Asper Al-Shimi, a University of York Laidlaw Scholar, on the long-lasting effects of British Imperialism, feminisim and human rights.
Research title: The Legacy of British Imperialism on Nationality law in post-colonial territories: A Case Study Specific to Jordan
The colonial ambition of civilizing the ‘barbaric’ native man underlay the many legal reforms that mirrored that of English Law. Colonial rule thus codified a more male-dominated law in regard to social order compared to the indigenous one that pre-existed colonial presence. Colonial powers, though, often ignored the unique experiences of the native people, and instead, enforced an English law that fails to consider their culture and history. I argue that the lack of historic context-sensitivity of colonial law survives today, thereby continuing to promote British interest all while frustrating that of native women. My research aims to specifically elucidate the experiences of women under a nationality law that continues to implement the gendered legacy of British Imperialism with a case study specific to India. My research aims to specifically answer the following question; How has the legacy of British imperialism infused nationality laws in India with colonial and patriarchal values?
My research, at its core, closely links to Justice and Equality: one of the seven University of York research themes. It calls for the disposal of the patriarchal values pervaded in the laws of post-colonial territories that allow for the legal and social exclusion of native women all while glorifying and promoting the interests of their western counterparts. My research will draw on the work of renowned human rights defenders and organisations, specifically The Global South Academic Network and its scholars, to emphasize the need for the extension of the feminist movement to include native women without the western rejection of their racial, cultural, and social specificities. Because in doing so, they enforce the principle that the western woman is the only woman deserving of tolerance and act as potential oppressors in effect. I seek to positively enforce a feminist approach that acknowledges the diversity of women worldwide explicating that they are heterogeneous entities who do not share the same characteristics, beliefs, values and practices, but are all deserving of inclusivity, equality, and tolerance, nonetheless.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
Raised by a single mother in Jordan, where she is not an equal citizen in the eyes of the law, I was denied nationality as no male guardian was there to allow me one. Embittered, I endorsed the view that a constitution that accords primacy to Sharia (Islamic) law is vile; a thin veil to cover up the horrific of a system that continues to implement discrimination in the name of religion. When researching, I unearthed a much surprising truth: despite the government's assertion that the nationality law is in accordance with Sharia Law, this is belied by the history of the Kingdom's 1954 law. This law stems from British Nationality Law whose mandate over the land lasted until 1946. However, unlike the British, Jordanian officials continue to enforce this law to benefit their political agenda. Further, despite the 2014 reforms that were widely advertised as offering ‘civil rights’ or ‘privileges’ to non-citizen children of Jordanian mothers, I, and others in my situation, still encounter difficulties when attempting to access a right as simple as healthcare.
Personally, I was declined access to government-subsidized healthcare when an MRI scanning detected a tumour in my cervical vertebrae (upper part of the spine) and I required immediate surgery and treatment, simply because I was labelled as a non-citizen. I am a foreigner in my own country. Not only this but I was also denied surgery in a private hospital because my legal guardian, who under Jordanian law is said to only be the father or his male next of kin, was not present to consent. This allowed for a new firmness of purpose: law is the greatest man-driven machine to exist, it holds the power to authorise the oppression of an entire sex of persons or free from the brutality of such prejudiced system.
Real-life leadership lessons
To modestly contribute to the reform of an inherently discriminatory system, I volunteered at an orphanage during the summers of my junior and senior years, teaching young teens English as a second language. This experience has required me to use initiative and innovation to create an engaging environment to make my content attractive to my audience. Within my school, I greatly relished the glory of leading a team as they navigated the art of advocacy by arguing for either the defence or the prosecution in a trial act. Further, I applied my learned advocacy in my position as a Content Editor and Translator at JUST: Access, a not-for-profit legal start-up that aims to increase access to justice and engage with key stakeholders that will bring about systemic change. There, I reported on legal issues for vulnerable individuals, lawyers, and governmental personnel in both Arabic and English. This role enhanced my awareness of the barriers faced by underrepresented and vulnerable groups and thus taught me the importance of education for these groups both via higher education and the wider sector. These experiences have required me to be accountable for my actions at all stages to ensure successful running of the team; an important trait of an ethical leader.
At University level, I serve as an active Disability Officer and member of the Anne Lister College Founding Committee where I advocate for and promote the welfare of disabled students. This has taught me the importance of empathy. Additionally, as a Student Supporter working in collaboration with the University of York (UoY) Access & Outreach team, I coordinate and deliver sixth-form programmes that provide students who have experienced barriers opportunities to explore university options and receive specialist support with their current studies. Alongside my other responsibilities, I lead virtual 'College' groups where I deliver creative activities and presentations to help foster their learned skills. This has allowed me to modestly aid in bridging the state-private education gap and level the playing field to increase accessibility.
Top leadership tips
⚡️Ask for feedback on your leadership
⚡️Set direction, but make it compelling
⚡️Be available and accessible
⚡️Delegate, never command
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
To me, being a Laidlaw Scholar means the responsibility of bringing about impactful change at a much earlier stage in my career. It is inspiring and being inspired by catalysts of change who, through the power of education, transform the world. Being a Laidlaw scholar means being curious, daring, and innovative. It means the foundation has chosen me, among others, to carry forth their mission. It means I was given to tools to make a tangible difference in the field of my passion.
As a scholar, I am using research methodologies to call for the disposal of the patriarchal values pervaded in the laws of post-colonial territories that allow for the legal and social exclusion of native women all while glorifying and promoting the interests of their western counterparts. This is so as to implement a system that pertains to its cultural traditions while simultaneously acknowledging the need for democratization and furthering the development of human rights. I collaborate with and am mentored by like-minded, ethical leaders, as I seek to positively enforce a feminist approach that acknowledges the diversity of women worldwide explicating that they are heterogeneous entities who do not share the same characteristics, beliefs, values and practices, but are all deserving of inclusivity, equality, and tolerance, nonetheless.
Which leaders inspire you and why?
One leader that continually amazes me with her work is Ratna Kapur, an expert on human rights and international law from a critical, TWAIL and postcolonial perspective. Kapur is a law professor and former director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research in New Delhi, India [1995–2012]. Kapur criticised, in her book Erotic Justice, the liberal feminist theory, which maintains that more rights to those previously excluded, will result in more freedom or greater equality. She applies this criticism to the colonial narrative that claimed that enforcing British reforms in colonial territories afforded native women more rights. However, as she, I, and many others have concluded, the reforms were merely a protectionist measure formulated in the context of a larger debate about the concept of the nation-state, and they have, if anything, frustrated the interests of the very native woman they claimed to protect. Kapur continues to argue that this protectionist agenda survives today in the context of feminist involvement in international law on behalf of Third World women. She claims that a universalist framework was used to construct the projected dominant legal identity of 'woman.' This assumed cohesive grouping, however, is based on the individualist tenets of a white, Western, middle-class, heterosexual woman. Depicting uncomplicated legal subjects results in significant silences on class, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
She and other feminist postcolonial theorists who offer tools for challenging the fundamental foundations and structural ordering that an assumed 'objective' international law creates in its pursuit of gender justice, exposing the Western (male) gaze's privilege in legal practise and institutional settings continue to inspire me and my work, including my Laidlaw Research.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
I am striving and will continue to strive until all discriminatory nationality laws are abolished. I will fight until no law denies men and women equal rights to obtain, alter, or retain nationality, or to bestow nationality on their children or spouse. Sex-based discrimination is a violation of international human rights legislation, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW), which specifically requires States to provide women with equal nationality rights (Article 9). When a state denies women and men equal nationality rights, it creates a class of second-class citizens. Gender equality cannot be accomplished in a country whose nationality laws discriminate against women. Not only this, but gender discrimination in nationality legislation is one of the most significant perpetrators of statelessness. It also impedes a child's access to education, to healthcare, and to so many other social services in many nations such as Jordan. This is why I plan on dedicating my career to the abolishment of these discriminatory laws so that no woman or child will suffer because of this ever again.
A cause you are passionate about
The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights is a campaign I’m very passionate about. This is because they mobilize international action to achieve law reform in the 25 countries that prevent mothers from conferring their nationality on their children on an equal basis with fathers; and to achieve law reform in the 50+ countries which deny women equal nationality rights with men, including conferral of nationality to non-national spouses. The Campaign is supported by its Coalition of local, regional and international NGOs, academics, civil society partners, UN agencies, and government allies across the globe. Coalition members contribute to the Campaign in a variety of ways, including through local activism, advocacy at the international level, knowledge sharing, capacity building and research.
Asper is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at the University of York. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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