September 29, 2023
Earlier this week, Indiana University hosted a truly unique event. On Monday, 9/25 and Tuesday, 9/26, a group of academics and women judges from constitutional courts in the Middle East and North Africa came together for a conference titled Women Judges in Dialogue. The conference, co-sponsored by the Center for Constitutional Democracy (CCD) and the Center for the Study of the Middle East (CSME), welcomed judges Maysa Bydoon (Constitutional Court of Jordan), Taghrid Hikmet (Constitutional Court of Jordan), Latifa El Khal (Constitutional Court of Morocco), and Mireille Najm (Constitutional Council of Lebanon). Together, these judges comprise approximately half of the women serving on the highest courts of the MENA region. The conference thus provided an unprecedented forum for debate and exchange of ideas among these judges, while opening new avenues for future networking and collaboration.
Prof. Susan Williams (CCD Director and Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law) emphasized the ground-breaking nature of the conference, as well as the growing role of female judges in the highest courts of Arab-speaking countries. “Given the recent appointment of women to many of these courts, it is now possible for them to meet as a cohort in order to share experiences, discuss the issues facing their courts, and build a network of connections among the judges and with legal academics who study the work of constitutional courts.” This sentiment was echoed by Clarine Nardi Riddle, former attorney general of Connecticut and the first female attorney general to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, who welcomed the judges to Bloomington on behalf of the CCD Advisory Board.
Amb. Feisal al-Istrabadi (Founding Director of CSME, Michael A. and Laurie Burns McRobbie Professor in Global Strategic Studies and Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the Hamilton Lugar School) noted in turn the long-standing collaborations that made the conference possible. As he puts it, these collaborations “are a testament to the intellectual environment fostered at IU Bloomington. There had been a prior relationship between the CCD and the Jordanian Constitutional Court. The partnership between CSME and CCD, in turn, allowed the expansion of that relationship to what it has now become—an annual symposium which is now in its third year, and which has expanded to include other new constitutional courts in the Middle East and North Africa. I cannot imagine another university in the country that could have matched the engagement of the Maurer School faculty and students with the depth of area-studies expertise of the Hamilton Lugar faculty and students to produce this truly historic first—four of the eight women members of constitutional courts in MENA meeting in Bloomington—for any other US university.”
The conference panels covered a wide range of subjects: the ability of ordinary citizens to access constitutional courts, the courts’ role in reviewing the constitutionality of legislation, the ways that high courts around the world have handled tensions between religion or custom and gender equality, the role of international law in constitutional jurisprudence, and the challenges facing women on high courts globally. In addition to IU professors al-Istrabadi and Williams, the conference was moderated by Prof. Sanaa Alsarghali (An Najah University, Palestine). Together, the three academics provided background and comparative information on each subject, and then the judges enjoyed an open and in-depth conversation on each topic.
The conference also provided an opportunity for students to interact with the participants through a series of public events, including a panel discussion at the Maurer School of Law where the judges responded to questions from the audience and from the Dean of the law school, Christiana Ochoa. The judges also met with students enrolled in the Hamilton Lugar School’s Arabic Flagship Program, and conversed with them (in Arabic) about the different legal systems in their countries. Lastly, Prof. Alsarghali presented talks at the Hamilton Lugar School and the Center for Constitutional Democracy, regarding political and constitutional developments in Palestine. These different opportunities for interaction, along with the conference more generally, were made possible through funding from a Title VI awarded to CSME by the Department of Education. According to Amb. al-Istrabadi, “this event shows the effect that federal Title VI funds can have for our programs. It allows programming at the Hamilton Lugar School to connect directly with other schools throughout the university in ways that would be almost impossible without that funding. It is a part of what makes IU Bloomington unique.”
In light of the conference’s success, the organizers hope that this will be the first step in a growing dialogue among women judges in the region. “We plan to turn the conference into an annual event,” said Prof. Williams, “and we hope to welcome more women judges from the region each year.”