Quest for justice leads student to Law degree at Birkbeck

Marie Hydara graduated with a LLB Law degree from Birkbeck on Thursday 27 April 2017

Marie with her daughter and mother

Marie with her daughter and mother

Although Law had always been a passion for Marie Hydara, who worked at the Supreme Court of the Gambia for two years after finishing school, it was a family tragedy which finally led her to enrol on a Certificate of Higher Education in Legal Methods at Birkbeck in 2011, aged 39, followed by a Law degree, starting in 2012.

Family tragedy

In 2004, Marie’s father (Deyda Hydara), a veteran Gambian journalist and fierce critic of the then dictator Jammeh (who was only ousted after he lost the election last December), was brutally killed.

Marie says: “Born and bred in Africa, I know how African leaders abuse and violate their people’s basic human rights and civil liberties to prolong their stay in office, but nothing could have prepared my family for what we went through after my dad’s cold and cowardly killing.

She goes on to explain: “My father ran his own local newspaper and was a reporter for Reporters without Borders and Agence France Press (AFP) for 30 years, and he used his paper as a tool for the voiceless and the oppressed. Only weeks prior to his death, along with fellow journalists, he had challenged a new media bill, which he believed was designed to ‘muzzle’ the press. He was threatened regularly, but he was determined to expose the regime’s abuse of human rights and continuous abuse of office. This generated him more enemies in the government and military.

“I was initially told about Birkbeck by a friend who worked in the day and went to classes in the evenings. I said I would think about it, but to be honest, at the time I was consumed with grief and frustration over the situation with our family’s quest for justice for dad, whose killers were known and still roamed the streets, without fear of ever getting caught. Eventually, I decided to transform all of my rage and frustration into something worthwhile – to learn what could be done – not only for my family, but for other families who would go through what we did.

“Apart from Birkbeck being a world-class institution, whose reputation precedes it, the hours were perfect for adults with a family or who worked during the day, and also had a passion to further their education. I believed that this was the perfect place for my quest.

“My passion was in Human Rights. I wasn’t seeking revenge for my father’s death, but a way to be able to work towards support for victims’ families, which I felt was lacking in our case. Other areas that interested me were Human Rights reforms, as I would argue there is the need for more robust reviews of the very mechanisms that have been put in place to address issues of extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture in Africa. From a victim ‘s family perspective, I would argue that fact finding missions and even bilateral sanctions only “cushion up” dictators further. Hence I enjoyed any topics to do with freedoms and liberties. I was not disappointed when I got to the last year and studied International Human Rights and European Law, with lecturers and seminar tutors who were formidable and thorough. I also enjoyed lectures from politicians, barristers and judges, who shared a wealth of knowledge with us – the students. At Birkbeck, class seminars were enjoyable and at times topics provoked heated debates, where complex subjects became fascinating.”

Coping with an illness

“While studying at Birkbeck, I was diagnosed with Lupus, which left me with inflammation in my joints, making prolonged typing and writing difficult. Luckily by the end of the second year, I had received enormous help from the Disability Office whose advice was very useful, as was the equipment they helped me get to ease my pain and not exacerbate my condition further.”

Family affair

“Another challenging time at Birkbeck was while I had to help my eldest daughter to prepare for her GCSEs and A-levels, as well as do my own studying. When she successfully got into Sussex University in Brighton (doing a BA in Media and Literature), I was alone at home with her younger sister. The dropping off and picking up from school was difficult, and in the last few months of my degree my mum came over from Africa to help with caring for the little one while I was studying.”

The benefits of studying at Birkbeck

“Studying at Birkbeck has helped my personal development on so many different levels. I became more confident to be able to represent my family during press conferences, interviews, meeting with representatives and lawyers of Human Rights Organizations and journalism NGOs. I find myself more positive, self-reliant, full of integrity, enthusiasm and resilience to be able to help my family, and especially myself, in working towards closure.

“I have also improved my academic skills, where I was lacking in ways I never even realised. Some of this was done through a lot of workshops, seminars and lectures (outside study hours), which were extremely helpful. It is all down to collective efforts of dedicated lecturers who always go beyond the extra mile.”

Future plans

“My time at Birkbeck has helped me a great deal in cementing the course I want to pursue, and in fulfilling a lifelong passion. I believe, with Birkbeck’s help, I am prepared, able and willing to pursue a career in human rights in support of victims’ families, who have lost loved ones through extra judicial killings, torture and other human rights violations. My job prospects will be even greater when I complete my Masters, which I plan to study at Birkbeck, and my Legal Practice Course.

“Birkbeck is the place where the impossible becomes possible. The College is the best at working with students to prepare them for a successful future. Overall it is the best place for adult higher education, where the younger students are welcome as well. In short, Birkbeck is for anyone with a drive and passion to achieve their ambition. If they either work in the day or have a young family and struggle with childcare, then Birkbeck is the place to be, for they provide students with the support they need to achieve their goals.”

Making connections

“I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing wonderful people – lecturers whose tenacity for teaching is rarely found; their dedication I found intriguing; the support provided for the students is like no other. I was blessed enough to meet colleagues who have become great mates after working together as teams for group work or on projects and despite our different backgrounds and shortcomings we developed strong ties and made great friends and have stayed in touch after university.”

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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Law on Trial: Can the EU regulate a financial crisis?

This post was contributed by Daniele D’Alvia, MPhil Law student in Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Daniele reports on the Law on Trial 2016 event held on Thursday 16 June: “Can the EU Regulate a Financial Crisis?”

This year, Law on Trial – the School of Law’s week-long programme of free-to-attend public lectures and panel discussions – focused on the EU referendum. The annual showcase brought together academic staff, recognised internationally as authorities in their field.

Law on Trial 2016

Law on Trial 2016

The 16th of June 2016 has been a landmark event for the 2016 ‘Law on Trial’ series of conferences. Indeed, the 4th day of ‘Law on Trial’ has been specifically dedicated to the role of financial law in Europe. The main question that Professor Michelle Everson has posed for the panel discussion, namely ‘Can the EU regulate a financial crisis?’ has shown to be a popular topic for the high interest that the audience has manifested during the event.

In particular, Prof. Ellen Vos (Maastricht University) illustrates the regulation and the role of European agencies. She reminds of the importance of delegating powers to agencies in the EU in order to regulate risk and uncertainty (for instance, risks in the environment, food, health and safety and specifically in relation to financial crisis). On this line Prof. Michelle Everson introduces the concepts of moral hazard, risk management and systemic risk. These terms are exceptionally important in the understanding of the current financial crisis and pave the way for the speech of the third guest speaker, namely the head of the compliance office of Wells Fargo, Patrick Devine.

He gives an outstanding presentation by pointing out how the current financial crisis is global in nature, but the solutions provided therein are local. For instance, think of the EU banking insolvency procedures there is not a universal bank insolvency law, because insolvency law is national in nature. To this end, the Single Resolution Mechanism in Europe is a first attempt to provide a uniform regulation of bank insolvency through the operation of the Single Resolution Board. He outlines that the credit-crunch that occurred in America in 2007-2008 was only the trigger, but not the cause of the current financial crisis. Indeed, he concludes that the cause of the current economic crisis is just inside the same economic system, namely capitalism.

This has always been the cause in his view and the legislative frameworks have only tried to regulate the trigger and not the environment in which triggers stand. Finally, Dr. Matthias Goldmann presents the idea of Karl Polanyi on the utopia of the ‘self-regulating market’. Indeed, in 1944 Polanyi wrote the ‘Great Transformation’, which divided between a society that uses markets as one valuable tool, and ‘market society’ that places everything on the auction block, even labour. Therefore, Dr. Matthias Goldmann argues that the idea of ‘market society’ has been one of the causes of the current financial crisis and he, therefore, provides a re-interpretation of the phenomenology of contemporary financial markets, where the market itself should play a more prominent role.

In the end, the panel discussion has been dominated by the conception of risk in financial crisis and how risk can be prevented or regulated.

The conception of risk and financial risk between economic theories and philosophical arguments

I would like to introduce here the concept of the ‘past qualification’ of risk based on a possible re-interpretation of Professor Frank Knight’s book ‘Risk, Uncertainty and Profit’, which has developed a philosophical argument on risk instead of a pure economic theory on profit. The book has always been recognised for its outstanding contribution towards a distinction between risk and uncertainty, namely between objective and subjective dimensions of risk towards a theorisation of insurable form of hazards and true uncertainties.

Prof. Knight’s theory of risk is part of the remarkable story on risk.[1] Indeed, according to Bernstein risk management is a revolutionary idea where far from being an antagonist, as the mysterious fate or the voluntas dei, the future has become an opportunity. The concept of risk-taking has been developed in Western countries from Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci (1202), Cardano’s Liber de Ludo Aleae (1525) and Galileo’s Sopra la Scoperta dei dadi (1623) through the laws of probability framed, inter alia, by Pascal and Fermat,[2] and in particular the science of statistics of Graunt, Petty and Halley,[3] promoting the concept of insurance as a commercial tool in the eighteenth century. In other words, the story of risk has initiated by formalising its ontological meaning based on an objective dimension.

This was a necessary conclusion because from an epistemological point of view the discourse on risk can be complex. Risk under this new light is the probability of occurrence of an event that may or may not occur, but risk is always a measurable uncertainty. In Prof. Knight’s words:

‘the practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true (….) the best example of uncertainty is in connection with the exercise of judgement or the formation of those opinions as to the future course of the events, which opinions (and not scientific knowledge) actually guide most of our conduct’[4].

So, it is possible to state that the knowledge about risk is the knowledge of a knowledgeable situation. In other words, the ontological discourse on risk is representing what is knowable in principle or a priori by virtue of laws of probability and the science of statistics. It is knowledge of objective facts. For this reason, in my view the real revolutionary idea of Prof. Knight is the categorisation of risk on the past line.[5]

The practical effect of the ‘past qualification’ of risk in global financial markets

Now, the words of our guest speaker Mr. Patrick Devine are even more intelligible: in his view capitalism has always been the cause of the current financial crisis. In philosophical terms we could say that the past qualification of risk in its objective dimension has always been the cause of every financial crisis because simply it has always been there, but it has never been regulated. In Patrick Devine’s words: ‘we regulate the trigger of a crisis (we could say what has caused the uncertainty), but not the environment in which the triggers stand (we could say the real risk).

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Footnotes

[1] Bernstein (1996). Peter L. Bernstein (1996) Against the gods: the remarkable story of risk (John Wiley & Sons)

[2] Bernstein (1996) pp 57-72.

[3] Bernstein (1996), p 92.

[4]   Knight (2002), p 233.

[5] Knight expressly said that uncertainty is the formation of opinions as to the future course of events (i.e. a subjective belief).

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Law on Trial 2016: Brexit – Should the UK leave the EU?

This post was contributed by Birkbeck Law students Janet Cheng and Henrique Nobre. Here, Janet and Henrique report independently from the Law on Trial 2016 event held on Tuesday 14 June: “Brexit: Should the UK leave the EU?”. Speakers at the event, which Janet and Henrique moderated, were Professor Justin Frosini; Professor Christopher Lord; Professor Albert Weale; Dr Angela WardDr Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz.

This year, Law on Trial – the School of Law’s week-long programme of free-to-attend public lectures and panel discussions – focused on the EU referendum. The annual showcase brought together academic staff, recognised internationally as authorities in their field.

Law on Trial 2016

Law on Trial 2016

Henrique Nobre’s report

The second evening of the Law on Trial event reflected the public expectation in discussing this extremely hot topic. The room was full of students, academics and members of the public eager to listen to our guest speakers’ arguments on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The beginning of the session was very engaging, especially when Dr Angela Ward showed a copy of the tabloid The Sun full of scaremongering arguments and urging its readers to vote leave. Dr Ward shared with us her extensive experience and opinions on how a leave vote would endanger our economy and international relations.

Arguments were presented in relation to the position that the UK will assume in relation to trade agreements, the impact on freedom of movement, the possibility of national instability, e.g. a second Scottish referendum and the possible end of the United Kingdom, and the general uncertainty of a positive outcome.

The guests were outstanding in presenting positive and negative arguments without trying to compel the audience. The intention of the event was not to campaign for one side or the other, although it is difficult to hide personal views when talking about an issue that will affect all of us. The audience opinions were varied and contributed massively to a very fruitful discussion.

To moderate an event of such a high level and importance was a real pleasure. The panel was highly selected, the event was extremely well organised, the public was participative and there is no better company on stage than Janet Cheng (President of ELSA Birkbeck).

I felt that the event was a great opportunity to voice and discuss our concerns and that Birkbeck School of Law has chosen the right momentum to do it. As mentioned at the end of the event, independent of personal views, I urge everybody to exercise their democratic right and vote to the best outcome.

Janet Cheng’s report

The referendum coverage has been dominated by debate on immigration and trade in the media and national press from both sides of the campaign. These might be the voters’ greatest concerns, however, there are still many other issues we should be aware of.

Our panel was comprised of five outstanding scholars – Dr Angela Ward, Professor Christopher Lord, Professor Justin Frosini, Professor Albert Weale and Roch Dunin–Wasowicz PhD, all from different academic backgrounds. Through their expert presentations, looking at subjects including the review of the latest newspapers’ headlines; environmental ethnic concerns; political views in European countries and so on, the audience gained a better picture of the whole referendum.

When it came to the second part of the evening, the members of the audience were enthusiastic in expressing their views and questions to our panel. Although thoughts and opinions might differ, I think we had a healthy channel to express our views and opinions freely. And this is most important to our democratic society.

Tomorrow, we have to decide whether to leave or remain.

Looking ahead into an uncertain future the two sides weigh up the risks and opportunities and come to different conclusions. Is it safer to continue with our current multi-national arrangements, minimizing risk and change, or is the EU an outdated 1950s concept which ties the UK to the old world and which is dysfunctional and doomed to fail?

Are there realistically alternative modes of international co-operation in a more connected world? Are the advantages of a single market outweighed by regulation and the opportunities of trading with the rest of the world? What should our immigration policy be? From a legal perspective, how should our laws be made in today’s global society and how much democratic control of legislation do we want?

The decision facing us will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the UK. This is the most important decision voters are likely to be asked in our lifetime so we encourage everyone to reflect seriously and to exercise their right to vote.

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