Determined to break gender barriers which she had tasted from her first working days, Fatima Sbaity Kassem worked her way through the narrow path created for women of her time and now joins the crusade for gender inclusion and fair treatment of women in her region.

In her interview with Amazons Watch Magazine, Fatima Sbaity Kaseem, Former Director of the United Nations Centre for Women at the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA) shares some of her experience working with women groups in her region, as well as suggestions which can be adopted by policymakers for the good of women. Excerpt:

In a few sentences, please describe the person of FATIMA SBAITY KASSEM.

In the workplace, she is self-confident, hard-working (workaholic), professional, substantive, and analytical. She stands up to the challenge, is strong-willed and assertive. She has stamina, perseverance and never gives up on what she believes in. However, she is a good listener, open to criticism, and a skilled negotiator. She is diligent, honest and has integrity. She is also hot-tempered but good-hearted and loyal to the cause and value-system she advocates.

Did you have any fears, growing up as a young girl? What were some of your choice dreams and aspirations, and what was your motivation for getting involved in women’s issues?

I did not have any fears as a young girl. My parents treated all their ten children (4 boys and 6 girls) equally without discrimination. I had dreams and aspirations to pursue my education to the highest levels. I wanted to become a physician when I grew up. However, my eldest sister warned me (jokingly) that if I became a doctor, no one would dare marry me… men shun away from smart and highly accomplished women. I changed my course of studies at my junior year from sciences/pre-medicine to business administration, development and economics. When I got my Bachelor’s Degree in business administration, I started looking for a job. I was full of ambition to work in my field of specialization. I was startled when I was only offered secretarial (typing) jobs because of my gender. This is when I realized that there is gender discrimination in the job market: Women were expected to be secretaries, nurses, or teachers.  Indeed, I got a job as an instructor of economics, statistics, and commercial law to freshmen and sophomore level students. This is why I chose to write my thesis in fulfilment of a Masters’ Degree on job opportunities of women university graduates in the Lebanese labour market.

You have worked extensively on women’s issues in the Arab region; on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the progress made so far towards eliminating discrimination and the stereotyping of women in the region?

I have been working extensively on women’s issues and concerns in the Arab region since 1994 and coordinated regional preparations for and follow-up to the 1995 Beijing Conference on women. One can look at the cup as half full or half empty. I prefer to look at the glass as half full… Women in the Arab countries are not the same, their concerns and challenges may be the same but their problems and concerns may differ in their intensity between one country and the other and even within the same country. While women’s health and educational attainments, and to a lesser extent their economic contributions have improved, on average, their political participation remains limited and dismal. Notwithstanding the above, one observes the lingering gender gaps worldwide, especially in the political arena. In the Arab countries, laws and legislation, particularly in personal status, family, and nationality laws, are gender insensitive and outright discriminatory. In addition, violence against women is rampant and punitive laws are not women-friendly. Laws and legislation must be revisited and amended in favour of women. Stereotyping of women is most detrimental in the media. The road to gender equality is still thorny and bumpy. Nonetheless, hope remains that one day we will witness the dawn of gender equality in a democratic Arab world.

In the cause of your work, dealing with women’s issues, have you ever faced any bad reaction or bias from traditional women’s groups?

In 1994, during a workshop I organized in one of the Arab countries in preparation for the 1995 Beijing Conference, I was stunned by the reaction of a group of Islamist women when I urged the national committee for women to propose women-friendly legislation to eliminate polygamy. They categorically refused such an “outrageous” proposal because of the large number of widows and/or single and unmarried girls of age in the country.

Given your experience and studies on discrimination and the stereotyping of women; what do you think is the best way to improve women’s situation through economic tools and channels?               

There is no magic formula for improving the station of women and, definitely, not just one but multi-channels and tools working in harmony together. Women will be empowered by eliminating the gender gaps in all 12 areas of critical concern identified in the Beijing Platform for Action, namely, equal access to health services, education and credit facilities; equal opportunities to employment; poverty alleviation; women-friendly laws and legislation; political participation and leadership; institutional mechanisms and national machinery for women, the girl child, women in war zones and conflict-stricken areas; women in the media; NGOs in civil society; and rural women. In addition, the status of women will substantially improve by fully implementing the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and all related international instruments including the SDGs, UN security Council Resolution 1325 on women and peace, amending national laws and legislation and enacting new women-friendly instruments, improving follow-up and accountability mechanisms at the national level to eliminate gender discrimination and remove barriers facing women’s advancement, raising gender awareness and the mind-set in the patriarchal society, and building alliances with male champions of women, political and religious leaders to achieve gender equality. All of the above are necessary but not sufficient conditions for women’s advancement and for achieving gender equality in citizenship unless an enabling democratic environment is created. Such an environment privatizes religion and confines it in the private sphere, and takes concrete measures to eliminate gender-bias in all walks of life thus neutralizing women-unfriendly political culture and patriarchy.

You once stated that you are interested in promoting women’s leadership in political parties so that they rise to decision-making positions at the government level and influence legislation; what sustainable measures can be taken to increase the number of women leaders in politics?

At the outset, women themselves should be interested in taking up a career in politics and joining political parties. This is largely a matter of personal choice. In addition, we must assume that the barriers to leadership that face women are the same as those that face men; i.e. there is no gender-bias in the strife for power positions. The second condition is that governments themselves must be committed to gender equality and are willing to take concrete measures to insure it. Toward that end, governments in developing countries must learn from experiences of developed countries where women’s share in executive and legislative bodies is relatively high or at parity. Governments should introduce temporary gender quotas in order to raise female political participation, adopt affirmative action measures, and ensure that electoral laws are women-friendly (large electoral districts, proportional representation, closed, ranked and zipped electoral lists). Additionally, governments must offer political parties incentives (financial or in-kind) in order to nominate more women on their electoral lists. I have suggested a tripartite path to creating a critical mass of women for leadership: (1) female party membership must expand at the grassroots (parties must use various tools to mobilize women and encourage them to join); (2) share of women in leadership bodies within political parties will eventually increase when female membership expands, and (3) share of women on electoral lists to parliament and local government will rise due to lobbying of women in leadership and decision-making bodies within political parties.  Through this path, a critical mass of women for leadership will be created and sustained.

Aside from your routine activities, what are some of the things that Fatima Sbaity Kassem does leisurely?

I am an avid reader and I work-out daily (swimming, walking, and pilates).

In your opinion, what level of progress can be achieved in the fight against women discrimination and stereotyping in the next ten years?

In my humble opinion, the young generation of women and men should take stock of which tools and instruments were employed in the past in the effort to eliminate discrimination against women and how, what was achieved, and where have we failed. Subsequently, they must undertake a search “out of the box” looking for new creative initiatives to eliminate discrimination and stereotyping.

What’s the best way for the readers of Amazons Watch Magazine to connect with you?

I am on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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