Q&A: ‘Women leaders must fight gender bias in the system’

Nazhat Shameem Khan - photo
Nazhat Shameem Khan Copyright: UNclimatechange/Flickr

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  • Women leaders can change the system, push for equality of opportunity
  • Barriers are inherent, changing them is a work in progress
  • Fiji instrumental in bringing more women in climate negotiations

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[SYDNEY] Women in high positions must change the system so that every girl and woman can experience equality of opportunity, says Nazhat Shameem Khan, Permanent Representative of Fiji to the UN in Geneva and the country’s ambassador to Switzerland.
Born in Suva to migrant parents of Indian descent, she has had a stellar career as a lawyer, a judge and a diplomat. In every position she worked to remove the barriers girls and women face, be it making the office of Fiji’s director of public prosecutions more inclusive or getting the Gender Action Plan passed as chief negotiator for Fiji’s presidency of the 23rd annual Conference of Parties (COP23) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“As women leaders, it is our job to look at the system and see how it works in practice for a woman”

Nazhat Shameem Khan

She spoke to SciDev.Net about her sheltered childhood, her struggle to get a job despite having a law degree from Cambridge University, her experience with gender and racial bias as an Indo-Fijian woman and harassment and bullying at the workplace.

From Suva Grammar school to Cambridge University and the UN, your achievements have been remarkable. What inspired and motivated you through this journey?

I was one of four daughters and my parents really couldn’t see anything that their daughters couldn’t achieve if they put their minds to it. I think that was a motivating factor in my upbringing. I was fortunate to go to a good school which had children from all over the world, and that made me realise the dangers of becoming insular.

Secondly, reading was a passion in my family. I read fiction, immersed in this world of imagination. While my father read philosophy and history, my mother, who was a school teacher, read self-improvement books for teachers. This constant intellectual stimulation helped me understand that there is a whole world to be explored, that life is an adventure, and that each of us has a role to play in it.

Thirdly, my choice of studying law at the university was very motivating. I discovered very early that law is not just a profession but is also an instrument for social change. If as a lawyer you don’t strengthen society by creating better mechanisms for access to justice then you are not a good lawyer.

Lastly, I accepted the position at the UN because the timing was perfect, and it fitted in with what I liked to do. It gave me the opportunity to translate international human rights, norms and values to the landscape in Fiji.

What obstacles did you face in your legal career, which in the 1980s was a very male-dominated profession? How did you overcome them?

In 1983 when I returned to Fiji, I thought that I would be able to choose a job that I wanted. But I faced gender bias and racial discrimination as a woman and because of my Indo-Fijian background. One time, I was told frankly that there are vacancies but they were being reserved for non-Indian origin. Another, I was subjected to questions about my intentions to get married and have children. At one interview, I was asked if I had a boyfriend.

I chose prosecution because the director of public prosecutions (DPP) office was the only place that offered me a job. It was a wakeup call for me that ultimately no matter how educated or capable you might be, the impact of racism and sexism and the intersectionality of discrimination would be to really exclude you from discovering your own potential.

How did you overcome the cultural, institutional and legal challenges that make women, especially in developing countries, feel disempowered?

I have to say that these barriers are inherent and never disappear. It is a work in progress. As the first woman employee in the DPP’s office I had to constantly prove myself and overcome barriers, including harassment and bullying. So, when I became the Director of Public Prosecutions, I said to myself that this is a chance to remove the inherent biases within the system. On my watch, I didn’t want another woman to go through what I had experienced. By the time I left the directorship in 1999, we had managed to have 50 per cent women staff simply by removing the discriminations in the system such as changing the way we interview people and improving the promotion process to ensure that when someone goes on maternity leave they are not going to be at a disadvantage.

As women leaders, it is our job to look at the system and see how it works in practice for a woman. I think understanding that discrimination translates itself into stereotypical thinking, which then creates the barriers that we have to deal with. This is the conversation that we have to have more of and certainly we are having that more here in the Human Rights Council.

You were the chief negotiator for Fiji's presidency of COP23. Is there a need for more effective representation of women in climate action and climate governance?

One of the most important outcomes of COP23, of which Fiji is really proud, was the Gender Action Plan. It is designed for individual countries to bring more women to climate negotiations and to ensure internally that they train and support the capacity of women to be climate negotiators. For example, the `Solar Mamas’ programme in Fiji, a collaboration with the Barefoot College in India, is a wonderful example of gender empowerment, renewables and climate action.

The other good outcome of the work that climate change transformation has done in the Pacific is that in many patriarchal societies women are now having a say in adaptation programmes. Cultures are being modified because we now need to consult with women and children. This business about substantive equality is an unexpected outcome of how we respond to climate change. I find this to be the silver lining in the cloud of climate change.

What is it like to be a diplomat? How do you balance the demands of work and family?

A diplomat’s work is round-the-clock. It also involves a lot of travelling across continents. It is full on, but I won’t have it any other way. A really important part of a diplomat’s job is personal relationships. I think a diplomat has to be an outgoing person, but I have to say that this did not come naturally to me. I had been a judge for 10 years and as a judge one has to do exactly the opposite. I really had to learn to be an extrovert.

I have been fortunate to have complete support from my husband, who has recently retired as CEO of Vodafone Fiji and joined me in Geneva. I couldn’t have done any of this without his support. He would drop everything and attend to a sick child when I was in court. Now our daughter is a lawyer and our son is an engineer in the UK.

For young girls aspiring high in the Asia Pacific region, what would you say?

I would say that nothing is impossible. If you really believe passionately in something, immediately set down the steps to reach that goal. There will be a million people who will tell you that you can’t do it, you shouldn’t do it, or you should stay at home. If you want to stay at home, be the best homemaker that you can be.

Don’t be discouraged and don’t desist from doing what you think you can do best. If you follow the path of determination, you will get there. When you reach your goal, never forget what it was like when you were a young girl starting off on this journey. You should say to yourself that you are going to make sure to change the system so that every girl and every woman can experience an equality of opportunity which you did not have.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.