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Jordan UN ambassador: Arab women don't fit single image

Jordan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dina Kawar, talks to Al-Monitor about being a role model for women in Jordan and fighting for women's issues at a regional level.
Jordanian Ambassador to the United Nations Dina Kawar (R) Speaks with British Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Layall Grant before the Security Council voted in favor of a resolution demanding the Houthi militia's withdrawal from Yemeni government institutions, during a meeting of the Council at the U.N. headquarters in New York, February 15, 2015. The United Nations Security Council on Sunday demanded Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen withdraw from government institutions, called for an end to foreign inte

For Dina Kawar, being the permanent representative of Jordan to the United Nations means turning words into action.

A longtime supporter of women’s rights, Kawar was handpicked by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. She said, “When His Majesty became king, he wanted me [to join the foreign service]. That’s when he said he would like to have more women in the service, so he asked me to put words in practice and that’s how it all happened.”

As one of the first women to enter Jordan’s diplomatic service, Kawar immediately became an inspiration to others. She said, “It was the will of His Majesty to have women in the diplomatic service. At the time, there were none, so actually it was the beginning.” Being a role model means she has also felt pressure to excel. As Kawar explained, “I’m very happy and glad to have that responsibility, and also when you are a woman doing this job, the way you are and the way you behave is a reflection that is also given upon others.”

Beyond contending with skeptics at home, Kawar has found that one of her chief difficulties is combating stereotypical Western conceptions of what an Arab woman should be. She said, “I think the one thing that saddens me is to think that there is one image of the Arab woman. I keep wanting to say Arab women are like all women.” Kawar also won’t let causes she is passionate about, like education and preventing violence against women and children, be lumped together or dismissed.

As she put it, “Often, they are relegated to social matters, but they are the basis of politics, and we see that now in my work at the Security Council — the importance of these social issues and violence and women.”

The text of the full interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  What inspired you to become a diplomat?

Kawar:  Actually, when I was appointed diplomat it was in 2005, and at the time, Alia, my colleague in Washington whom you know, was appointed just a few months before me. She was appointed in May and I was appointed in September, but it was the will of His Majesty to have women in the diplomatic service. At the time, there were none, so actually it was the beginning, and since then we’ve had more and there is more encouragement for women to enter the civil service. That was the beginning. It was a political appointment, as far as I’m concerned.

Al-Monitor:  What was your background? What were you doing before?

Kawar:  I did my studies in the United States. I started college at Mills College in Oakland, which was a women’s college. Then I came to Columbia, and then I spent a year of post-graduate studies at Harvard and I worked with the previous crown prince, Crown Prince Hassan, right after my graduation and was with him for many years. But when His Majesty became king, he wanted me. That’s when he said he would like to have more women in the service, so he asked me to put words in practice, and that’s how it all happened.

Al-Monitor:  Do you have any women role models?

Kawar:  You know, most women who have managed to succeed, be it in the diplomatic world or political world, were very strong charactered and were very strong willed, whether we agree with them politically or not. Actually, I don’t have one person, but I like to read about Indira Gandhi and how she had her career and what a tough women she was. Women like that, who’ve managed to succeed in their political lives, are always an inspiration because you have to take it in the context of their time, which is even more and more difficult than now.

We have a very good role model, also, which is Her Majesty, who managed to be a good mother, a good wife but a good citizen as well and has taken her responsibilities as a queen in carrying through so many projects and work, whether in education or culture, and opening of the minds of everybody to important issues concerning women and children and violence that’s committed against children.

All of these topics, which, much of the time — and I say it gently — tend to be sort of the less important issues to deal with in the minds of men. Often, they are relegated to social matters, but they are the basis of politics, and we see that now in my work at the Security Council — the importance of these social issues and violence and women. We see that in wars, the first victims are these categories. At the end of the day, all the work that, usually, women did undertake in our part of the world now has become the most essential. So that’s something to remember.

Al-Monitor:  Is the humanitarian issue in Syria one of these pressing issues?

Kawar:  Yes, we did intervene on the issue, because the Syrian tragedy is the most — I wouldn’t say important in the sense of value, because all tragedies are important for those who are having to go through them — but in terms of size and the number of refugees and displaced people, Syria is amazing. And to think that around 12.2 million Syrians are in need, and some we cannot even access to give them help. It is incredible to know that in the 21st century, we are aware of such a tragedy and we are unable to do anything about it.

When one looks at World War II and all the tragedies we learned about later — certainly some knew, but it was not public knowledge, but now we know it — we see it, we see pictures on Twitter, we’ve seen pictures on Facebook and social media for years, and the fourth year has ended. So, that is something that is unbearable: the death, the indiscriminate death that is happening and is touching certain ethnicities and the children and women, and also the added dimension of [the Islamic State (IS)], which has become unbearable to look at.

We saw yesterday what they did with the Mosul museum, the cultural cleansing. It’s amazing to think that we can get as bad as this. These things have happened in history, but in the Middle Ages and before, and now, to see it happening in front of our eyes and having to see the video clips and not being able to do something — that is a thought that we need to really reflect upon.

Al-Monitor:  How has Jordan been affected by the conflict?

Kawar:  It is not easy, because as much as the poor refugees are tired and exhausted with war and would like to eventually go back home, the country is fatigued by this burden of more than 650,000 Syrians living in the country. It’s a political burden, it’s an economic burden, it’s a humanitarian burden and it’s having its impact on our system, on our infrastructure, and the country is already not a rich country. We are not considered poor enough to have access to certain loans and certain help, so we are in this very uncomfortable between-two-chairs position. It’s definitely not easy. Now we’ve had a lot of countries promising us help, but the money has not come in.

Al-Monitor:  Have other countries come forward to accept some of the refugees?

Kawar:  There is talk, and definitely the Americans have taken a certain number, but compared to us, it’s nothing. Canada has taken some, Europe has taken some but it is nothing compared to what Jordan has, Lebanon has and Turkey has, so it’s a very complicated issue.

Al-Monitor:  How has the status of women improved in recent years in Jordan beyond the diplomatic world?

Kawar:  The improvement has been very noticeable in the [white-collar] fields; lots of doctors, teachers, lawyers. All these jobs do have a high number of women and the higher education of women is probably higher than men — not much higher, but in percentage, equal if not higher. So in that sense, there is no problem.

Now, as in everywhere else in the world and definitely in our part of the world, political life is another story. We’ve had to have a quota for parliament, and it has been successful in bringing numbers up and making women more encouraged to enter the political field and having a cultural change in the minds of people to accept women to represent them. In terms of the government, there has always been a percentage of women. It’s not an official percentage, but we always make sure that there are women.

Definitely in that sense, there’s a lot more that needs to be done in changing the habits, the culture of people. Because most of the time, we do not help ourselves in seeing our potential and encouraging other women and saying that this is normal, that they have their place in society. It’s not even a service that women are doing, it’s the service we’re doing for society, because any society that has 50% of its population not active socially is a problem. So in that sense, there’s a lot to be done.

Unfortunately, during the Arab Spring, for a lack of another name, we have had the issues of women put a little bit to the side and not enough highlighted, which is what we were hoping it would do. The reason for this was there was so much concentration on high politics issues, economic performance, security and all that. So, it has been set aside.

I’d just like to add that the barbaric attitude we are seeing from [IS] in all parts of our region and elsewhere that is touching women and girls is putting us back into the Middle Ages. That is not good enough. What’s scary is the mind is so convinced with ideology that we cannot understand. In that sense, it’s worse. It’s not the fault of governments or people who are normal, who are the majority. The minority is doing things in the name of religion that they know nothing about, and they represent nothing.

Al-Monitor:  What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of in your diplomatic work?

Kawar:  Already, representing my country is something for me that has been an honor, and I’m very happy and glad to have that responsibility. Also, when you are a woman doing this job, the way you are and the way you behave is a reflection that is also given upon others, unfortunately. And I say it in a context that if a woman does fail in her job, we remember she’s a woman. I always remember that, and I always keep it in mind that there’s no room for failure because then it would reflect badly on others.

Being in the Security Council and representing my country is also a huge honor for me, and I’m taking it as seriously as I can because I don’t think there was ever an Arab woman in the Security Council. I’m there to represent my country and also the other Arab countries with all the issues, and God knows the Arab World is a little bit complicated at this moment. So the burden is there.

Al-Monitor:  What issues in particular at the UN Security Council are most consuming your attention?

Kawar:  There’s Syria. There’s Palestine. There’s Libya. There’s Yemen. You have the issue of Iraq, of course. Sudan, as an Arab country, is very important as a file in the Security Council. Of course, there are other issues: sometimes Somalia, sometimes Lebanon, sometimes others. These are the ones that are really taking up time, and there is not one that is taking up more time than the other. It’s a question of you work on one file one day and then something else comes in. You always feel like you’re doing many things at the same time. But when you have a good team, like I do, that has a lot of experience and, of course, the support we have from our ministry, it makes it — I wouldn’t say easier, just more enjoyably easier.

Al-Monitor:  What do you feel are some of the biggest misconceptions about women in the Middle East that you’ve encountered, and how do you clarify those misconceptions?

Kawar:  I think that the saddest thing I’ve seen anywhere, when I was posted before in France — and I covered the Holy See and I covered Portugal and UNESCO before coming here — I think the one thing that saddens me is to think that there is one image of the Arab woman. I keep wanting to say Arab women are like all women. There are all types and all images, and some are like me and others are different. This idea of always putting us into one folder. Sometimes I’ll be sitting and they say, “Why are you not like Arab women?” And I say but I am an Arab woman. This sentence keeps coming back: If you do not fit their image of what they think an Arab woman is, then you’re not. That’s something that we need to make more clear, that there is not just one.

Al-Monitor:  Do you feel you have a special responsibility to speak out for women in your role as ambassador here?

Kawar:  Yes, of course. First of all, I have a responsibility to all Jordanian women because I represent them, so I feel — maybe in the Security Council we don’t speak about Jordanian women — but I feel by behaving and being and succeeding and trying to succeed, at least it’s a way of saying I am an example for my fellow women. The same goes for Arab women in general.

As for more concretely speaking in the Security Council, obviously the issue of women is very alive in my mind. We had six women out of 15 last year, which was historic in the Security Council. This year we are four. That’s not bad. There’s obviously a lot of attention given to women’s issues in wars and their protection, and there are resolutions on that matter. In that sense, the presence of women on the council [makes it] more sensitive and prone to these issues, and you see it now in all our consultations and all our discussions when it comes to evoking the issues.

Of course, the issue of women and women’s life and protection and children is highlighted continuously. Last year, when we went to South Sudan on a visit, we were taken to the camp to visit displaced refugees and women because at the end of the day, when there are refugees, women are those who suffer most because sometimes they are alone with their children to take care of, and it’s not an easy job.

Al-Monitor:  What do you hope to see in the coming years for future generations of women in the Middle East?

Kawar:  What do I hope to see? I hope to see more equality in their rise all over the Arab World. I cannot speak specifically on one country or another, but I would like to see that their rise in the laws and the registrations and everything is equal as that of a man. I would like to see that the Arab woman believes in herself and her rise more, and helps herself more, and feels that she owes it to herself and her generation.

That’s something that is very important. Women are the base of a society because it is the women who raise children. It is a woman who teaches boys how to behave. She inculcates the values in a boy’s mind and in his spirit. Whatever generation comes now, it is the result of a woman’s education. That is something that is so important.

We keep saying education, education and again education. That is something Jordan has always valued. The late King Hussein valued it so much that his saying was: We don’t have it all, we are not a rich state, but we are rich with the human factor. That’s why he made sure that everybody has equal access to education, and the same is happening with King Abdullah, for whom that aspect is incredibly important and to all the work that the queen is doing, it’s all revolved around this issue. I think that the Middle East and the Arab countries would be made safe by that as well. Now more than ever, I believe that with education and opening of the minds, you avoid so many tragedies and crises in the world.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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