Jasmine Samara speaks poetically about the almost miraculous meeting of her parents—her father, a Palestinian Muslim, and her mother, a Mennonite, who grew up on an Illinois farm. Although they met in the United States, at a restaurant where her mother held a summer job as a waitress, they soon moved to Saudi Arabia to raise their family. Against a harsh cultural and economic backdrop, Ms. Samara's parents strived to ensure the best education for their children and to pass along their religious values.
Paradoxically, says Ms. Samara, it was her studies at Yale—of which her parents were immensely proud—that led her to question the attitudes toward women and social customs that she had observed growing up. She has since struggled to maintain a delicate balance between respect for certain Muslim traditions and her growing passion for human—and particularly women's—rights.
She soon became interested in women's reproductive rights and for her senior thesis researched the impact of nationalism on the reproductive rights of both Palestinian and Israeli women; both groups have been encouraged to reproduce more citizens for their "side."
A political science major, Ms. Samara returned in 1998 to Saudi Arabia as an intern for the U.S. Department of State. While there, she began to be more aware of, and more uncomfortable with, the restrictions that faced women.
"In Saudi Arabia, everything has to be planned in advance," she says. "Women may not drive, and if they walk down the street alone, they are harassed, so they always have to have a driver. Women also have to wear a long cloak and cover their hair." These restrictions disturbed Ms. Samara particularly because it was not clear to her which ones were mandated by law, which were matters of custom, and who was making the rules. The experience forced her to explore further which traditions she wanted to keep, which she wanted to dispense with, and which to modify. It also furthered her interest in human rights law and how it is made and enforced.
She chose Columbia Law School for its reputation for excellence in international human rights scholarship and took advantage of numerous opportunities to explore this field. Ms. Samara enjoyed courses in International Law, Comparative Criminal Law, and Immigration Law, but her favorite class was a seminar on Sexuality, Gender, Health and Human Rights taught by Lecturer Carole Vance.
During the past two school years, she has worked with RightsLink, an organization that provides research assistance to domestic and international human rights organizations. For one project, she researched how human rights commissions, like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have or have not addressed gender issues.
During law school, Ms. Samara maintained links to her past through the Law School's Middle Eastern and North African student organization Qanun. She says it is hard, as an Arab-American, not to feel like an ambassador, but that is not her mission. In fact, her experience at the Law School broadened her interests from international human rights to concerns in the United States. While in the Prisoners and Families Clinic, for example, she taught inmates about their parental rights and worked on an appeal of a parole denial for an incarcerated mother.
Ms. Samara is currently a law clerk in the litigation department of Davis Polk Wardwell in New York. She works mainly on commercial litigation matters and also does pro bono political asylum work.