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Meet the Women Changing the Face of Politics in the Arab World

More than ever, women are taking charge at the decision-making table, guiding and becoming influential leaders within the Arab world.

HE Ghada Waly

Minister of Social Solidarity – Egypt 

Ghana Wali photographed by Amina Zaher

It may have been a long time coming, but HE Ghada Waly, Minister of Social Solidarity, is proud to have witnessed some momentous changes during her 28-year career. “I have seen the attitude to women in politics evolve in Egypt and in the region,” says the minister, who now heads the government body responsible for providing social safety networks for Egypt’s most vulnerable citizens.

When Minister Waly was a young girl, there was only one female in politics – also the minister of social solidarity. “Today, we have 90 women in parliament and eight women in cabinet managing 10 ministries,” she states. The landscape is changing in the region and Waly is proud that it’s becoming more inclusive. “We have witnessed two women become governors for the first time and women head universities, along with a marked increase in women judges, so, yes, more than ever, women are welcomed in the political space in Egypt.” She adds, “The presence of women at the decision-making table ensures that the voice of half the society is being heard and that their concerns are being addressed.

Diversity is key to good governance, be it at a company or in a cabinet.” Waly’s proudest professional accomplishment is the conditional cash transfer program to help impoverished families, as part of the government’s wider plans to optimize social justice. “It has reached more than two million families comprising almost 10 million individuals, a result achieved

As Egypt’s minister of social affairs, Waly has developed a welfare system supporting divorced women and widows particularly, as she recognizes it’s beneficial for the state to financially assist disadvantaged women. “The family and the household are the target. Women need to be empowered socially and economically; research has proven that when women have resources, they use them for better healthcare, feeding, and schooling for their children; 92% of the cash transfer beneficiaries are women,” she says. “When women join the labor market, they have fewer children. If you educate and empower a girl, you are educating the whole society.” Waly also spearheads several initiatives protecting the underprivileged. “I’ve upgraded eight women’s shelters,” she shares. Other key schemes in her portfolio include promoting micro and small enterprises, especially among female business owners, developing a population program to curb growth, and reforming the social pension legislation.

After graduating from Colorado State University with a master’s in humanities, she earned a diploma in micro nance and an advanced certificate in project management. On climbing the political ladder, she comments, “I have always dealt with male colleagues as equals. Deep inside, I never felt inferior or weaker than men and I was never intimidated by them. is inner strength is key. I took my work very seriously and made sure I earned every position because of my achievements, not my gender.”

Wally’s proudest professional accomplishment is the conditional cash transfer program to help impoverished families, as part of the government’s wider plans to optimize social justice. “It has reached more than two million families comprising almost 10 million individuals, a result achieved within two years of very hard, diligent work. We worked in 4 300 villages and were able to protect the most vulnerable Egyptians during difficult times of economic reforms and rising inflation,” she states. “I’m also proud to have built the first and largest database of vulnerable families, which records the details of 25 million Egyptians, and for launching the first national program for street children.”

Her strong stance on female empowerment has not gone unrecognized by her own children, either. “I am a proud mother of three young successful men who respect women and who wish to have wives who work.ey are my pride and joy in life,” she smiles. Despite the demands of her job, Waly maintains a healthy work/life balance. “I’ve remained close to my friends and former colleagues. I don’t have time for sport but I do manage to nd time for opera, concerts, and art galleries.”

Her advice to women who want to pursue political careers is straightforward. “The time is better than ever before. ere is political support at the highest level. President El-Sisi supports women out of conviction and not out of political correctness. He believes the country will move ahead when both men and women are equally engaged and committed,” she comments. “Inner strength, self-confidence, and hard work are needed; so go for it.”

Karma Ekmekji

Head of the International Affairs and Relations Unit at the office of the President of the Council of Ministers, Saad Hariri – Lebanon 

Karma Ekmekji photographed by Charbel Saad

“In our region, politics has been a man’s game – and we haven’t done so well in the last few decades. So let’s try something new. Let’s try women!” states Karma Ekmekji. For the last nine years, the Lebanese diplomat has served as head of the International Affairs and Relations Unit at the oce of the President of the Council of Ministers of Lebanon, Saad Hariri. She’s responsible for developing the prime minister’s international relations with diplomatic communities both at home and abroad.

Ekmekji strongly believes more women are needed in elected once but considers the scope for influential females in politics is much broader. “Every woman with an advisory role, in a political party bureau, a researcher in a think tank, or in political activism, is a woman in politics,” she says. Ekmekji refers to them as “diplowomen” and created a hashtag to honor them.

Outside the oce, she is launching a platform with the same name, in partnership with the former ambassador from the UK Tom Fletcher and his Foundation for Opportunity.

DiploWomen will soon launch a digital platform for mentorship and idea exchange, and lobby for more women to claim positions at all levels of international relations. Encouraging younger women to step into diplomatic careers is also a goal. “I don’t want to hear excuses anymore when I go to conferences or forums and see all-male panels that women in this eld don’t exist,” she quips.

Coming of age in Lebanon – “smack in the middle of the civil war” – Ekmekji learned firsthand about the power of negotiation and conflict resolution. After earning a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University, she started out analyzing electoral reform before joining the UN – first at its New York headquarters and then at the Oce of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon. All the while, she watched for the stars to align with the right position in Lebanese politics. When her current job came along, Ekmekji was prepared to thrive. “The UN teaches skills that aren’t acquired in many other places: communication, organizational skills, how to survive a bureaucracy, how to massage egos, and how to manage time.”

These days, her mobile rarely stops buzzing, even in the middle of the night. Perhaps that’s because, in meetings, Prime Minister Hariri frequently comments, “You can reach Karma 24/7. She is always available.” Laughing, she says, “And that pretty much sums up my life. I remain on standby and pray no one calls me when I am at a birthday party with my kids.” Yet, despite these intense professional demands, when she is at home in Beirut, Ekmekji rarely misses taking her two young sons, Raï and Yann, to school or tucking them in at night, conceding that “mastering time management” is one of her proudest accomplishments. In part, this is due to hands-on support from her husband, journalist and political advisor Hani Hammoud. e two were colleagues and then ultimately set up by Hariri himself, in 2012. Hammoud shows their boys to regard girls as equals in every way. “He is the perfect example of HeForShe,” says Ekmekji, referring to the popular UN campaign responsible for bringing nearly two million men into the conversation about gender equality with public pledges of solidarity in all spheres, from the kitchen to the workplace.

Ekmekji is a believer in fashion diplomacy – the ability of clothing to convey strong symbolic messages across cultures. “When I am on social visits with the prime minister or at state engagements, I make sure I wear clothing by a Lebanese designer,” she explains. Her Instagram feed shows a collection of encounters with global female power players, with Ekmekji meticulously dressed for each occasion. She’s known for encouraging breakaway young talent like Krystel Abdel Masih’s KRSTL label. Given what she stands for, it’s no coincidence that her most prized Sarah’s Bag clutch commands, “Women of the World Unite!”

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