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Event Recap May 13, 2024

Gender parity in MENA diplomacy and its impact on peace

By Charles Johnson

On Thursday, April 25, the Atlantic Council’s WIn Fellowship hosted a panel discussion on the vital role Arab women ambassadors play in shaping the field of diplomacy, both in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and globally.

The conversation was moderated by Lynn Monzer, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s WIn Fellowship and featured H.E. Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait to the United States of America; H.E. Hanene Tajouri Bessassi, Ambassador of the Republic of Tunisia to the United States of America; and H.E. Amal Mudallali, former Ambassador to the Permanent Mission of Lebanon to the United Nations (UN).  

Deciding on diplomacy

H.E. Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah initiated the conversation by sharing insights from her background in journalism, where she encountered diverse mindsets through storytelling. This experience highlighted her natural diplomatic skills, as navigating complex systems and creating sustainable solutions in business mirrored key aspects of diplomacy. These experiences and insights logically paved the way for her career in diplomacy.

Similarly, H.E. Hanene Tajouri Bessassi transitioned from an initial aspiration to become a physician to recognizing the diplomatic field as another form of healing. In her view, diplomacy involves listening to those in distress, diagnosing societal issues, and crafting viable solutions, thus paralleling the healing processes in medicine.

Like Al-Sabah, H.E. Amal Mudallali started in journalism, with ambitions centered on reporting at the UN. After achieving this, she ventured deeper into politics, eventually serving under two Lebanese prime ministers and later as the Ambassador of Lebanon to the UN. She emphasized the critical role of male allies in politics, where men predominantly hold power but greatly benefit from women’s collaborative and problem-solving skills.

In addition to winding career paths, all three diplomats agreed on the importance of a robust support system for success in diplomacy. Bessassi thanked her parents and husband specifically for the strength, independence, and commitment necessary to work in the diplomatic field. Echoing the sentiment on support systems, Mudallali highlighted her grandmother’s empowering role during her upbringing. She also stressed the crucial need for political backing, citing the potential difficulties and injustices faced without such support. Al-Sabah, similarly, underscored the significance of a nurturing ecosystem for achieving success. For her, the focus is on contributing back to this ecosystem and the broader community, often through mentoring other women, providing support, advice, and honest guidance on their professional journeys.

Navigating the field’s challenges

Bessassi then turned to the challenges facing women in diplomacy. She noted that despite Tunisia’s rich history of influential women leaders, gender parity remains elusive. This disparity is underscored by prevailing gender stereotypes that still hinder women’s effectiveness in all fields, including diplomacy. Bessassi argued against the perception that empathy—a trait often associated with women—is a weakness. Instead, she illustrated how empathy enhances diplomatic efforts by fostering consensus and compromise, bringing more people into the fold while working toward peace and cooperation.

The underrepresentation of women in global diplomacy was further addressed by Al-Sabah, who pointed out that women make up only 21 percent of ambassadors worldwide. She emphasized the importance of improving representation and noted that the participation of women on the panel, along with other women ambassadors in the United States from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania, represents significant progress in altering public perceptions about women in diplomacy.

Mudallali echoed these concerns with specific examples from the United Nations, where women’s representation has been backsliding; the number of women UN representatives decreased from 52 in 2020 to 46 today. She linked this trend to a global phenomenon such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as countries have become more brazen in rejecting previously held norms such as equal gender representation. She also noted the decrease in women’s participation in peace negotiations. In 2020, women represented 23 percent of negotiators in active peace processes, dropping to 16 percent in 2023. Based on analysis of real-world peace processes, agreements between negotiators are much more likely to be reached when women have a strong influence on the negotiations.

Al-Sabah added that 2023 saw a 50 percent increase in war-induced violence against women, reinforcing the necessity for women’s voices in peace negotiations. This backslide in gender representation, Mudallali argued, demands urgent attention and action in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which focuses on women, peace, and security.

Bessassi acknowledged these recent challenges nut also emphasized the power of collective effort among women ambassadors, which has the potential to catalyze global change. Mudallali shared this sentiment,expressing her feeling of responsibility to do everything possible to elevate women, believing that these challenges require structured, codified solutions. Al-Sabah concluded by underscoring the importance of integrating advocacy into diplomacy to empower women effectively. In Kuwait, for instance, the government established the Department of Human Rights within the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in part to address women’s empowerment. Internationally, too, organizations with similar aims must work together to implement Resolution 1325 to ensure countries adhere to international principles of women’s empowerment. For young women in the MENA region and beyond, seeing women in these roles not only offers a glimpse of what is possible but also instills hope and inspiration.

The future of diplomacy

Building on the theme of hope, Al-Sabah discussed a significant shift toward civic diplomacy following Israel’s invasion of Gaza, with women taking on an increased role in this space. She highlighted the courageous efforts of journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh, Plestia Alaqad, and Hind Khoudary who have used their personal cameras and cellphones to broadcast their voices are around the world. Al-Sabah stressed the urgent need for greater protection of journalists in Gaza and around the world, who face harassment and life-threatening dangers in their line of work.

Continuing the conversation, Bessassi emphasized the increasing importance of multilateralism now more than ever in addressing global challenges. She called for consistency in the international community’s approach, as the international community’s engagement on issues like the war in Gaza must avoid “double standards” to effectively address challenges in diplomacy.

Mudallali echoed the sentiments of her colleagues, concluding the panel with a call for strong advocacy for peace. She pointed out that recent global tensions have shifted the focus from collaboration to competition. By supporting women in diplomatic roles, Mudallali argued, societies will not only lift but also enhance their prospects for achieving lasting peace.

The way forward

Over a century since the first appointment of a women ambassador in 1920, women remain severely underrepresented in the predominantly male diplomacy sector. As of 2023, women account for only 20.54 percent of ambassadors worldwide, a decrease from 23 percent in 2020. The disparity is even more pronounced in the MENA region, where women make up just 10 percent of ambassadors, the lowest regional rate globally, highlighting a significant challenge for women in MENA diplomacy.

Despite these daunting numbers in MENA, there have been some encouraging signs of progress. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has increased its proportion of women ambassadors by 5.5 percent between 2018 and 2023, reaching 12.5 percent. Additionally, a recent Arab Barometer report has shown a marked decrease throughout the MENA region over the past decade in the belief that men are better political leaders than women, suggesting growing acceptance of women in political and diplomatic roles.

However, effectively capitalizing on these openings requires systematic and sustained support. Algeria serves as a cautionary tale where a 2011 gender quota led to increased opposition to women in political leadership due to the absence of systemic improvements or societal readiness for such changes. Conversely, Tunisia witnessed an increase in openness toward women political leadership after the implementation of a similar quota and was further bolstered by President Kais Saied’s appointment of Najla Bouden Romdhane as the first female prime minister in the MENA region. These moves demonstrate that political backing and continued support of women is a crucial component to increasing women’s representation at both the political and diplomatic levels.

In addition to national efforts, international initiatives are crucial. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women’s equal participation in preventing violent conflicts, is particularly significant. Supporting this resolution could significantly legitimize women’s roles in conflict mediation. This is supported by data showing that peace negotiations involving women are 35 percent more likely to last for at least fifteen years. Therefore, in the midst of shifting attitudes, a global drive for greater women participation in diplomacy, and the myriad conflicts necessitating peace negotiations, reform toward gender parity in diplomacy is as pressing and timely as ever for the MENA region.

Charles Johnson is a Young Global professional in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs

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