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Remembering Holland

Banquet honors TU law graduate who died fighting for women’s rights

Fern Holland, a University of Tulsa College of Law graduate, was killed in Iraq in 2004 while working to help Iraqis establish a democratic government and as an advocate for women’s rights.

Fern Holland was born and raised in Bluejacket, Okla., a tiny town a stone’s throw away from Miami, Okla., where she attended high school.

As smart as she was popular, Holland stood out in her community as a straight A-making homecoming queen and the class salutatorian. Tough, driven, idealistic and strong-willed, she was the backbone of her family. But Holland was destined to make it out of small-town Oklahoma.

It was her innate drive to succeed and make a difference in the lives of others that led her to the University Of Tulsa College Of Law, and eventually to Iraq, where she devoted herself to working for the rights and freedoms of Iraqi women through the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. 

This work on behalf of the American government would ultimately draw the ire of fundamentalist forces within Iraq. One particular case, in which Holland represented two widows whose land was stolen by a Saddam loyalist who then built a house on it, worried her co-workers and friends and family back home. 

“The women came to Fern for help,” Professor Greg Allison wrote, “and she discovered under Iraqi law that the women were entitled to an order evicting the thug and knocking down the house … a judge gave her the order, but required her to find a bulldozer to see that it was used to knock down the thug’s house. Fern did exactly that—on March 9, 2004.” 

Later that same evening, Holland was traveling with her Iraqi translator and assistant, Salwa Oumashi and former Marine Corps colonel and press officer, Robert J. Zangas, on a dusty road outside of Karbala, when they were ambushed by a group of insurgents who fired multiple rounds into their car. Holland, Oumashi and Zangas were killed instantly.

Although Holland’s life was tragically cut short, her legacy is celebrated at the annual Fern Holland Banquet, to be hosted this year on March 23 at Renaissance Square by the Women’s Law Caucus from the TU College of Law. Members of the caucus will present a female member of the Oklahoma Bar Association with the Fern Holland Spirit Award.

“We believe, that as female lawyers, it is important to understand how you can use your education and unique experiences as a woman to help others overcome the hurdles that they face,” said Ashley Nix, president of the Women’s Law Caucus. “It’s important to recognize a strong female attorney, who embodies Fern Holland’s spirit and who is succeeding in the face of a misogynistic culture or sexist attitudes.”

Nix hopes the banquet will raise awareness about the extraordinary life Holland led, often tirelessly and without fear.

“Ms. Holland exemplifies what it means to truly use your education and opportunities to change the world,” Nix said. “This is a woman that literally took a bulldozer to Saddam’s men who were stealing from and hurting women. She was so devoted to her work that she wrote to a friend while in Iraq that she wished there were more hours in the day because she felt like she couldn’t or wasn’t doing enough to bring them justice.” 

It seems strange that such a woman has slipped into relative obscurity. In September 2004, New York Times Magazine told Holland’s story in an 8,000-word profile by Elizabeth Rubin, but there have been few mentions of her in local press. Although she is a native Oklahoman, there has been seemingly little effort to honor her in the state.

“Unfortunately, I think Ms. Holland’s death was shrouded in political narrative and a constant wave of ongoing tragedies,” Nix said. “I can only assume that her individual story was swallowed up along the way. … More people should know about Ms. Holland. This is something we care deeply about.”

Violet Rush, a local activist, TU College of Law student, and a delegate for the Women’s Law Caucus, was surprised that she had never heard of Fern Holland.

“I found it strange that I never knew about Ms. Holland until approximately five months ago,” Rush said. “Why isn’t her name at least well known in the local feminist and women’s rights communities? Unfortunately, our society doesn’t typically hold lawyers in the highest regard. When the general population conjures up some image of a great humanitarian, it’s typically not a lawyer. But I can pretty much guarantee that most of the social progress we’ve attained was due to some scrappy lawyers who believed their clients deserved the same rights and freedoms as those in the dominant culture.”

Holland was the definition of a scrappy lawyer. She died fighting for the rights of strangers on foreign soil because—as her former teacher, Professor Allison, said—she was “dedicated to the proposition that every person, especially women, should have a choice about how to live their lives.”

Fern Holland Banquet 
Hosted by the TU Women’s Law Caucus
Renaissance Square Event Center, Campbell Hotel | March 23, 6 p.m. 
Individual tickets are $25, a table for eight is $250
Tickets and tables can be purchased at law.utulsa.edu/fernholland

​For more from Amanda, read her article on the upcoming female-led music festival, MisFEST.