My Journey to Leadership
Permanent Mission of Fiji to Geneva
Nazhat Shameem Khan, Ambassador of Fiji to the UNOG and to Switzerland
Fiji Mission to UNOG
19TH July, 2018
- I was fortunate in the childhood I received from my parents. Education was emphasised, strength of character was expected, and respect for our faith was taken for granted. My mother was a career woman and worked all her life from the age of 15 as a student teacher, to 60, when she retired as a head mistress of a school. My father spent much of his life working for the education of girls through a religious charity. In his spare time he was a poet. With four daughters and no sons, he brought his daughters up as if gender had no meaning in his life. Our relatives did not know what to make of the Shameem girls as we were called. Outspoken, academically inclined, dreamers and readers, but also schooled to read Arabic, and to follow the Muslim faith. It was this combination of conservatism, respect for tradition, and non-traditional gender roles that made me what I am today. I believe that culture has the capacity to strengthen and empower through the security of self-identity, but that it must not become the chains which hold us back from deciding what is right and good in our lives. Culture must not be the funnel through which we judge others. It must enrich, and be celebrated as the factor which diversifies the fabric of our societies.
- At the age of 17 I travelled to Sussex University to study law. Apart from a 6 month stay in Auckland at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, it was my only experience outside of Fiji. It was a great challenge but it prepared me for a future where I would have to make difficult decisions for myself, without the presence of my family. I also discovered the law in the context of society, a great discovery. I still believe that the law has no purpose unless it reflects the thoughts, aspirations and values of society. Thus the important role of law in developing a human rights jurisprudence.
- I went on to do a masters, then the Bar Finals at Inner Temple. I recall that I loved the gender and ethnic neutrality of academia. My tutors really did not care whether I was male or female, Fijian or Samoan, Muslim or Buddhist. They only cared about the excellence or otherwise (and sadly it was often otherwise) of my work. What a lesson on how neutrality works. It was only later that I was introduced to the concept of historical disadvantage, through the jurisprudence emerging largely from the Canadian courts. And from Justice Felix Frankfurter of the US Supreme Court, who said famously, that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.
- I returned to Fiji and became a prosecutor. But before that I endured 6 months of unemployment, when for the first time, I felt like a woman. Not just a lawyer, a member of the Bar of England and Wales, a graduate of Sussex University and Cambridge University, and a young woman brought up to be of no gender at all, but a woman. Just a woman. And a woman of a certain ethnic minority. It was then that I realised that gender bias is an economic issue. If I am not applying for jobs or scholarships, if I am not a threat to anyone’s livelihood, my gender is irrelevant. It is only when I try to enter the work force, and one which is male dominated, that suddenly I will be asked if I have boyfriends, whether I intend to get married and have children, how I will cope with sexual cases, and whether I might be more comfortable in the family law practices. Eventually I was offered a job in the DPP’s Office after they first had a meeting to decide whether the prosecutors were ready for their first woman. Then came a period of severe testing. Inappropriate jokes and language in the office, badgering sessions with my pupil master (“you’re the one with a degree from Cambridge, you should know all this”) and intrusions into my private life that I found offensive. I dealt with it by making a complaint to the DPP, who to his credit then warned the staff, but the testing period was unnecessary and left me with a lifelong determination that no woman on my watch, if I ever held a period of seniority, would suffer what I suffered. Eventually, I became the DPP myself, and then Fiji’s first woman High Court judge. One of the first things I did was to overhaul our recruitment and promotion processes to remove inherent and hidden biases.
- Does it get better? No. It doesn’t. I haven’t noticed that attitudes towards woman have dramatically changed. It is still the case that you are either the vicious vindictive witch, or a weak hormonal jelly. It is still the case that no matter how good your reputation might be as a lawyer and judge, when there is a conflict, you will still be judged only as a woman. And usually a troublesome and manipulative woman with no sense of professionalism. And of course the stereotypes emerge.
- An interesting question for us all, is the relationship between sex, ethnicity, religion, disability, and other sources of discrimination such as sexual orientation. Is there a relationship? What does the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights mean when it talks of the intersectional nature of discrimination?
- Stereotypes are the result of our socialisation processes. Thus if we believe that all persons of Chinese extract are inherently unreliable, and also that woman are weak and unreliable, woman of Chinese extract would be doubly affected by negative stereotyping about their reliability. Does it matter? Yes it does. Because if stereotypes affect the reasoning processes of persons who make decisions about access to services and goods, then these stereotypes affect access to those services and goods. Let us take a judge. Let us say that this judge believes that all woman are by nature more likely to tell lies and that woman of Chinese extract are especially and uniquely unreliable in a way that woman of other cultures are not. If a woman of Chinese ancestry was giving evidence before that judge, there would not be much of a hope for an equal and objective justice. She would be damned before she opened her mouth in the witness box. It is for this reason that there are now rules about the evidence of victims in sexual and gender based violence cases. It is because of the way in which centuries of stereotypical thinking have shaped the objectivity of the process of judging. Stereotypes have become law because ultimately it is judges who interpret law and often, as we know, make law too. The relationship between different sources of discrimination, is the way in which stereotypes are shaped by preconceptions of ethnic groups, gender, and other characteristics. The challenge for you as educated people who will make a difference to our society, is learning to recognise the stereotypes and recognising how unconsciously, such stereotypes affect the way people are treated.
- And here are a few;
- Thai woman are sexually promiscuous;
- Gay men are vicious and untruthful;
- All women are manipulative;
- All European women are aggressive, and likely to be unfaithful wives;
- Woman are not very bright, and women of colour are especially unintelligent;
- Arab women are subservient to their husbands;
- After a consensual sexual encounter, women are likely to pretend that they were raped.
9. We should insist on compulsory gender training for everyone. This is the only way in which we can confront our own biases, our own demons and admit that they get in the way of promoting equality. Of course such training is painful. But it is necessary, especially because it exposes unconscious bias.
10. But most importantly, we must live our lives in a way which shows respect for others, empathy for the difficulties which we all experience in life, and a determination that we will leave behind each work space we inhabit, a place which is better than when we found it.
11. Human rights are not an artificial cloak we put on in Geneva and in New York. Translated to the way we deal with others, with compassion and understanding, and according to the highest standards of integrity, human rights have the capacity to transform individuals, societies and countries. Sometimes, implementing rights means that you must swim against the tide. You must annoy friends and relatives because what you are standing up for may not be politically correct. This can be uncomfortable and often dangerous. Human rights defenders know this very well. But the young can do this better than any other group. The young have a better understanding of how the world must change if we are to survive. In Fiji, judges had to swim against the tide and make decisions about prison conditions, and sodomy laws, which were neither understood nor supported by many. But once the decisions were made, in accordance with international law, the tide turned. Neither legislature, nor subsequent courts attempted to revive the old laws. Leadership, which you will provide the world, is often about making decisions which are not safe, but which reflect a determination that the status quo is not just, or equitable, and that you will not and cannot implicitly or explicitly support nor perpetuate such injustice and inequity.
12. I see that many of you have studied law and will be practitioners. The law is a powerful agent for change. And in the hands of people who believe in substantive equality, who know that concepts of justice are evolving and are based on the moral code of treating others the way we would like to be treated ourselves and that the law can transform our inequalities into opportunities for advancement, innovation, and universal respect. The law is truly a powerful mechanism for such change. Such change, in relation to gender equality, is one of its greatest challenges.
Nazhat Shameem Khan
Geneva July 19th 2018