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Women's Leadership - structural, cultural and institutional barriers to equality

Permanent Representative of Fiji to the UN in Geneva and Ambassador of Fiji to Switzerland

UNITAR Panel Discussion

Geneva, 22nd October 2015


1. Introduction

Feminism has re-invented itself in the latter part of the 20th Century. From radical feminism, to liberal feminism, to new wave feminism, to difference feminism, we have now arrived at a promotion of the concept of freedom for women. Freedom necessarily means the legal, social and cultural ability of a woman to do anything she wants. A woman is competent and able to become a Chief Executive. A woman is free to stay at home with her children for as long as she wants. A woman is free to wear a hijab, or jeans, or a swimsuit without social pressure to do any of these things. The word “freedom” for women needs close examination. In many ways, our culture, our upbringing, our respect for our social norms, for our elders, and our families, persuade us to create our own shackles. Sometimes we hold on to our shackles defiantly, even aggressively, truly believing that a woman must be limited to a particular role in society. The complexity of culture, gender and institutional barriers to equality, renders women’s leadership (of women and by women) a challenge which resonates with different nuances from one society to the next. And so afraid are we of upsetting the cultural norms of other societies, so timid are we in forging equality in the workplace because of the fear of being thought culturally insensitive, that we often fail to provide the sort of leadership which is enriched by a personal knowledge of the way institutional and cultural factors prevent the growth of gender equality.


2.Learning from our own experiences

It is often thought that cultural differences and expectations of women in different societies, explain the greater representation of women in politics and public life in some societies as opposed to others. Thus the Scandinavian countries have higher proportions of women in Parliament and corporate management positions, compared with other Western European countries. Some studies have linked these differences to the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of societies. In other words, the more status conscious, class driven, and gender role determined we are, the less likely it is that there will be more women in public leadership roles. However, such theories do not explain the leadership of women in some of the world’s most traditional societies, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Israel, Pakistan, and India. Can we then measure general gender equality from the progress of a few women, who have succeeded in attaining leadership? I believe that the progress of some women is an indicator of the lack of any legislative and legal policy barriers to women holding high office, but that it is not an indicator of the lack of social and institutional barriers, most of which are hidden until they are felt by a woman who aspires to leadership. The general indicator must come from the proportion of women in Parliament, in Cabinet, in CEO positions, as officials in trade unions, as lawyers and judges, and as project managers in the construction industry. Where we see the under representation of women, we must look for the barriers which exist in society, which prevent effective access to equality. And these are barriers which we as women individually experience, but which cannot serve the basis for any assumptions about the whole of a particular society. These are experiences which are very subjective, because they affect different women in different ways. Thus we can only learn about them by talking to women, who have tried to exercise freedom unsuccessfully, or who have succeeded despite the barriers. For those of us who come from traditional societies where culture is valued as a form of self-identification, these experiences are shaped not only by culture but also by class, education, parental attitudes, and economic security.

Yet we women, have often been brought up to be self – deprecating. We often fail to value the importance of our own experiences. Our experiences are so important that they shape the type of leadership we are able to offer to the world. Yet we do not want to talk about them. I was once asked to attend a meeting of the Fiji Women’s Association, mostly made up of the wives and daughters of diplomats and expatriates living in Fiji. I asked the organiser what she would like me to talk about and she said – just talk about yourself. I was shocked and embarrassed. I told her I would find that very difficult. I didn’t see what my life had to do with anyone else. I found it easy to appear in the Court of Appeal as a lawyer and speak for hours on the law, but talking about my own experiences rendered me uncharacteristically silent. This is of course the result of a cultural expectation. Older women in Indian weddings used to warn girls to sit quietly and look demure. A girl who is marriageable is a silent one. We should not be surprised that gender based violence is one of the most under reported crimes in the world.

So I will begin with my own experiences. After all, they shaped the sort of leadership I now offer to my own country. I was born in Fiji in 1960, the third of four daughters. My mother was a school teacher, herself a well-respected leader of men and women in Fiji, who rose to be a head teacher. My father came to Fiji at the age of 22, shortly after sectarian violence in India threatened to divide communities which had lived side by side in harmony in pre-partition India. He decided to marry my mother because he admired her independence, her education, and her blunt speech. He and she together worked to improve the right of all girls in Fiji to access education. They built a school, and called it the Islamia Girls’ High School. It was for girls of all communities who had not passed their qualifying exams and who would have dropped out of the school system without access to High School. These were my parents. For them it was taken for granted that all their daughters would go to university, would do postgraduate courses and would enter professions. When I told my parents I wanted to study law, they decided to send me to the United Kingdom, convinced that the British universities offered the best law courses in the Commonwealth. They would have mortgaged their house to pay for our education, and for many years, especially when my younger sister joined me to study medicine at St Andrews University in Scotland, my mother’s entire salary was sent to us to pay for our education. With these advantages, and with such parents, I know that my access to education cannot be compared to the access that all girls in Fiji had at the time. Education in Fiji from primary school to high school is now free and compulsory, but only since January 2015. Even now, university education for girls is for the privileged, or for the girls who are able to get scholarships. Thus I learnt that as long as I worked hard, passed my exams, qualified for the universities in the United Kingdom, and then for the Bar at the Inns of Court, I would become a barrister. At university a third of the students at my law school were girls. Girls are now in the majority in many law schools around the world.

And then I returned to Fiji to apply for a job.

For the first time I experienced the barriers to gender equality which up till then I had only read about. At every interview I was asked if I had a boyfriend. At an interview for a job in a private law firm, I was asked how I felt about representing men, and representing accused persons in rape cases. I was asked at the Attorney- General’s Office, whether I intended to have children, if I married, and whether I would be able to cope with long trial hours and chauvinistic private lawyers. I was never interviewed by a woman. In one Government office I was told frankly that vacant positions were held for law graduates who were male traditional chiefs and that lawyers of Indo-Fijian extract should try to get jobs in the private sector. And, I received rejection after rejection. I couldn’t understand it. I blamed myself. I thought I had chosen the wrong career, that Fiji was not ready for women lawyers, and especially Indo- Fijian women lawyers. The worst experiences I had in the job application process came from men of my own culture, who clearly believed that weak, emotional and marriage-prone girls had no place in the legal profession. And in those six months of unemployment, possibly the most difficult in my life, I began to understand how cultural, racial, religious and social attitudes prevent equal access to employment for women. I realised that the application and interview process was gender biased and designed to exclude women. Those were the days when equal opportunity meant nothing, and when racism was institutionalised as a government policy.

I was finally recruited at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution. I was one of only two applicants. We were both girls. The Office of the DPP had never employed a woman before. I was told frankly at my interview that the office had a professional staff meeting first to decide whether it was ready for a woman prosecutor. And this was in 1984. It was not the turn of the 20th century. I was taken because I had been qualified at the Inns of Court. So had the then DPP.

There was much media attention when I was appointed because I was Fiji’s first women prosecutor. Whenever I now read that a woman is the first woman to be appointed to any position, I pause for a minute to commiserate. Because it is she who will have to ensure the removal of sexually demeaning posters from office walls, she who will have to refuse to make tea when requested to do so by her fellow professionals, she who will be told that she is too weak and emotional to deal with rape or domestic violence or incest cases, she who will have to sit in court listening to closing addresses by defence counsel which deal less with the evidence and more with his outrage that a woman is prosecuting, she who will have to summon up the courage to tell an irritable judge that it is unjust to tell the court that she is asking for an adjournment because she is pregnant, or has just had babies, she who will have to complain about the sexually explicit jokes at the office functions, and she who will have to fight for the right to be promoted when her superiors believe that maternity leave means that a woman loses her brains and professional ability with the afterbirth. Barriers for woman will not be found in the laws in most countries. It will be found in sexual harassment, and especially in the creation of a hostile work environment.

But I am not here to complain about the shockingly unequal work place I found myself in at the age of 22. I am here to say that these are the very experiences which make women discerning leaders. Once we experience these barriers, we must resolve that no other woman should ever have to experience them in the work place. We must resolve to not only have sexual harassment policies in place, but also to ensure their effective implementation, with the knowledge that it is often hard for woman to complain, or to articulate why she finds the work place a hostile environment. These experiences enrich our understanding of the way in which culture, gender and ethnicity can combine to create an unequal work space.

I stayed in the Office of the DPP until I was made the DPP myself, and then I remained DPP for the next six years before becoming Fiji’s first woman High Court judge.

Judiciaries are infamous breeding grounds for inequality. The tragedy is that the very people we look to for justice, are often unconsciously driven and influenced by the same gender expectations as the rest of our society. This may not be unexpected. After all the legal profession is itself conservative in nature (although I look with relief at the emerging numbers of liberal and human rights focussed lawyers) and often appointment to the Bench, usually made when a judge is middle aged, is not often offered to people who are controversial or critical of the status quo. This is of course changing now, with the creation of more transparent and representative processes for the appointment of judges, but it was not the case when I was made a judge in 1999. Thus my appointment was met with fear that I would be a catalyst for change, that the judiciary would be a different place with a woman in it, and that I would try to bully my male colleagues into changing the way things had been done for the last 50 years since independence.

Some women would spend a lot of time reassuring the men that nothing would change, that she would be one of them and would adapt to the old ways. This attitude is a trap for women leaders. If you can’t use your experiences to change the way the organisation is led, why lead at all? Leadership is usually about managing change. The issue for us all, is not whether there should be change, but how to implement it in the most consultative and painless manner. The issue is not whether or not to rock the boat, but how to do it within organisational protocols so that everyone understands the nature, the scope and the reason for the change. When my children were three years old, their favourite word was “why?” Irritating though it was at the time, it teaches us that everyone is entitled to know why you have changed the recruitment policies, why interview questions have to be vetted for gender and ethnic and cultural bias, why gender training must be compulsory for judges and lawyers, why the new Ethics Code for judges must have an anti-discrimination provision enforcing a judicial duty to prevent discrimination on prohibited grounds in the courtroom and why sentencing submissions by lawyers must include submissions on the substantive effect of gender based violence on a woman or girl.


3.A Qualitative Leadership

Leadership by and for women must therefore in my opinion be enriched by our own experiences of the intersection of culture, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status and religious prejudice in the lives of women. I was only two weeks old in my job as a prosecutor when, sitting in the magistrate’s court waiting for my case to be called on a Monday morning, a woman was brought into court charged with soliciting. She pleaded guilty but made a spirited mitigation. She said that she was not ashamed to say that she was a sex worker. She said however that the arresting officer had only arrested her because she had refused to do a particular sexual act with him. She said that many police officers asked for free sexual favours in return for a guarantee of freedom in the conduct of sex work, and that she had the right to refuse this particular act. She said that because she was an Indo-Fijian sex worker, the police officer, also Indo-Fijian, felt that she was especially weak and could be readily exploited. She looked to the magistrate to make at least a comment that would express disapproval of such conduct if indeed it did occur. The magistrate said nothing. He sent her to prison for 6 days and said nothing at all about the allegation of corruption. Sitting in court I knew she was telling the truth. After all she had nothing to lose. And her passion was unmistakable. The incident spoke of the way in which a woman may be exploited, on the ground of her economic position, her ethnicity and her gender. The intersection of discrimination. The sort of intersection we now see in the stories of the lives of trafficked women and girls, and in the lives of many housemaids and garment workers.

It is this knowledge which must give our leadership an insight into the effect of policies and laws on the lives of women. It is then our leadership which allows us to change those laws and policies. For those of us who are disheartened and believe that even with legal changes, attitudes will never change, my experience is that they do change, but we must never stop questioning and challenging the philosophical bases of such attitudes. We must challenge judgments which suggest that a lower sentence should be imposed in a rape case because the complainant was drunk, or sexually active, or was wearing a miniskirt. We must challenge sexist remarks made by a colleague during an interview. We must insist that budget submissions articulate how much money has been set aside for gender empowerment. And, most difficult of all, we must keep on with gender competence training at all levels of the work place, although the course participants hate such training and are clearly uncomfortable about the issues we are raising. Discomfort leads to a change eventually even if the first indication of that is political correctness without conviction. I will never forget my orientation in the Fijian judiciary, but I can say with confidence that the judiciary in Fiji is a much more equal place now, than it was in 1999. There is of course, a continuous need for equality competence training, but a change in attitudes, and in the structure and in the composition of the courts, was inevitable after the appointment of the first woman.


4.Some final thoughts

I believe that woman’s leadership requires an understanding of the way in which laws and policies and attitudes have an impact of the lives and work of women. If you are a woman of colour, your experiences will be enriched by an understanding of the way in which racial, religious and gender prejudice can become a barrier to equal access to services and to employment. Often, we women of colour find that the greatest barriers are erected by the men and woman of our own culture, who are especially judgmental because we have decided to move away from the accepted norms and traditions. Dealing with such judgment is difficult for us, because we do not want to lose our cultural roots, nor do we want to reject our cultures themselves. We only want an acceptance that culture can be modified to remove discrimination, to remove barriers to equality. And then, we want to be the agents which modify culture. After all, member States of CEDAW have largely agreed that such modification may be necessary to achieve substantive gender equality. However, the modification of culture and religious practices is one of the most difficult hurdles in the women’s movement. So closely do people identify with their cultures, whether it is in the Pacific or in Western Europe, that persuading societies to change the practices which have been preserved for generations, is often politicised, with opponents suggesting that there are moves to destroy the culture of a community and indeed to destroy the community itself. It is very difficult and often dangerous. However, we must take heart from the fact that they do not burn widows at the funeral pyres in India any more. Nor are we allowed to strangle the widows of traditional chiefs in Fiji, nor to burn our witches in Europe. And more and more countries in the world have made the corporal punishment of children, unlawful. Our challenge is to take courage from history, and agree to at least discuss the possibility of change. As I have said a woman who leads qualitatively, leads as an agent of change, with an understanding of how gender, culture, racial and religious prejudice, and intolerance of sexual orientation freedoms can combine to prevent substantive equality and justice in the lives of all women.

Nazhat Shameem Khan

Geneva, 22nd October 2015.








Suva, Fiji