28 March 2022

The Challenges Faced by a Woman Ambassador

Her Excellency Ambassador Mervat Tallawy is a former student of the Graduate Institute. Interviewed by alumnus Kareem Gerges on the eve of the 2021 Alumni Reunion, she discusses the biggest challenges facing her as the first woman ambassador from Egypt, but also how her studies at the Institute helped her prepare for such a career.   

After having served a number of appointments to international organisations like the United Nations, as well as diplomatic missions, how did your studies prepare you for your international career?
The methodology of teaching at the Graduate Institute has been very interesting. It prepared me to accept (different) views. The Institute’s methodology encourages students to comment and critique each other’s views. This had an impact on me because in the United Nations there are 193 countries having different positions and policies, what is accepted in one is not accepted in another, which can often cause conflicts between delegations. So, the Institute helped me (learn how) to tackle problems that arise due to differences in cultures and religions.

What was your biggest challenge in your career?
The biggest challenge was that I am a woman. For instance, despite the legal and constitutional articles that guarantee women’s rights in Egypt, social norms remain a major challenge for the actual realisation of women’s rights. Egypt in the 1960s and 70s was unlike Egypt today. Why have we become more conservative? A major factor is because some religious figures continue to interpret the Quran in a very regressive and conservative manner. This has a tremendous impact on society. So I’ve faced that big challenge as well: confronting regressive conservative social culture in my country.

How can we overcome these challenges?
It is very difficult. It’s a long-term project to overcome 30 years of spreading fundamentalist extremist ideology. I had an opportunity to study comparative religion at the American University in Cairo, that others did not, which allowed me to study religion academically and thus be aware of its reasonable and sound interpretations. Overcoming extremist interpretations of religion is a long-term project, one which will require the involvement of several authorities, including the mosques, the churches, the Ministry of Education (especially with a focus on primary education) and the Ministry of Culture.

I visited a school when I was the Minister of Social Affairs and Insurance, and only found religious books in its library. I thought, “Why is it that students don’t have the chance to read a diversity of books that cover other topics?” Authorities should follow strict rules to prevent religious figures from spreading extremist interpretations of religion. This policy needs to be systematic and long-lasting. The media also holds a very essential role: they should confront and challenge extremist religious views, like those that say that wearing a hijab is compulsory according to Islam.

You were the first woman ambassador from the diplomatic corps in Egypt. Did you face challenges in advancing in your career because of your gender?
In my early career, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Mahmoud Riyad, prevented women from being posted abroad for 10 consecutive years by an oral order (because if it was a written order, women would have challenged it in court). This resulted in being delayed and ultimately losing to male diplomats in terms of the frequency of postings, but also in terms of relevance and importance of posts abroad. Women were relegated to consulate postings and non-prominent geographical posts. It took more effort and harder work for women to prove themselves and finally get the recognition and trust to hold positions equivalent to their male colleagues.  

I also faced discrimination and stereotypical attitudes back in the 70s in the West, where even in advanced societies, the idea of a woman diplomat and especially ambassador was not common.

What advice could you give to our students about working in an international organisation or as a diplomat?
Students need to bear in mind that what they hear in seminars or classrooms at the Institute can be a small replica of what happens outside in the real world. So students need to be open-minded about different points of views, without prejudice, in order to solve problems and reach consensus in a peaceful manner. For example, some of the contentious issues among countries are stances on capital punishment. As a diplomat, you need to have the ability to navigate such differences and continue to interact with your counterparts to achieve the common good.

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This article was published in Globe #29, the Graduate Institute Review.