By Kellen Wittkop, Class of 2016
Photo credit: http://today.law.harvard.edu/international-womens-day/
Amidst the bustling halls of Wasserstein Hall, filled at all hours of the day with students dashing to their next commitment and faculty marching to and from their offices, it’s a miraculous occurrence when the halls become relatively still. Usually an exciting lunch talk or a welcomed sunny afternoon will do the trick, pulling people from their rigid schedules and out of the WCC. But it’s even more remarkable when the halls are filled with people standing in them.
That’s is exactly what happened on March 3, 2014 when several large bulletin boards were stationed on the first and second floors in honor of International Women’s Day. The boards bore proudly the photographs, names, and descriptions of women from around the globe, representing all fields of law and policy. The selection of these women was not random but instead personal; members of the HLS community nominated individuals with kind and generous words reflected in each of the brief bios accompanying the portraits. Students, faculty, staff, and community members at large were seen throughout the day meandering slowly in front of the boards, reading and drinking in the meaning of the exhibit.
And perhaps the most meaningful unspoken inspiration embodied by this exhibit was also the most metaphorical – the bulletin boards were placed in direct opposition to the walls bearing the portraits of faculty, walls dominated overwhelmingly by photographs of older white males. The exhibit purposefully created a space and a conversation that had never been inserted into those halls. A conversation rooted in the inescapable conclusion that these women are truly amazing, inspirational humans doing good and creating change throughout the world. And they would not be overpowered by their counterparts on the walls opposite them.
As I stood in front of each board, scanning the names and reading the descriptions, I recognized maybe half of the names, women such as Sandra Day O’Connor, Martha Minow, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kathleen Sullivan, and others. But there were many I didn’t recognize, portraits of women I could tell were deserved of my respect and admiration for whatever commendable difference they were instituting in their area of law and policy. Women in uniform. Women in Congress. Women in leadership positions. I was in awe of every single woman represented before me. And there was one portrait and description that stuck out in particular. Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran.
Just short of five months ago, Mahmoud Al-Zahran was not a licensed attorney. Her lack of credentials was through no fault of her own but instead the result of systematic discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. Women were not permitted to become licensed attorneys but could only serve as legal consultants after graduation. Marking the first female to receive a license to practice law in the state, Mahmoud Al-Zahran along with three other females who had received licenses started the first-ever female law firm in Saudi Arabia. The firm, opening its doors in mid-February, would focus on serving women and representing their perspective before the courts.
The accomplishments of Mahmoud Al-Zahran, albeit taking place thousands of miles away from where I stood at Harvard Law School, resonated to the very core of why I am doing what I am. Mahmoud Al-Zahran is a creator, a leader, an architect in the field of law and policy. She overcame challenges, I’m sure only to be confronted with new ones going forward, but nonetheless achieved an astounding victory for women and others in her state and internationally. She stands as an inspiration for those who have previously they didn’t have a voice or a seat at the table. She effected substantial and meaningful change and will continue to do so.
So while I enjoyed standing in front of the bulletin boards, feeling inspired by the significance of the women staring back at me, I also stopped to appreciate the calm that entered our halls. The quiet ambiance of people pausing for a moment in their busy lives to appreciate the inspiration that now rested at their eye-level: women inspiring change, inspiring us.
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