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 discrimination."

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 supervision.

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 project."

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 human rights."

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."

--Danielle Service

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