Bo-Kaap lawyer Seehaam Semaai shone at the Women in Law Awards when she was nominated for a Pinnacle Award and when her workplace, the Women’s Legal Centre, was named best law firm in the category for law firms that are run by five or fewer women.
The awards, held in Sandton on Sunday August 4, are presented annually to women lawyers in recognition of their dedication, achievements and contribution to the profession while providing a platform to share and highlight the challenges women face in all aspects of law.
Ms Samaai is a human rights activist and director of the Women’s Legal Centre whose mission is to defend and protect the rights of vulnerable and marginalised women and to promote their access to justice and equitable resources.
The Pinnacle Award that she was nominated for, recognises a woman lawyer who displays iconic achievements embracing thought innovation, leadership, empowerment of other women.
Ms Samaai said she was honoured that the profession had recognised the work that she was doing. She said it was important to have positive role models and mentors within the sector to ensure that younger women understood the change they could bring in the lives of women on the ground. “This was the projection of the work that I’m doing and to ensure that there is a voice for women on the ground but more so, black young women in the sector,” she said.
She said the award for the centre acknowledged the work that everyone there was doing. She said “feminist lawyering” could be isolating. “It requires that we’re unapologetic around the work that we do. This award also gives some form of perspective, in terms of the importance of feminist lawyering and why it is that it’s so important to be able to bring social justice in the courts,” she said.
Ms Samaai said their work not only used the courts as a mechanism to advance the rights of women but also to show the discriminatory practices that impact women. ”What we want to bring to the court is the consciousness that they need to take into account the lived realities of women on the ground and how actions, laws and policies impact on them,” she said.
Ms Samaai said, sadly feminism was not really understood in many communities. “Many communities are conservative and patriarchal. They tend to see it in a particular way and it needs to be explained to communities that it’s not a comparison, nor is it a moral issue but an issue where we need to ensure that the rights of women on a substantive level are advanced and women are ensured the rights that they are born with because they are human,” she said.
Quite vocal and involved on the issues faced by the Bo-Kaap community, Ms Samaai said she had always been passionate about community and law. She said it started back when she saw her grandmother being evicted and had to move back to the Cape Flats from Bo-Kaap. “That was the first time I’ve seen what gentrification looks like and that was way before 1994.
“I wanted to know what I could do to ensure that people know their rights and assist those in the position of my grandmother because it was unfair that they had to move because they could not afford to purchase the property,” she said.
Ms Samaai said she had always been very proud of the work that she did as a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape where she was allowed to impart a social conscience on law students. “My proudest moments is when I see my students pushing an activist and feminist agenda. Some of them have gone to Parliament, some are in the public and private legal sector,” she said.
In terms of cases that she’s proud to have worked on, she highlights the ones that involve women facing evictions and through which women’s dignity was restored when the eviction was overturned.
She said her inspiration is the resilience of women. “It’s the strength, the power and the passion and the fact that they are women, mothers and aunts and just to be able that they survive and how we keep each other within the communities.I draw my passion from my community and in particular the women who’ve built the communities and the shoulders we stand on,” she said.
Talking about the future, Ms Samaai said besides taking on precedent-setting cases, her passion has always been access to justice. “Because fundamentally, we can have many precedent cases but at the end of the day if they don’t have meaning in the lives of women, then it has no meaning,” she said.