Scholar combines teaching, research on human rights issues
When Leslye Obiora showed a graphic video on what is being done to eradicate
female circumcision worldwide to her class at the law school, she asked
students for their reactions and how far the limits of outside intervention
should go. One student said he failed to see the relevance of the video
to the class material at hand; another grew angry upon hearing these sentiments,
saying that one of the few times something of her heritage came into question,
someone dismissed the topic as irrelevant without trying to understand it.
The rest of the class exploded into discussion, and Obiora says her class
"has never been the same."
Since this incident, "it's been phenomenal and amazing to see how the
class has come alive," said Obiora, an assistant professor of law at
Indiana University, now here on a year- long visit as part of a Ford Foundation
grant to the Law and Religion Program. Obiora didn't always spark such controversy,
however. "I remember growing up in Nigeria and wondering what all the
fuss about feminism was about," she said. "I thought that I had
a good life, and I didn't understand the complex ramifications of gender-based
Obiora attended law school in Nigeria with similar thoughts, but a job with
the chair of International Planned Parenthood Federation for Africa changed
her ideas forever. She was assigned the task of writing the well received
resource booklet that is tailored for popular education and published by
Planned Parenthood, "What Every Woman In Nigeria Should Know."
"It was a life-changing experience," Obiora said. "I was
amazed to realize how ignorant and content in my ignorance I was.
"After I wrote that, I became increasingly interested in the questions
it had raised," Obiora said. She was encouraged to apply to Yale University
and was accepted there as a candidate for a master's degree in law. After
receiving her degree, she went on to Stanford law school and "has been
on the same path with much satisfaction" ever since.
In her Emory course titled "Gender and Law," which had not been
offered since 1991, Obiora "looks at how the law regulates issues of
concern to women." She taught the first seven classes herself, then
allowed the students to take turns facilitating class discussion under her
Obiora has long been concerned with questions of law and human rights. She
has written some articles on the practice of female circumcision, one of
which is scheduled to appear in a colloquium to be published in the Case
Western Law Review.
Outside of her research and work as a professor at Emory, Obiora is affiliated
with the Cultural Transformation Project through the Law and Religion Program
in the law school. She explains that the project's research agenda concerns
a broad array of issues ranging from the debt crisis and democratization
in Africa, to issues of particular relevance to women. In its preliminary
stages, the project seeks to draw insights from "people with varied
backgrounds." Obiora said that at an inaugural consultation in June,
the project team spent a day "reflecting on the agenda, and discussing
what experiences and focus would enhance the real-life implications of the
Since that "very successful" consultation, Obiora has been working
on a report and on a series of position papers, one of which examines the
"critical conflict between individual and collective human rights,
or the ongoing tension between communitarian views, which emphasize collective
rights, and liberal views, which are more disposed to celebrate the sovereignty
of the self.
Specifically, Obiora's work seeks to understand and propose a paradigm for
reconciling these seemingly diametric viewpoints and the politics going
on behind them.
"It's an ambitious project on my part," Obiora said. "Using
the wisdom that has accrued over the ages, I should expose the validity
of these countervailing views, and their implications for the regime of
In March 1997, Obiora and others involved in the Cultural Transformation
Project will attend a conference in Cape Town, South Africa. The conference
will focus on questions of policy. "The question of leadership is critical,"
Obiora said. "We'll look at ways of institutionalizing democracy on
the continent and the political challenges of democratization."
The combination of research and teaching at Emory has been rewarding, said
Obiora. "Although I have a one-year tenure, I've drawn many insights
from the program that I'll continue to explore later on. Scholarship can
be a very solitary venture, but you get to try out your research ideas in
the classroom context with your students."
to the December 9, 1996 contents page