Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women from various sectors. BEIRUT: “There is still justice in the world,” Nada Abdelsater-Abusamra declared as she took the floor at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon last January, at the start of the long-awaited trial.
As she listed the names of the victims of the Feb. 14, 2005, attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, a wave of emotion swept those in attendance.
It was time to end the “mountain of terror and subjugation” that had smothered Lebanon for decades, said Abdelsater, who, along with two of her colleagues, is representing the interests of the victims at trial.
“I think it was a historical moment,” Abdelsater says now, when asked how she felt as she addressed the court – the first Lebanese lawyer and woman to have done so.
“The victims were so happy to see and witness that moment, the opening of trial,” she says. Abdelsater also relished the moment, addressing the court in Arabic with great passion, a touch that she says was intended to affirm her Lebanese identity.
“I was proud to be a Lebanese lawyer in an international forum,” she adds.
The international lawyer is also the chairperson of the Lebanese Transparency Association, a member of the Maronite League, a managing partner of ASAS Law Firm, and a former law lecturer at the American University of Beirut.
Her life was marked by the reconciliation process led by her father, the now-retired ISF Gen. Issam Abdelsater and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, aimed at turning over the bloody page of the 1977 Civil War-era massacres in her village, Mazraat al-Chouf, where she had lost most of her father’s family.
“I believe in love, pride and dialogue,” she says. “They are not mutually exclusive.”
She was primed at a young age for her career as a lawyer, and describes her parents – especially her mother – as “rebellious.”
In the mid-1980s, Abdelsater’s mother founded a movement called the “mother’s revolt,” grown out of frustration at the pointless slaughter of Lebanon’s Civil War. She remembers hundreds of women, and men too, coming to their home, organizing protests, painting signs.
“I was brought up to refuse, reject, abhor lies and cheating, things that are just not right, and against any type of injustice,” she says. “This is how we were brought up, we have to correct the world and we cannot accept what is wrong.”
As a youngster, she took part in community service, distributing books to schoolchildren who could no longer afford them because the war had so devalued the Lebanese currency, as well as organizing events for war orphans.
As a high school student, Abdelsater toyed with studying law but ended up joining AUB’s biology program, because it was harder to enter.
But after graduating in 1994, she joined Universite St. Joseph’s law program, and later earned her Master of Law degree at Harvard. She passed the New York bar exam and returned to Lebanon in 2000, where she married and had three children with her husband, Walid Abu-Samra.
“Everybody asked me why are you coming back to Lebanon, but my heart brought me back and we founded a family,” she says.
Soon, friends approached her about being part of a nascent NGO to fight corruption. She remembers bringing her 6-month old daughter, Yasmina, to that first meeting of what was to become known as the Lebanese Transparency Association – No Corruption.
The Interior Ministry, then under the tutelage of the Syrian regime that was in total control of Lebanon, refused to meet with the LTA’s envoy, who sought to deliver their constitution to the ministry.
“They said there is no corruption in Lebanon and there is no need for this organization,” she says.
Now, Abdelsater is chairperson of the LTA and has her own law firm.
Her voice beams with pride as she recalls taking the stage at the STL in The Hague.
Abdelsater first became involved with the case when she was asked to represent the widow of Zahi Bou Rjeily, who was knocked unconscious by the force of the explosion that rocked Downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005, but died after nearly 12 hours under the rubble.
Bou Rjeily’s family searched for him for hours in Beirut’s hospitals and morgues. His colleagues at the St. Georges Hotel had all survived the bombing. Security officers on the scene refused to grant the family access to the area, and their frustration mounted as his phone continued to ring with no answer throughout the night.
The next day, Bou Rjeily’s family was able to convince a senior officer to grant them access, and the Red Cross immediately found his body, still warm with merely superficial wounds under the rubble. His phone had been on silent, and he had died shortly before he was found. “This horrified me,” Abdelsater says.
After accepting a request to represent the family, Abdelsater, in cooperation with other victims’ lawyers, called for the creation of an international tribunal in a request to Lebanon’s head of the judiciary and to the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
She would later be appointed by the STL as one of three lawyers representing the interests of over 60 victims involved in the trial.
Abdelsater smiles when asked how she manages to balance her myriad responsibilities with spending time with her children.
She gets a lot of help from her husband’s family, she says, particularly her mother-in-law, but a work-life balance is not the only challenge facing working women. Arab society often tends to see women simply as feminine, without acknowledging their professionalism.
“The first five minutes of any encounter are decisive to let anyone realize that they are talking to a person with very high professionalism,” she says.
“There is a prejudice and this prejudice is overcome, but as a man you do not start with this prejudice.”
And whether in Lebanon or elsewhere, men are often condescending at first when addressing female colleagues, and some are insecure in the presence of highly qualified women, she adds.
Abdelsater says companies should work harder to help women with the “mission of being a mother,” for instance by offering daycare services to give women the opportunity to be on par with men in the professional world.
“I really think that the business environment would benefit from being more supportive to mothers.”