A&S alumna strives to ensure justice is served

November 26, 2019 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Last month, Canada’s Ambassador to the State of Qatar, Stefanie McCollum, tweeted a list of 10 women of influence, including diplomats, other ambassadors and one University of Toronto alumna.

A few weeks earlier and time zones away, that same alumna was honoured at the British Council’s Study UK Alumni Awards for her research on human rights, politics and international law in the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s quite the month.

“I'm clearly the black sheep in that group!” says Noha Aboueldahab of the tweet modestly.

Currently a transitional justice specialist, author and a Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington, DC, Aboueldahab is also an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Her book, Transitional Justice and the Prosecution of Political Leaders in the Arab Region: A Comparative Study of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, is described by legal scholar, Vasuki Nesiah, as “an important contribution to the study of international criminal law, transitional justice, and the broader field of political transition.”

Aboueldahab, a member of University College, graduated from the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2003 with an honours bachelor of arts joint specialist degree in international relations and peace and conflict studies, and a double minor in political science and French.

Today, she commands the attention of ambassadors and policy-makers, and is asked for her expert opinion by top news agencies. Despite the constant demand for her time and insights, she vividly remembers being a shy undergraduate student at U of T.

“I moved to Toronto from Egypt during my last year of high school, which was very difficult for me,” she admits. Though struggling with adjusting to a new country and culture, she had her sights set on U of T. 

“I was drawn to the diversity of its student body as well as the selection of courses and programs,” she says. “And the critical thinking skills I developed at U of T, thanks to my professors and to the conversations with fellow students, have been vital to my career.”

Two professors in particular had a lasting effect.

Professors James Reilly and Jens Hanssen had a major impact on how she thinks about the world and about history. “More than 16 years later, I still think back to my conversations with Professor Hanssen while I was writing my thesis under his supervision,” says Aboueldahab. (Her thesis was about the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonial rule.)

Reilly’s course sparked rich conversations about nationalism in the Middle East.

“I’ve made long-lasting, life-shaping friendships that originated in both these professors’ classes,” says Aboueldahab, who also met her husband in Reilly’s class. “Many of these friends are spread out across the world, but we still keep in touch and catch up whenever we can.”

After U of T, Aboueldahab completed her master of international and comparative legal studies at SOAS, University of London, and her PhD in law at Durham Law School, University of Durham.

As part of her graduate school applications, Reilly wrote, “Noha strikes me as someone who is serious about employing her knowledge and skills in ways that will have a social impact.”

Indeed, Aboueldahab’s work at the Brookings Doha Center and at Georgetown University in Qatar is making a significant social impact in international research and policy.

“It’s given me the opportunity to put my critical thinking skills to great use in multiple ways — whether through the publication of Brookings analysis papers, or through the rewarding experience of teaching international law to a group of bright students,” she says.

“Engaging with the media and presenting complex ideas to a global audience is also a challenging but a crucial part of what I do. I’m drawing attention to issues that would not normally be brought forward on such global platforms.”

Aboueldahab plans on drawing even more attention to these issues through upcoming publications that range from a critical analysis of how (backchannel) diplomacy has aided conflict resolution in the Middle East, to what Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) look like in 2019. 

She’s also started her next book, which will examine the role of Arab diasporas in the pursuit of justice for mass atrocities in the context of ongoing violent conflict.

For students starting to think about life after graduation, Aboueldahab has this advice: “Find the time and space for critical self-reflection — a task that’s increasingly difficult in this fast-paced world. It’s necessary because it forces you to ‘check-in’ with yourself now and then.”

“Adaptability, but not settling, is important,” she continues. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I settling? Or am I actively pursuing the things that I genuinely want to pursue?’ This requires tough decisions, like quitting a stable job to end up in a series of short-term jobs that are more rewarding. That has done wonders for the expansion of my networks.”