24 September 2012

Women in the Law - But Not in Serbia

My husband left yesterday for a weeklong business trip to Serbia. (He will not be happy to read this; he worries about my safety and does not like my publicizing his absence.) He will be speaking at the International University in Novi Pazar about the criminal justice system in the United States. He also has scheduled stops in Kosovo and Frankfurt to hobnob with the international legal community. I'm proud and thrilled for him; I helped him pack a little bit, and on the way to the airport yesterday we chatted about what sort of gift he could bring me back from Germany. (I read German and always need practice, so I'm hoping for books and magazines to keep my skills sharp. )

I'm staying home and making sure the kids get to their various obligations during the week.  I was originally supposed to go along on the trip. I was to address the audience in Novi Pazar about the role of women in the American legal profession. I'd started working on a PowerPoint presentation about statistics and attitudes and trends when the New York State judge organizing the Serbia trip called my husband to advise him about conditions for women in that country.

Specifically, the judge said, if I came along on the trip, I would need to keep my head covered at all times. That's okay, I responded. I'm a when-in-Rome type of person and happy to comply with local customs. I envisioned myself in a pretty hijab and matching long dress.

Then, the judge said I would not be able to sit at the same table with the men while we were dining in public. Really? Well, I guess that's okay. But I thought it sounded odd that women weren't allowed to eat alongside men in public. I did some quick internet research on Serbia and could not come up with any evidence that this was true. Novi Pazar is apparently in a conservative area, and modest dress was recommended, but it seemed more like western Europe than some oppressive anti-woman regime. The pictures I found showed female western tourists walking freely in the streets and dining in restaurants with men.

Finally, the judge advised my husband that I would not be able to travel in the same cars with the men. My husband thought this would be a deal-breaker; in the event of an accident or other stroke of bad luck, he did not want to be separated from me. I wasn't worried, though, because I began to see what was going on. I began to suspect that the judge simply didn't want me along. "Does he not want me to come?" I asked.

"He says it would be 'logistically difficult' to bring you."

And so I stayed back. The irony was not lost on me, however. The young Serbian students are not going to learn about the role of women in the U.S. legal profession, because there will be no women included in the delegation visiting and addressing them. Though they will learn a great deal about the American legal system, they are likely to come away with the impression that the system is dominated by middle-aged white men. And it is, of course; my preliminary research more or less confirmed that.

It's hard for a woman, even one knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand, to break into a visible role in the legal profession. Those who already occupy visible roles are not leaving the door open for us and are certainly not going out of their way to make it easier. It would have been wonderful if the judge had said, "There is a woman who is part of our entourage, and she is treated like her male colleagues in the United States. Please extend her the same courtesy here."

Maybe that would have been logistically difficult, but progress usually is.


Anonymous said...

Novi Pazar has a high Muslim population which is why the "rules" there are different from the rest of Serbia.

Jennifer Arlin said...

Update from Novi Pazar: apparently there are women dining with men in restaurants and riding in cars with men, and women on the law faculty and in the delegation addressing the university. The excuse not to bring me along appears to have been spurious.