It is no exaggeration to say that Sue Ellen Hassouna is something of a celebrity within Egypt’s legal community. Head of Total Egypt’s legal department, to which she brings extensive experience honed through roles in both regional and international organisations, she is also a prominent speaker on legal topics related to business law, international dispute settlements and white collar crimes.
Sue Ellen is also one of Egypt’s most passionate advocates for the development of young, aspiring lawyers within the legal community. Having long endorsed and served as an advisor to youth initiatives in university and beyond, she is now taking her concrete support to the next level, through her establishment of the Sue Ellen Foundation for Legal Development. This non-profit foundation has the stated aim of empowering Egyptian youth through the rule of law, fighting legal illiteracy by catalysing the growth of legal awareness and understanding.
Talking to Law Today, Sue Ellen discusses her vision for positive change and social empowerment through legal knowledge.
LT: A lot of people talk about making change happen, but you always seem very driven to back your words up with very concrete action. Could you tell us how the Sue Ellen Foundation for Legal Development is going to actually affect people’s lives?
SH: Yes; it is very important to me that the foundation is not only a force for good, but an organisation that creates change that people can see the impact of, from the very beginning. By launching various events and campaigns, such as legal awareness seminars and scholarships, as well as taking on pro-bono cases, the foundation seeks to use legal knowledge and tools as a means of positive change for individuals, families, communities and – eventually – nations. In the end, what I envision is a community in Egypt that recognizes the importance of law and justice. My ultimate goal is to help people to use the law to improve their lives in a very noticeable way, as well as helping them to recognize their duties and rights as citizens.
LT: We know that, within the framework of the foundation, you are launching an exciting initiative to give opportunities for young Egyptian women to establish and succeed in careers as lawyers. Can you tell us more about this initiative, its scope and what it is setting out to achieve?
SH: I am launching an initiative called “Leeha Al Hak” (meaning “She Has the Right”), which is a vehicle for me to promote my core belief – that exceptional education should be accessible to all young women who dream of becoming lawyers, regardless of their economic circumstances. The Leeha Al Hak initiative will therefore finance, support and develop the capacities of a young Egyptian woman from a marginalised background, in this first phase of the initiative. Once we select the chosen candidate, we will provide her with an exceptional legal education by facilitating her entry into law school, in the English section. Not only will we finance her tuition, but we will contribute to her daily expenses by awarding her with a stipend. Finally, we will help her to fully develop her capabilities by providing her with summer internships at the most intellectually demanding, prestigious law firms. The initiative aims to help the candidate fully grow and advance by giving her access to both legal and non-legal courses. The overarching idea is to enable her to fully develop her capabilities so that she can enter into the career she always dreamed of.
Within the framework of this initiative, we have three scholarships to be offered to three young women from marginalised backgrounds. I am offering the first myself and will subsequently challenge law firms, businesspeople and legal institutions to do the same. The idea is for each scholarship to be named after a person towards whom you feel gratitude. So in my case, my scholarship will be named after my mother, to show my gratitude for the unparalleled sacrifices she exerted to help me reach where I am now.
LT: Can you tell us more about your motivation and inspiration to launch such an initiative?
SH: Two years ago, I was giving a series of lectures to law students from Upper Egypt and the Delta. During one of my lectures, a female student came and asked me if she could leave early because she had to catch the train back to Menya, where she lived. I discovered that she was travelling from Menya to Cairo back and forth every day – a round trip of almost eight hours – to attend my lectures. She was the brightest and most dedicated student in my class. This moment was a turning point for me in terms of the way it shaped my perspective. Really it gave me a new purpose in life almost immediately, causing me to shift my focus to those young women who are impeded by financial and cultural constraints from achieving their dreams of having a proper education, full support and real chances from our legal community to become exceptional lawyers. Starting at this point, I decided to do what I could to change this, through my foundation.
LT: What do you hope the initiative will achieve, in both the short-term and the long-term?
SH: In the short-term, I hope to train a talented female lawyer who will prove to our legal community that doors should not be closed to women, and that we should help them overcome financial obstacles and all forms of marginalisation. With the support of the Egyptian legal community, they have the potential to become the leaders of the future. Thus my aim is to raise awareness that we need to stimulate and nurture their abilities to get the best out of them before their dreams fade. They should not be held back by their gender or other forms of social discrimination.
The Queen of Jordan, Rania Al Abdallah, once said “I’ve always believed that when you educate a girl, you empower a nation”. Our long-term plan, therefore, is to make a difference by changing certain aspects of the culture in our country: not stereotyping lawyers, whether by gender or other social standards. We want to reach a point where any person who dreams of becoming a lawyer has the opportunity to do so. Nothing should be able to stop her if she has the motivation and all legal institutions, including law firms and corporations, should be giving chances to those in need of extra assistance. I believe that there are people with phenomenal skills and capabilities inside them, who simply need someone to give them encouragement and support, and open some doors that are currently closed to them.
LT: You are bringing in some interesting partners to participate in the initiative, in terms of financial investment but also in terms of helping the initiative to grow from a conceptual point of view. What was your rationale behind doing this and what approach did you use to engage these partners in your vision?
SH: In fact, I was approached by many institutions, including NGOs and law offices, to fund and sponsor the foundation, but I preferred to establish and finance it myself. Yet, as this initiative aims to catalyse change within the community, we are challenging legal academies or law offices and businesspeople to match what the foundation is doing. The challenge is for two other entities to sponsor an aspiring female lawyer, so as to provide concrete, meaningful support to three marginalised women by the end of the first phase of the initiative. I really hope that these entities will be fully engaged in the challenge, giving the young lawyers any assistance they may need during their four years at law school, and providing support to help them access internships or courses.
The rationale behind this concept of the challenge is to share responsibility with a specific, privileged, sector in our legal community so that it participates in the community’s own comprehensive development, by helping it to become more accessible and more egalitarian. There are sectors within this community that need to absorb the fact that, by focusing on the development of only the privileged, we are limiting the possibilities available to the community itself. We need to start paying real attention to those who are in need of our assistance and to become their role models and mentors, for the sake of the whole community developing.
LT: You have clearly established yourself as a leader in your field – a young, female lawyer who is well respected and well connected in a male-dominated industry. This is a remarkable achievement in itself. Is it fair to say that your experience of overcoming challenges as a woman has been a significant factor motivating you to provide opportunities to other women? Can you talk to us about the kinds of challenges you have had to overcome to get to where you are, and how you have dealt with them in your career so far?
SH: There are a lot of challenging jobs out there for women, but it seems that being a female lawyer in Egypt may be one of the toughest. My LL.M. thesis supervisor once told me “Sue Ellen, when I see you, I see three things: you’re a woman, petite, and part of a minority. You will be judged based on these things, so be tough and show your community that you can do whatever you set your mind to.”
The hardest challenge is the pervasiveness of gender bias and inequality. Of course, this obstacle is not unique to lawyers; it is an obstacle encountered by women irrespective of rank or profession. Specific to the legal field in Egypt, it is crucial to note that, although women are earning law degrees at a rate similar to men, we are still far behind men in the workplace. In my case, I overcame the challenges I faced by exerting triple the effort to develop my legal skills and knowledge, to prove to the community that women could be as successful as men in the legal field. By launching the Leeha Al Hak initiative, I hope to develop a model that will allow our legal community to effect positive changes.
LT: Are there aspects of Egypt’s legal sector that need to be altered in order for there to be more opportunities for women leaders to grow?
SH: Egypt’s legal profession still best suits a lawyer who has a spouse at home who looks after the household and children. Because of social and cultural norms, this makes it much easier for men to get ahead in this profession than women.
The legal profession should not only take note of the effective professional roles played by women during recent decades within developed countries, but should also invest time and concrete resources in helping women in Egypt to take on such roles as well.
Becoming a lawyer is widely regarded as running counter to a woman’s natural feminine traits, as successful lawyers often need to be assertive, persistent, sometimes argumentative and outspoken. This is challenging for any woman from the developing world. The Egyptian legal community needs therefore to undergo a cultural shift, so as to understand, internalise and allow for the reality that male attorneys can be just as hard working and sympathetic as female ones, and women can be just as aggressive as men in our legal field.