A woman is too emotional and not competent enough to draw up factual, solid legal arguments was the refrain Alya Al Matrooshi heard when people tried to dissuade her from joining the legal profession.
Speaking up in court before tough judges was intimidating for the young Emirati. But she stayed the course, fuelled by the desire to address conflict before it reached court.
“People thought I did not have a strong personality because I’m a girl, that I’m too emotional and sensitive. But I knew I wanted to do this profession," said Ms Matrooshi, a lawyer with Etihad Airways' legal team.
“I didn’t want to study a normal profession that everyone does like business studies. It’s not that I’m disrespecting other professions but I want to shine. I wanted people to know that there are UAE nationals who can stand up for their country in front of higher courts.”
Once her parents were convinced about her commitment, there was no looking back.
Guidance from family has helped since her father has a police background, her mother worked with Adnoc and is a member of the capital’s chamber of commerce and an elder sister is an engineer.
Ms Matrooshi studied law at Al Ain University and then completed a year of exams and court appearances in Abu Dhabi for law firms, handling 60 cases ranging from labour to property.
Her first challenge was holding her own before senior judges.
As luck would have it, in her very first case, a woman lawyer was reprimanded and asked to leave by a judge on the grounds that her gown contained too much glitter.
“The judge asked her to leave the session right away because he said if she did not respect the profession, it would not respect her. Knowing I was up next, I was nervous and I too just wanted to leave the room but I put forward my case successfully,” she said.
Her next shock was when a law firm failed to brief her that her father was named in a property case.
“When they called my father’s name, I was in tears. I wanted to cry because how could I argue against my father? Thank God he was not in court and I just needed to submit papers.
“When I told my parents, my father said to my mother, ‘Your daughter has become a lawyer. I gave my books and now she is standing against her father'.”
She did not reveal further details of the case but it remains a talking point in the Matrooshi household.
“We still laugh about it. When I take my gown to appear in court, my father says, ‘Just make you are sure not fighting a case against any of your family members'.”
Before working for Etihad, when representing companies in cases where employees filed for dues, she talked people into accepting settlements instead of going through a protracted legal battle.
“I’m passionate about such cases. I feel in sync with employees and have my way of convincing them not to escalate to court,” the 24-year-old said.
The trying experience was studying for certification in a judicial institute in the capital, where she and three other women received no support from the male students.
Fresh out of college, she was dismissed as too young in a class dominated by men from a police and military background, many of whom had already worked in legal offices.
Despite the hurdles, she later studied for a masters in private law at Abu Dhabi University while working for Etihad, and plans to complete her MBA.
While the UAE’s rulers have backed women in different spheres, Ms Matrooshi believes it will take time to change attitudes in certain male-dominated professions.
“You cannot convince every person that you should be a bit considerate to women. People think some work requires a man’s personality. I get comments that I’m too sweet and need to be stubborn. But I say that a lawyer does not need to have no heart. That is not the main purpose of being a lawyer. You have to appreciate and understand another point of view.”
Her message to parents is to let children find their own path.
“Parents should not convince their children to be a copy of themselves. A child will obey his parents but will never shine because he was forced into that field.”
The words of the country’s founder are her compass to moving ahead.
“I always remember the words of Sheikh Zayed: We have created a successful path for the young generation to walk on, so grab this opportunity and shine.”