For Women in Law

This month we chat to Tanveer Jeewa, who is a Mauritian law researcher at the Constitutional Court of South Africa.  Tanveer holds an LLB degree and will be graduating with an LLM in Public Law by the end of 2019. Tanveer is a human rights activist evidenced by her research papers and hands-on work experience. She is also the founder of RefRights in Cape Town, South Africa.

RefRights is building a software application for refugees, to alleviate the burden of organizations such as the Refugee Rights Unit. The app will identify the issues of the refugees and then provide them with letters addressed to authorities (with respect to their issues) informing them of the refugeesê rightsãin the process, reducing their travel and wait times and the associated costs. 

Below is the interview between For Women in Law (FWIL) and Tanveer Jeewa (TJ). 

Tell us a little about yourself. (Background, career, interests)TJ:
I am a 23 year-old, Mauritian law researcher at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. I possess an LLB and will be graduating with an LLM in Public Law by the end of 2019. Beyond my academic life and contradictory cynical outlook on life, I also have an untiring drive to make a positive change around me.
I like to flatter myself by identifying as a human rights activist which I hope can be seen in my daily actions, my research papers and hands-on work experience. I have volunteered within my field of study, teaching high school students about their constitutional rights, and for two years in a row, have successfully helped university students draft their appeals against academic exclusion pro bono.I have spent the last two years volunteering at the Refugee Rights Unit, a legal organisation helping refugees. Recognition for my engagement came in August 2017 when I was selected as one of the 7 UN Delegates at the Youth Assembly to be awarded the Resolution Project Fellowship for the social venture RefRights (watch the space to find out more soon!).The RefRights concept germinated while I was volunteering at the Refugee Rights Unit. I also avail to refugees as an interpreter for English/French at tribunals. In all this hard-core activism and social engagement, my mother believes that my delicate side is reflected in my hobbies: writing and poetry.
FWIL:What inspired your career in law?TJ:My mother is an attorney but strangely enough, I do not think that is what inspired me. I have this strange need to know everything that, in my eyes, is practical and would not require me to be dependent on others in times of need. And to me, the career path which would ideally answer that need, was law. I have been privy to many injustices in my life, where I always thought “if only they knew that such and such was not allowed!” And that was the answer to my question: I needed to know. So, I embarked on my mission to study law and was thoroughly interested in every branch of law which I thought would be practically useful in my day to day life. Although, now I know that injustice goes beyond mere knowledge of your own rights, now I also know what to do with this knowledge, and how to use it not only for myself, but also for others.
FWIL:You are currently a law clerk at the Constitutional Court, how is this different to serving articles of clerkship?TJ:I have actually never served articles of clerkship, as I am a foreigner. Foreigners are unfortunately barred from practicing law in South Africa, unless they have permanent residency. (I am really hoping someone challenges this soon though!)But, I will try answering this question in so far as it relates to working at the Constitutional Court. My time at the Constitutional Court has been one of the most amazing times of my life. I have been subject to such a beautiful and enriching learning experience, and I have really grown in confidence. This has a lot to do with the Judge I am currently clerking for. Justice Leona Theron has, since I started working at the Court, been extremely supportive. She has turned every experience in a lesson for me, and I know I am all the better for it. There is also something very humbling in constantly being surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds in this country, every conversation is enriching.

FWIL:As a woman in law have you experienced any gender bias?

TJ:I have unfortunately already experienced gender bias in my fairly young career. In an old job of mine, I quickly noticed that I had to prove myself in every single task that I engaged in. I found that, because I am a brown woman, I was not easily entrusted with work, even though I was qualified for these said tasks. I have also found that people tended to scrutinize and question my work more, so I had to always be able to back my opinions with more research than others would need to. Oddly, I was privileged enough to only notice this at 22 years old. I know a lot of black women who have not had the benefit of learning this so far along in their lives. They have always been doubted in every space that they have been in and it is quite sad to know that they have to put in three times as much effort, just to be trusted, let alone praised.

Unfortunately, that is the world we currently live in. We need to play by the rules of the game, or we get chucked out. And this is why it is so important that we remain overachievers, because eventually, we will get to change the rules of the game. Hopefully, by then, we will remain true to our values, and other women of color will not have to fight as hard, to make it to where they deserve to be.

FWIL:What does being an alpha female mean to you?

TJ: In the beginning this question sounded a bit odd to me, because I always thought of the word alpha as meaning someone who was brilliant but mostly stayed isolated. It evoked a picture of a lone wolf to me. However, it soon occurred to me that wolves move in packs, and in that way, I do identify as an alpha female. To me, being an alpha female means that I can step up to a position of leadership if need be, but I mostly work in the interest of others, especially in that role of a leader. While I can be independent, I often thrive in an environment where I can have healthy debates within a team and can be told if I am wrong. Being an alpha female also means that I strive to be strong and not take critique personally, but instead see where I am wrong and how I can improve.

FWIL: Would you consider yourself a feminist? If yes, what does feminism mean to you? If no, why not?

TJ: I have never actively thought about whether I am a feminist. I have always assumed that, by virtue of identifying as a woman, I am inherently feminist. My reasoning is that, because I have always strived to be treated as an equal, and have always seen myself as being equal, that makes me a feminist.

However, I think this might be a harsh thing to assume to be inherent when it comes to others’ perception of feminism. The global north’s idea of feminism is quite different from the global south’s and that is because, by virtue of some of the privileges they enjoy, their feminism can be more often displayed, inconsequentially, compared to ours. Thus, I believe that, if we are going to judge others on their performance or display of feminism, we should look carefully at what feminism looks like in a particular context. There is no singular brand of feminism.

FWIL: What is the best advice you would give to aspiring legal professionals?

TJ: The best advice I could give someone, is an advice that I am glad I took on for myself. Do not be your own enemy, do your best and always look back knowing you could not have done more, given the circumstances. And this could apply to many situations. I always see opportunities where I think I am not qualified, but I tell myself to apply anyway. I am not my own enemy, so I will not stand in my own way to success, I will do my best and apply. Always go for all the opportunities that interest you, you never know which doors will open.

FWIL: What recent change/amendment in the law has caught your attention? (do you agree with the change? Why/why not)

TJ: This answer will not be so much about a change in law, but it pertains to two judgments relating to housing rights. They might not mean much to the naked eye, but to anyone who has had experience dealing with unlawful evictions, these judgments are gold! The Western Cape Rental Housing Tribunal issued two judgments in January 2019 pertaining to unfair practices that the landlords in the respective cases engaged in. In both cases, the landlords had increased the rental amount to such an extent that the tenants had not been able to afford to pay rent. This has led to the landlords being able to issue notices to vacate. The tribunal in both cases ruled that these amounted to unfair practices. The cases are: Hendricks v Kaskar Case no: 21/3/1/2164/H21; Salies v Kaskar 21/3/1/2164/S47, 21/3/1/2164/S48. Such rulings are essential when it comes to preventing gentrification and making sure that evictions do not occur. As one can see from the current occurrences surrounding the purported aggravation of neighbours in District Six over the call to prayer (Athan), gentrification has many adverse consequences and this is one way in which the law can prevent its spread.

FWIL: What are some of your effective networking skills?

TJ: Unfortunately, something I yet have to master and do better in, is networking. I have this awful notion that networking means “being fake”, and I struggle with it so much. As much as I know that this is the wrong way of approaching it, I cannot seem to get over that thought. However, to be very honest, I think this has more to do with my imposter syndrome. I am always so worried of not being worthy of a position, that I cannot get myself to network and rely on contacts, which I have made bona fide, for my own personal gain. Yet, I have no issues on making contacts to liaise with for my employer. The disparity is cause for some eyebrow raises. So, I would say, so far, I do not have any effective networking skills, but I am definitely working on them!

FWIL: What does the term “role model” mean to you? Which phenomenal woman in law would you call your role model?

TJ: There are three women in law who have been role models to me, and I have had the privilege of knowing all of them personally. While one of them is my actual mother, Ayesha Jeewa, the others have been like mothers to me, Justice Leona Theron and Advocate Jacqueline Moudeina. My mother has taught me that I should never back down in front of any challenge, and, through her sacrifices, she has allowed me to dream as far as I can cast my net, if not beyond that. Justice Theron taught me, through her actions, that when duty calls, I must raise to the challenge. Her career also showed me that the challenge that calls me, needs me to conquer it – that is my path.Advocate Moudeina showed me that nothing is impossible when you set your mind to it. Beyond everything, all three have shown me that nothing is achievable without hard work, and for that, I will be forever grateful.

FWIL:What books have you read that have greatly influenced your life?

TJ: I have read many books that have left a mark on me, but I think one which has had the most impact on me remains “I, Phoolan Devi – India’s Bandit Queen”. The way I came across this book was tragic and funny at the same time, which is often the way in which I would describe my life.Back when I was a child, I was really fond of Mills and Boon books. Some of you will automatically recognise this name, and for the others, to clarify, they are romance novels. My mother was getting tired of me reading these books and she decided to show me that “this is not what real life is about”. So, she gave me a book entitled “I, Phoolan Devi – India’s Bandit Queen”. To 14-year-old me, that book sounded really edgy and I quickly delved into it. The book was actually an autobiography by Phoolan Devi, and it talked about her life as a lower caste woman who was born and raised in India. She was forced into a child marriage at the young age of six, and had been sexually assaulted numerous times from then onwards. It was an extremely tragic story, where even though she emerged later as a Bandit Queen, then an MP, it left me with a bitter taste in the mouth: life was not a Mills and Boon book – and I had to be ready for whatever it wished to throw at me.

(Also, a special shout out to the book “Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, one of my most recent reads. It is a beautiful novel which looks into the interaction of different minorities and “rejects” in the context of Indian society. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to shake their perspective of most socially ingrained notions surrounding gender, caste and classism.)

FWIL: What’s a quote that you live by? Your mantra.

TJ: As cheesy as these are, I think the values I live by is to do my best and to never give up. These are not quotes per se, but I would like to think they describe my life. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I never let an opportunity go by. A lot of these opportunities often get unanswered or I get rejected, but yet, I tell myself that if I never get rejected, then I am not trying hard enough. I might not be qualified yet, but one day I will be. And until then, I will keep trying.

FWIL: How do you remain autonomous while working in the legal field?

TJ: I think this is something that I used to struggle with, but now that I have some more experience behind me, I have become more comfortable with this notion. I have always been someone with strong values, and those values have always guided me. In the legal sphere, this might not be the most welcomed when you are at the service of your clients. This is actually not welcomed in a lot of the branches of the legal profession. For example, at the moment I am working at the Constitutional Court, and that requires me to be loyal to different values as my own. However, I have found that the position that I hold requires me to hold many values that I already hold close to my heart, such as fairness and justice. I am of the view that, if the two values which one remains steadfast in upholding, are fairness and justice, then it becomes almost second nature to be autonomous in the legal profession.

FWIL: Are you open to mentoring younger women in the profession?

TJ: Of course! I am always ready and willing to help anyone who thinks they could learn something, anything, from me. Please feel free to reach out to me on any social media, I am quite the chatterbox. P.S: I am also wiling to be mentored, if that’s of any relevance!

FWIL: How can people reach out to you? (social media handles)

TJ: Twitter: @TanveerJeewaLinkedin:

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