This month marks the tenth anniversary of Fern Holland’s death. She would have been 44. She accomplished so much in such a short time.
I would never have known of Fern or her service to humanity if I had not asked Jim Woolsey, the former Director of Central Intelligence, about the book he was reading as we sat together before going on stage at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Birmingham Alabama. Jim had come to Birmingham to help us defeat a boycott initiative against Israel in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). The book was Christopher Buckley’s “Florence of Arabia” and at Jim’s urging I read it on the plane on the way home to San Diego. At the end, the book contained a tribute to Fern. I then researched her life, and in that process came across a touching tribute to her in The New York Times Magazine written by Elizabeth Rubin shortly after Fern died in Iraq (“Fern Holland’s War,” September 19, 2004; a link to this article is at the end of this page).
By way of introduction, Fern was born and raised in Oklahoma. She attended the University of Oklahoma and was a graduate of Tulsa College of Law. She spent 6 years practicing law in Oklahoma where by all accounts she demonstrated exceptional ability as a lawyer.
In 1999, Fern packed up and left for Africa, embarking on a distinguished career abroad. She joined the Peace Corps and served with distinction in Namibia as a human rights legal adviser with special emphasis on AIDS education and school construction in some of the most isolated areas in that country. In 2002, she was hired by the American Refugee Committee to work in Guinea to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation of female refugees and other widespread abuses in Guinean refugee camps and to establish legal clinics in the outback. In July 2003 Fern was hired by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to investigate human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein’s regime and served as part of that agency’s Abuse Prevention Unit, whose purpose was to protect victims of abuse occurring during the war. At the conclusion of her tour with USAID, she was retained by the Coalition Provisional Authority to help Iraq establish a democratic form of government.
Throughout her service in Iraq she was an incredibly effective champion of women’s rights. On March 9, 2004 Fern was assassinated on a road near Karbala Iraq. According to reliable sources, she was targeted for murder by Islamic extremists who were angered by her success in empowering Iraqi women. She was just 33. She was the first American civilian to die in Iraq.
Fern truly touched those who knew her in Oklahoma, Guinea, Namibia and Iraq. In her home town of Miami Oklahoma the city named their women’s advocacy center in her honor and the city has an annual Fern Holland Day to preserve and honor her memory. Her friends from the Connor and White law firm where she worked in Tulsa wrote a moving and lengthy article about Fern for Tulsa College of Law Review (Volume 40, 2004).
The University of Oklahoma established the annual Fern Holland Award to recognize an undergraduate woman sharing Fern’s desire to make a difference, stating in part: “She will be remembered as one who brought light where there had been only darkness and hope for people who had only known despair.” Guinea named one of the clinics she helped establish in her honor. VitalVoices Global Partnership established by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton created an annual Fern Holland Leadership Award in recognition of courageous women around the world who are successfully challenging social, political and religious intolerance and abuse.