Dr. Khadiga Hafez, Lecturer of Public International Law at the Law School of Ain Shams University, talks to Law Today about the importance of self-belief and pursuing your goals, no matter what the obstacles in front of you may be.  

LT: Can you tell us a little bit about your career story? How did you get to where you are?

I graduated from the French department of Ain Shams law school, and then went to Lyon for a year to do my Master’s degree, having been awarded a scholarship by the French government. Upon returning to Egypt I was appointed by the University of Ain Shams as an Electoral Assistant in the law school, and I worked here for nearly two years, but then I decided to return to France to do my PhD.

I had to apply for another scholarship, which was not easy because most scholarships are offered for less than four years. But I was determined to try my best because I saw this as an opportunity to really do something significant for the scientific side of my career. Finally, I was awarded a scholarship by the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education for four years.

I wanted to combine the study of public international law but also the corporate and business side of the industry, so finally chose to look at the Trade in Services Agreement, which is one of the agreements of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). I wanted to know how we trade in services and specifically what the legal status of developing countries in these agreements is.

However, after four months of working exclusively on my PhD, I realised I could not continue without seeing the inner workings of the WTO and how these kinds of agreements are executed. I was fortunate enough to secure what was initially a three month internship, later extended to six months, and then work as a consultant that lasted two years altogether. I moved from Lyon to Geneva to pursue this opportunity.

During this time, I would work at the WTO until 6pm every day, then go home and work in the evenings on my PhD. It was only during the weekends that I didn’t work. This offered me a unique chance to combine theoretical and practical experience. Although it was extremely tiring trying to balance work, my PhD and enjoying my life in Geneva, it was also an amazing time of my life.

Following this, I went back to Lyon and focused intensively on my PhD for a year and a half, which was another very intensive period. My scholarship was only for four years, so I was really determined to finish my PhD within that time frame, though it was extremely challenging. Finally, I defended my thesis within this time frame and got a very good grade.

So I returned to take up my position here at Ain Shams University. I was appointed vice-President of the French department and I had my work as a lecturer in public international law and international organisations.

In my second semester back at Ain Shams I wrote part of a book about international organisations, and this was another big challenge because it was in Arabic, a language I had not used professionally in four years.

So as you can see, my career has been varied and full of challenges even though it is still in its early stages.

When it comes the challenges I have faced that were not work-related, one was simply travelling alone, especially in our culture. People used to ask me why I was pursuing this path, to tell me how young I was, that I was not supposed to do this as a woman. But it was really what I wanted and I was so focused on it. I felt that God brought me this scholarship and that it was meant to be. All the people who supported me saw something in me, and I also believed greatly in my own determination to succeed.

At the university itself, I can say honestly that I have never faced challenges on the administrative side except that other professors always think I am student!

The first time I went into the auditorium to lecture and saw 3000 students, it was quite a shock for me and I think also a surprise for them. As a young, unveiled woman, I think it was difficult for them to understand at first that I was their professor. At the beginning, I had to have a bit of a poker face to keep the lecture calm and ordered. But in time, I started to become more relaxed.


LT: What tips would you give to people wanting to build a career within the legal industry?

You must try to know exactly what you want and this is not easy. We go to school, university, or work and don’t have a lot of time to reflect on what we really want to do but knowing what you can be engaged and happy doing helps a lot.

You have to believe you can do it. You will have many people tell you that you cannot do what you set your mind to, so you must believe in yourself.

At the same time, you have to be satisfied with where you are at any given moment. If you are here, now, that means you are in the best place for the time being, and you should focus on that.

The most important thing is the support of your family and friends. Without people to support you who are sure you can succeed, it is easy to become lonely and demoralised. Academia is so focused on work, research, books, conferences; it is not a profession where you have colleagues to meet every day, or where you find a community.

I would advise people to travel a lot. See as much as you can; explore cities, meet people from other cultures.

Try to focus on the present moment; ask yourself what you have to do today and try not to worry about tomorrow. I realised that, if I allowed myself to keep thinking about everything I had to do, I would never do any of it.

You have to love yourself and be your own advocate. Don’t underestimate yourself. Negative thoughts abound, especially in Egypt. You can allow that voice in your head to have power – I don’t have experience, I am a woman, people will never accept me. I say, don’t believe this. Don’t limit yourself. It is always better to try and to see what will happen. Give yourself some value and have the confidence to introduce yourself and to talk about what you want to do. Negative thoughts are a waste of time; try not to give them any space.

Finally, remember that you don’t have to be the top of the class to succeed. I have seen many examples of people who were not exceptional in college but who worked on themselves professionally and were able to achieve great things.