Muslim women were well represented in the Time Magazine list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World this year. Samya wrote yesterday about three of the women, Samira Ibrahim, Manal al-Sharif and Maryam Durani, who are portrayed as women fighting against oppression and in wider media coverage are clearly identified as Muslim women, coming from “Muslim countries.” However the faith of Fatou Bensouda, who will take over as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) this June, and who was also included in Time’s list, is rarely mentioned in media coverage of her, despite her clearly identifying as Muslim and coming from The Gambia, also a Muslim-majority country.
The media overlooking her Muslimness (almost all profiles of her ignore her religion altogether) is not necessarily a negative thing. Many would view their religious beliefs as something they are happy to acknowledge, but prefer not to discuss, viewing it as a private matter, not particularly related to, in this case, her professional appointment. That her appointment has not been greeted with cries of “but she’s Muslim!” is very positive. However, one wonders if she had been Arab or South Asian, if her religious beliefs would have been dealt with the same lack of interrogation. Continuing from this, it is possible that as a Black African, she does not fit into the ethnic stereotype of what the Western media thinks a Muslim looks like.
But there is more to talk about than her religious identity, of course. Bensouda has been widely spoken of as being a very popular choice for the role of ICC Chief Prosecutor. A look at her work history would indicate why this is the case. She has progressed from becoming Gambia’s foremost expert in maritime law, working as a public prosecutor, a brief spell in politics as the attorney general and justice minister, moving towards the international stage in a role for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, before joining the ICC in 2004.
Discussion of Bensouda’s appointment has not focused only on her past employment. As well as working in the Gambia, Bensouda has studied in Nigeria and worked in Tanzania and Rwanda, giving her insight into life across Africa, and respect as someone with “a good understanding of African issues.”
The African dimension becomes even more vital when all seven of the cases that the ICC has investigated are based in Africa. This seeming emphasis on Africa alone has not escaped criticism from the African Union and others, with particular scorn being directed at the previous ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. He was deemed as “[eager] to court the spotlight,” antagonistic towards Africa’s leaders, incompetent and presiding over a neo-colonialist institution, by some commentators.
In contrast, while Bensouda enjoyed a good working relationship with her former boss, she is described as “a calm, commanding presence, exuding easy authority.” This, coupled with her African background, meant that she had huge support from the African Union, possibly with the idea that if Africa was going to be so persistently under ICC scrutiny, it is better to have someone who knows what they are looking at holding the magnifying glass. The AU support in particular was a key part in her being elected unopposed to the role and it is notable that she is not only the first African to attain this position but the first woman too.
However, some have criticised her appointment, saying that her closeness to Ocampo means that some of the poor practices of the Ocampo era, such as poor prosecution work, leading to charges being thrown out, and the glacial pace at which cases proceed, are likely to continue.
Bensouda, meanwhile acknowledges there is room for improvement but denies other criticisms of the ICC’s role and states that other countries will be facing ICC charges soon. One article, while describing her as “eminently qualified in her own right,” argues that “not everyone is convinced that the Office of Prosecutor will be substantially better off in her hands.”
Of concern as well is her support of the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who has presided over increased press restrictions and human rights abuses. One wonders how supporting a leader with despotic tendencies can possibly be rectified with keeping dictators in check.
So while Bensouda may be in an exceptional position, it is hoped that her work will also be exceptional too.