Exclusive Interview with Ambassador Moushira Khattab | Dina Al Mahdy

November 7, 2020
By: Dina Al Mahdy

Ambassador Moushira Khattab has a successful professional career. She served as Egypt’s Minister of Family and Population (2009-2011); Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for International Cultural Relations; vice chair for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child; and former executive president of Kemet Boutros Ghali Foundation for Peace and Knowledge ‘KBBG’. Moreover, she was also head of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) for 11 years. Her relentless efforts and fights for women and girls’ rights resulted in criminalizing female genital mutilation, child trafficking, and increase of the minimum age for marriage to 18.

A career diplomat, she served as Ambassador of Egypt to South Africa during the Nelson Mandela era and Ambassador to the Czech Republic and Slovakia during their separation. Ms. Khattab is a long-time activist for human rights.

Furthermore, Mrs. Khattab is founder and president of the “Egyptian Women in Foreign Policy Group”. She was was also Egypt’s candidate for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations UNESCO in 2017

WoE: Women of Egypt have faced many challenges in the last few decades, but we are seeing collective efforts from the government and various women organizations to empower women, and achieve gender equality. Do you see any measurable improvements in their status as a result of these efforts? 

MK: We have definitely seen marked improvements in the status of women. These improvements are driven by the diligent efforts exerted by women- led movements, the political will, and the undying support of President Abdel- Fattah Sisi. Women’s rights have been secured constitutionally, with many constitutional terms, translated into legal clauses while others remain in the pipes. There are several measurable examples that echo the ongoing progress of women in Egypt by law: more than 12 years ago Egyptian women already have gained the right to travel without their husband’s prior consent, and the right to pass down their nationality to children born to foreign fathers. 

They have most recently gained the right to get their inheritance unconditionally and impeding that process is now criminalized by law. Some forms of violence against women like female gentile mutilation or child marriage have been criminalized as well since 2008.  Though we still see underground violations of these laws, peoples’ awareness of women’s rights in such cases are on the rise and its social acceptability is dwindling. Today, Egypt has 66 female judges and with the exception of the administrative court, women have excelled in all positions, government, executive, philanthropic, judicial and so much more. The glass ceiling has been raised, but there’s room for more. We still need to change the cultural practices that constitute violence against women and the best way to achieve this is by putting more women on the decision- making level, be it at the governmental or the parliamentary. 

The constitution reserved 25% of the parliament seats for women and the quota system, when fully implemented, especially with the ongoing elections of both the Upper and Lower Houses of the parliament, women will be well represented. The number of female judges is increasing, the cabinet has the highest number of female minsters 25%, and the only way is up. That said, disparities do exist between women at the top and those at the bottom of the social strata. There are still women and girls who are denied their right to education even though the government provides free basic education, but some parents deprive their daughters of that right; a criminal offense. It is the role of NGOs in such cases to raise awareness among poor families and help them secure women rights

WoE: What more in your point of view should be done to empower women and bring gender equality?

MK: We need to encourage some cultural changes to raise awareness and for families to understand the benefits they get from well- educated women. To empower women, we should ensure that all young girls receive their education. The benefits of this education will trickle down not only to their families but nationwide as well. The numbers show an increase in illiteracy, poverty and several other problems. The way to put an end to that is by empowering females into receiving their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Only then, will many problems be solved and a paradigm shift will be created not only on the level of the family and the immediate small community but for the whole nation will be attained. 

Offering females quality education and putting in place techniques for active life-long learning, while giving them the space to express themselves and air their grievances, as well as access to support removing any obstacles in their way for development, are badly needed. I was honored to engineer law no. 126/2008, issued in 2008, which criminalizes any action to deprive young girls of their education. We need to put laws into action and build on women’s full potentials, only then women will be able to protect themselves against deprivation from education, child marriage, violence, bulling or any move that deprives them their rights. 

WoE: Of all the posts you held, which you consider is most rewarding to you, personally and professionally? Why?

MK: It is very difficult to say which position was the most rewarding. My entire career was one long learning experience. It started in New York as a member of Egypt’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. I sat on the third committee dealing with the Social and Humanitarian issues. I did my post graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This has been one of highlights of my formative years. I lived as a student on the Campus of one of the greatest Universities. There, I found out what it means to be a representative of your culture, let alone your country. Down the line, I moved to Vienna as a third secretary at our embassy. I studied the German language and witnessed how the UN functions. 

I represented Egypt at the board of UNIDO which was transformed into a specialized agency. Upon completion of my post in Vienna, I returned to Cairo as a member of the cabinet of the minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the late Mohamed Riad. This was a historical moment as President Mohamed Anwar El Sadat declared his initiative to visit Jerusalem. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ismail Fahmy resigned, and Mohamed Riad followed him. Again, I was fortunate to find my university professor and role model Boutros Boutros Ghali, replace Mohamed Riad as the minister of State of Foreign Affairs. Egypt made the headlines at the time and the ministry of foreign affairs became a beehive. I attended meetings of Minister Ghali. It was an eye opener for me to see the change of approach in presenting Egypt’s foreign policy from a career diplomat to a university professor. 

My next assignment was in Hungary where I had the chance to exercise my German language, observing Hungary’s moving towards market economy. My next move was to Australia which is a magnificent melting- pot of migrants from different origins. What seemed to be a major challenge for the stability of my family, turned out to be a great learning experience for my two children. Both received their formative education in Melbourne Australia. The cultural diversity enabled them to see themselves not only as Egyptian, Arab, and African but also to embrace their status as ‘third culture kids’ who grew up travelling with their mum from one country to the next. I came across many members of the Jewish community there who used to live in Cairo and still cherish the time they spent in Egypt. 

The most rewarding was my position in the Czech and Slovak republics, immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall. I had the chance to witness firsthand the vision and the diligence of the Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who moved fast with the economic transformation. The highly educated population facilitated the smooth and velvet separation between the Czechs and the Slovaks. It was a masterclass in amicability. In addition to being fortunate to have lived through this decisive period in Czechoslovakia’s history. I’m lucky to have had the chance to work closely with Vaclav Havel; the playwright, and the philosopher. 

After the Czech & Slovak republics, I was moved to be Egypt’s first Ambassador to post- apartheid South Africa- a period which for me was the crowning achievement of my career.  Mandela had just been released from jail and became the first President of the new South Africa. I watched the move to democracy for everyone despite the color of their skin. I learned the true meaning of human rights at the hands of Nelson Mandela, who said “we forgive but not forget”. I saw, how he could use something as simple as sports to turn a divided society into a cohesive one. Mandela was an icon and a legend, yet he was down to earth, very proud of his origin and identity. He is certainly someone you rarely meet twice in your life. Upon my return, I was briefly appointed assistant minister of Foreign Affairs for cultural relations. The highlight of my mandate was the dialogue between cultures.

In less than a month I was later appointed as the Secretary- General of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood in Egypt and then the Minister of Family and Population. This was the biggest career diversion. Moving from rubbing shoulders with heads of states and diplomates, to working in the field with the most marginalized and deprived segments of the society.  It was very heartening and rewarding. I was well- equipped by virtue of my education and experience that I got throughout my career as a diplomat. 

WoE: Looking into your future, which are the top opportunities and challenges that women empowerment and gender equality face?

MK: Women will be fully empowered and gender equality will prevail when we explain to everyone in the society that they stand to benefit. If we talk economics, the World Bank issued a study that showed that if you employ an equal number of men and women in the labor market, the GDP will increase in the US by 5%, Japan 9% and in Egypt 35%. It is good economics. However, the main challenge is cultural. For many, it is a zero- sum game as men believe that women employment means a loss of their jobs. But, they should know that there are enough jobs for both of them & even if there aren’t, that’s competition and may the best (Wo)man win. They should also know that families of well- educated women who have good income are better off and their children are better educated and the standard of living is also better because women tend to spend most of their revenues at home.

WoE: When do you think Egypt would be ready for a female Prime Minister? 

MK: Honestly, I think appointing a Prime Minister should be based on merit, not gender. You know we have gender equality when this is no longer a question. But I’ll answer it anyway.  

Egypt is ready for a female prime minister. We have the constitution that consolidate the equal rights for all citizens and criminalizes discrimination against women, and calls for the establishment of an independent body to fight discrimination. We have female ministers who are doing an excellent job, and thus I believe that the country is ready to have a female prime minister right now, taking into consideration that President Sisi is a staunch supporter of women’s right which is a very good opportunity.  

WoE: Despite its illegality and the government’s efforts to combat it, the horrendous crime of child marriage is still committed to date in Egypt. As a lifelong advocate for child rights, do you think we will ever witness the day when this crime ends? What can be done to stop and eliminate this crime? 

MK: Child marriage is the result of depriving girls of their right to education and the dismal status of girls’ right among certain local communities. The solution to this problem lies in our insistence on educating the society on the value of girls’ education as an added value to the society, insist on applying the law and respect the constitution and implement legal rules on criminalizing child marriage which is a serious crime by all measures…it is a health, social, economic and cultural crime. The ratio of infant and child mortality as well as maternal mortality should be much lower because the health services are adequate, but child marriage make the ratio higher than it should be. Therefore, we must apply the law to prevent such a shameful crime. 

WoE: During your career as a diplomat, you have witnessed two major global events firsthand; the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the transition of South Africa under Nelson Mandela. What were your contributions and lesson learned, especially in SA where you were awarded The Order of Good Hope by President Mandela?

MK: I witnessed two historic very different experiences of fundamental transformation in Czech & Slovak republics and South Africa. The first was very smooth and civilized while the second was colored with blood because the black South Africans went through the terrible impact of the apartheid rule. The work I did in the Czech & Slovak republics was rewarded with an appointment to South Africa at a time when everyone was talking about it.  I worked very hard because it is a huge country, with rich heritage and diversified culture. There were many world leaders visiting this country, and ambassadors accredited to South Africa were invited to attend dinners in honor of visiting heads of states. I was so impressed by the development in south Africa.  

Relations between Egypt and South Africa witnessed unprecedented levels of development. My diligent efforts were rewarded when I was decorated with the ‘Order of Good Hope’. Moreover, I was personally awarded by being close to Mandela who told me ‘we know how hard you worked’. When he visited Egypt in 1996, he said in public that ‘If it would not for ambassador Moushira Khattab’s efforts, ties between the two countries would not have reached that level of progress.’  For me, I did my duty out of love and respect for the two countries, putting my country in the picture of each and every success story that we can learn and benefit from, thus excelling in representing Egypt both in the Czech & Slovak republics and South Africa during pivotal times in their development.

WoE: President Mandela is a legend. How would you describe him? What impacted you the most about him? 

MK: President Mandela is a unique character and a true legend. No words can do him justice. We both share the same zodiac Cancer sign. He was born on the 16th of July and I’m on the 13th. I used to tell him that I am older than you are, though I was thirty years younger. Mandela is great because of his knowledge. As a lawyer, he also has the means to articulate and express his ideas in a very down to earth, simple manner which brought him closer to the people. He was very humanistic communicator. 

Though he had the posture of a great leader, but deep inside, he was a simple, modest, very tender and gentle person. What really struck me about President Mandela was his ability to find simple solutions for very complex problems. It is a talent and the real meaning of geniuses, because when we face big problems our minds are challenged to the extent that we are hardly able to look at simple solutions in front of us. But, Mandela was able to come up with the simplest solution. He once told me that when he was invited to pay an official visit to Indonesia, he insisted on visiting the Timorese opposition leader who was in jail at the time. Thanks to Mandela’s mediation, he later became the president of Timor l’est. Furthermore, when the Libyans asked him to help settle the Lockerbie crisis, he asked me about Egypt’s efforts in that regard to build upon that… if it was not for anyone but Mandela he would have gone his own way to get all the credit for himself.

WoE: You were elected executive president of KBBG where you had served briefly, to carry Dr. Boutros Ghali’s mission in achieving international peace, by reinforcing development and providing stability and safety, and fighting extremism. What’s your vision for the foundation? What are the steps taken to accomplish your vision? 

MK: I’m really honored and proud to have been elected as the Executive President of ‘KBBG’, where I have severed briefly, to carry out on the legend and mission of my role model Boutros Ghali.  His mission to promote knowledge with a view to achieving international peace. Ghali was my university professor and my role model, and I was lucky to come closer to his wife Lea Boutros Ghali who is his life companion and a beacon of light and inspiration in this foundation that was established by a group of his students. They are the “crème de la crème “of the Egyptian society. 

The board of Trustees and the advisory boards, include the top Egyptian intellectuals and entrepreneurs, trying to further Ghali’s mission who was an Egyptian to the core, loved this country and believed that Egypt is at the heart of the world and should have its impact and being impacted by the world. During my time there, we worked on building peace by disseminating knowledge. People are afraid of the unknown but when they come to know the ‘other’ they will reach out for him as diversity is seen, in such a case, as richness. So we worked on holding round- table discussions on issues of concern, reached out to the grass roots, the vulnerable and marginalized, and prepared to go down and help girls get their quality education and protect them from any form of discrimination or violence.

WoE: What advice you give girls and women of Egypt? 

MK: For Egyptian girls and women, I would say that they are strong because they are the grand daughters of Nefertiti and Cleopatra … You can do it just have self- confidence and work hard. Women are multitaskers. They are soldiers and if they believe in what they are doing they will succeed…so believe in God, build friends and alliances, do not make enemies… some people doubt women’s capabilities simply because they are women, so you have to double your efforts to get what you are entitled for.

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