January 8, 2008 — During the summer between her second and third years at the University of Virginia's School of Law, Anishah Cumber worked at the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland, where she saw the difficulty many women from South Asia had in seeking to exercise their rights as legal immigrants to America and at the same time preserve the traditions of their culture.
That experience led Cumber, herself a second-generation Pakistani Muslim woman, to apply for the Powell Fellowship, awarded annually by the Law School and providing $35,000 plus benefits for one year (renewable for an additional year) to a recipient giving legal assistance to the indigent through a sponsoring agency. Recipients' loan payments are paid for the duration of the fellowship by the Law School's Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program. Cumber was awarded the fellowship and following graduation launched her legal career to help South Asian immigrant women.
This past September marked the end of Cumber's two-year fellowship and gave her the chance to look back over an experience she termed "incredible."
"I have gained invaluable courtroom experience and learned how to do cases from start to finish, from initial intake to final trial," she said, adding that the fellowship allowed her to work with highly experienced family law attorneys. "I have been able to focus my practice on the clientele that I feel most passionate about."
Cumber believed that her background would give her more credibility in the South Asian community and make it easier for women to open up to her and to listen to what she had to say. While she may not have had the personal experiences many of her clients had, she said, "I recognized that there are other factors that many South Asian women need to take into account when making decisions about whether to exercise their legal rights due to their cultural, religious, and familial obligations."
Even so, there was nothing easy about the work Cumber found herself doing. "I don't think I realized just how hard it would be to overcome the cultural barriers that prevent South Asian women from exercising their rights in the family context," Cumber said. "South Asian women are often financially dependent on their spouses, their immigration status is often dependent on their spouses, and they face family and cultural pressure not to involve outsiders in problems that take place in the home."
Cumber believed that, through her outreach program, she would be able to teach the women about their rights and represent them in court when they were ready to defend those rights. But, she said, "I learned quickly that my success at this project could not be measured by how many cases I brought forward and won." She found that she had to modify the project to focus primarily on educating the women about their rights rather than defending their rights in court.
"The best way to empower these women was to give them the knowledge that if they ever did want to get a divorce, custody of their children, or a protective order, they can use the courts," she said.
Cumber discovered that another important aspect of her job was to dispel misinformation. She related an example in which several women said that they had heard that their husbands would automatically get custody of the children because the husbands have more money. "They didn't want to leave their spouses if that meant losing all their rights to their children," she said. "In instances like this, there is no way to get women to eventually utilize the legal system unless you correct their misconceptions about it."
The slow pace of acceptance of legal options for South Asian women caused Cumber to re-examine her role. "It took me some time to realize that sometimes clients just need to know that there is someone willing to fight for them." Still, Cumber said, "Watching clients make poor decisions and not being able to do anything about it is the most difficult part of my job."
Those who do break through the barriers are rewarded. Cumber recalled the story of a client who thought she had lost everything when she fled an abusive relationship and couldn't take her children with her. The woman came to Cumber in despair. After numerous hearings on custody and divorce, Cumber was able to secure custody of the children, a divorce and a monetary award. Since then Cumber learned that the children were doing well in school and that the woman received a substantial promotion in her job.
"Seeing that woman make a 180-degree transformation was fantastic," she said. "This case was a great reminder that helping clients obtain relief throughout the legal system can really change their lives far beyond just giving them a legal remedy."
Her fellowship over, Cumber applied for and was accepted as a full staff attorney in the family law unit of the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland. She's also been given permission by Legal Aid to continue her outreach efforts to the South Asian community.
Cumber urged law students interested in public service to persevere. "It's often frustrating and sometimes it feels like everything is against you — the law, the judges, other attorneys — but it is totally worth it to be in a profession where you can change people's lives for the better.
"Just helping one person get what she is legally entitled to but could not get on her own makes it worth it."
— Reported by Ken Reitz