point for vulnerable asylum seekers and the survivors of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV). In this capacity, I organised and chaired regular inter-agency meetings, conducted research and drafted participatory assessments which were utilised in the workshops, thematic sessions and Focus Group Discussions which I also had the chance to lead and facilitate. The aim of these sessions was to share common experiences, improve the relations between host communities and the communities of asylum seekers, and to raise awareness of issues in SGBV, including cultural considerations. In addition, I identified and worked on individual cases, consulting migrants and refugees about their rights under EU and Greek Law, while also liaising with all actors operating in the “hotspot” to resolve the protection-related issues which arose on a daily basis.
Aiming to use all the experience I gained in the field, upon my appointment by UNHCR, I accepted the position to become a Regular Member of the semi-judicial Independent Appeals Committees of the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum. In this position, through my daily interaction with the two other members of the 7th Committee and highly regarded judges of the Greek Administrative Courts, we decided upon at least 2,700 appeals against first-instance negative decisions on international protection claims. In this role, I was able to implement my rights-based approach, as shaped during my studies in Glasgow, by guaranteeing the application of the procedural and constitutional standards, as prescribed by the relevant legal provisions.
Always keeping in mind that “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” (T.S. Eliot), I deliberately took on complicated and challenging cases of public interest. I feel proud to say that the osmosis between me and the judges, albeit hard at first, has been fruitful, given that we achieved unanimous decisions and have created legal precedent by drafting and issuing innovative decisions which have been published in the media and have initiated discussions in major legal fora.
However, in retrospect, in all my abovementioned professional experiences, things have not always been rosy. Unfortunately, gender stereotypes followed me everywhere along the way. Both as an undergraduate Law student and an intern, I recall many times being told that I had to be cheerful, polite and smile more, especially when dealing with male counterparts; that I had to behave and act in the way a young woman is expected to be. It was as if I needed to prove myself by conforming to a stereotype of how women lawyers are expected to be in an industry that is considered to be more “masculine”.
As a woman in the field, surrounded by men in the army, the police force, FRONTEX, etc., I sometimes had to simply ignore malicious comments and unconscious stereotypes regarding women. Stereotypes that suggest women talk too much, panic in an emergency, cannot control their feelings or manage crises as well as men. I focused on my aspirations and goals, letting the results I achieved speak for themselves in challenging these perceptions. At times, even in different contexts, during conferences or discussion fora where I have been a participant or guest speaker, I found myself trying to best present myself as a competent, professional and high-aspiring individual, without, at the same time, being perceived as “too much” or overly authoritative - traits that are attributable more easily to women compared to men in the business world.
Thankfully, during my journey so far, I am grateful for having met bright women, including inspirational and hard-working colleagues. I have also met resilient survivors of gender-based violence and single-headed families with courageous women in charge of their relatives. These women successfully fulfil multiple roles in their daily lives and have shared with me their most important (albeit, often traumatic) experiences, which have had a profound impact on my personal way of thinking and acting.
While writing this piece, one question keeps roaming in my head: what does it mean to be a woman today? The answer to this varies for everyone, depending on their own belief system and experience. But I also wonder whether we really need to answer such questions. As lawyers, we keep fighting every day for basic human rights; for our ideals; for justice and equality. Why does it have to be any different when it comes to gender equality? Isn’t it about time to peacefully coexist with each other and let all people be whoever they want to be, regardless of their gender?
Even though I am not certain about how things are going to evolve in the years to come for women in the legal profession, I whole-heartedly hope that, sooner or later, we will reach a point at which, we, as women, will not need a specific day to celebrate our fruitful (or not) battles and we will not have to remind ourselves of our achievements in gender-related terms. Perhaps, one day, being a woman will not imply the existence of unequal treatment and every human being will comprehend that gender equality is a matter of human rights, which everyone is entitled to enjoy, regardless of their sex or gender.
All in all, at the end of the day, “what we think, we become” (Buddha). Let us try to include into our thought process diverse perspectives that reflect our constantly evolving, multi-faceted society so as to redefine our mindset and create a world of inclusion and acceptance. Besides, law - as a living instrument - can be used as the most powerful tool towards justice and social change. In fact, this exact perspective has been my compass throughout my journey to date; or at least, that is what I am trying to achieve every day.
Athina Bartzi | https://www.linkedin.com/in/athinabartzi/
Lawyer | International Law Specialist | Certified Negotiator