Catherine Baylin Duryea was studying Middle Eastern history and culture at American University in Cairo in 2009 when she learned that one of her classmates had been arrested.

Duryea found herself swept up in an organizing effort working for her classmate’s release.

“All of the people who had the skills and the know-how to know what to do were either lawyers or community organizers,” she said. Eventually, the classmate was released, “reasonably unharmed.” Because of that experience, Duryea added a passion for the law and human rights to her academic interest in the Middle East. She decided to pursue a joint J.D.-Ph.D. in history at Stanford University after graduating from Cairo.

In the fall, Duryea will continue her work at the University of Virginia as the 2017-18 recipient of the Charles W. McCurdy Fellowship in Legal History. While in residence at the University of Virginia School of Law, she will advance her research on the relationships between Arab activists and international human rights law.

Duryea is the third recipient of the annual fellowship, which provides a $32,000 stipend and office space at the Law School for a doctoral candidate who is working on a dissertation in the fields of legal or political history. Fellows get to refine their work with the help of an expert mentor from anywhere in the world. The McCurdy Fellowship is part of the National Fellowship Program administered by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation; as part of her fellowship Duryea will participate in the National Fellowship Conference this spring, where she will present her work.

Duryea’s doctoral research focuses on the development of nongovernmental organizations advocating for human rights in the Arab world from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. For her research, she traveled to Morocco, Kuwait and Palestine to collect documents and interview local activists about the early years of regional human rights activism.

“These are all local NGOs founded by either Moroccans or Palestinians or Kuwaitis, and they primarily operate in their home countries,” she said.

Duryea argues that despite differences among the local NGOs, they were united in their calls for adherence to international human rights laws, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through examining these organizations’ histories, Duryea hopes to illustrate how human rights are practiced in non-Western, Muslim-majority communities.

“The practice of human rights in all these places looks quite different from each other, but all of them were engaging with human rights law in ways that demonstrated that they found human rights to be relevant and useful in their context,” she said. “They did not question whether human rights were universal or not.”

Duryea first became interested in the Middle East when she moved to Cairo after finishing her B.A. in political science at Stanford University. Although she had little experience with the region, she took an internship at the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo.

“At the time, I was not what you would consider a Middle East scholar,” she said. However, the prospect of living and working in Egypt for 10 months was too exciting to pass up.

While living in Cairo and learning Arabic, Duryea found her interest in the culture and the region deepening. She ended up staying in Cairo for four years while completing an M.A. in Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo. “That was unexpected but delightful.”

After receiving her M.A., Duryea returned to Stanford to work on a joint J.D.-Ph.D. She finished her J.D. in 2014 and plans to use her fellowship to develop her dissertation.

While at UVA, Duryea will also focus on a second project examining the Emergency Court of Appeals — a federal court created by the U.S. government in 1942 to review wartime price and wage-control measures in order to control inflation. Duryea will argue that the emergency court successfully checked federal government overreach.

She said the fellowship will allow her to work closely with her “dream mentor,” Georgetown law professor Daniel Ernst, a specialist in 20th-century legal history.

“[Duryea] will be a vibrant addition to UVA’s legal history community and to the law school as a whole,” said legal history professor Cynthia Nicoletti. “Her work spans both time and space, which sets her apart from many legal historians. She’s creative in both the questions she asks and in the ways she seeks to answer those questions, which echoes the way Chuck McCurdy approached legal history.”

Duryea, who has family in Charlottesville, said she was excited to begin her fellowship. “I am really looking forward to working with Professor Ernst and being a part of the tight-knit faculty community at the law school and the broader community of Jefferson fellows.”

Since 2000 the National Fellowship Program has helped launch the careers of 134 scholars whose dissertations employ history to shed light on American politics, public policy, foreign relations, science and technology policy, the impact of global affairs on the United States, and media and politics.

The law fellowship's namesake, McCurdy, directed or advised more than 200 doctoral dissertations, master's theses, and undergraduate theses during a 40-year career in the Corcoran Department of History and at the School of Law.

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