A New Generation of Women Leaders is Making Waves in the Arab World
SOURCE: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
BY: RANA ZAKARNEH
When we hear the words ‘diplomat’ or ‘parliamentarian’, people often picture a man. But regionally and around the globe, more countries are diversifying the professionals who represent them, and are elevating women to positions of power – not just to listen and observe, but to participate at the decision-making level. I am proud to be one of these women, part of a new generation that is shifting perspectives on gender roles.
Having more women in government is crucial for many reasons. Serving as role models tops the list, but more importantly these women get to put women’s issues front and centre on the global agenda. When women are meaningfully represented and engaged in leadership roles, then the laws, rulings, and decisions are more likely to be inclusive and representative, and will take diverse views into account.
Furthermore, countries with a greater proportion of women as decision-makers in legislatures have lower levels of income inequality. Interestingly, having more women in government is said to be good for health – women in Canada’s government have reduced mortality rates by triggering specific types of health-promoting expenditures. In addition, according to McKinsey Global Institute report, $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 if gender equality is advanced, of which $0.6 trillion will be added to the MENA countries’ GDP.
Around the world, we have a long way to go. As of November 2018, only 24% of all national parliamentarians were women, a slow increase from 11.3% in 1995. As of January 2019, 11 women worldwide are serving as heads of state and 10 are serving as heads of government.
Part of what keeps representation low are the stereotypes and stigma regarding a woman’s place in society. In the past in Palestine, where I come from, most people didn’t think a woman could run for office or be a diplomat. Today, however, the government has shown strong commitment to supporting women in taking on these roles, and there are many examples that confirm their investments are paying off.
As a young woman, my first role model was Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. She is an academic, a prominent politician and a strong activist for gender equality, and thus living proof that women can thrive as leaders and diplomats. Dr. Ashrawi paved the way, but others have since followed. As I figure out my career, there are several women in my region I can look up to for guidance. In Palestine, for instance, ambassadors Dr. Amal Jadou, Feda Abdelhady and Dr. Linda Sobeh have proven excellence in strengthening Palestine’s diplomatic relations with other nations.
Beyond my own country, Arab women are also making waves. In Bahrain, women comprise a record-breaking one-third of Bahrain’s foreign ministry personnel. And earlier this year, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud became the first female ambassador to represent Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, too, Raya Al-Hassan became the first female interior minister in the entire Arab world.
I am grateful to be growing up in an era with so many role models. This is in large part because most governments in the MENA region have consciously invested in women and gender balance. They are doing this by increasing the number of programmes aimed at recruiting a new generation of female diplomats – like me.
Two years ago, I joined the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates along with 16 other young diplomats – most of us women. For my first year, I worked on the Central Asia desk and had the opportunity to travel to new countries and acquaint myself with new cultures. Currently, I manage diplomatic missions accredited to Palestine, supporting representatives of other nations.
Ascending my career ladder in a male-dominated society has not been an easy task. Questioning women’s capabilities is a common occurrence, which imposes pressure and also hampers the creation of positive change. However, colleagues who believe in skills rather than genders help shed light on the importance of supporting people with high potential.
Indeed, engaging women in diplomacy helps to integrate universal values of dialogue and speeds up international development and cooperation. That is due to women’s ability to be more effective at building coalitions. For instance, as a young leader at Women Deliver, the community has given me inspiring examples of women-led initiatives that have brought the global community tangible benefits. One example is She’s the First, which revolves around educating girls to be better equipped to make decisions and bolster the economy, in aim to achieve gender equality. As Zainab Salbi, founder of the peace and security non-profit Women for Women International, puts it: “Like life, peace begins with women. We are the first to forge lines of alliance and collaboration across conflict divides.”
In the spirit of forging new alliances, I’m heading to Vancouver in June for the largest global gathering on Gender Equality, the Women Deliver 2019 Conference. I’ll be joined there by thousands of delegates all working to break down barriers for girls and women – from heads of state and UN agencies to young leaders from across the globe. Speakers include the Palestinian-American actress, comedian and disability advocate Maysoon Zayid, Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, and Dr. Alaa Murabit, who grew up in Canada and founded the human rights organization Voice for Libyan Women.
I’m excited to see Arab women on the agenda. Taking the stage is the first step. Together, we are working towards a world in which both genders are equal and anyone in any region in the world can grow up to represent and lead their nations, and also to commit to further positive change.