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12 June 2018

The draining effect of always having to justify being a Muslim woman in a leadership position

Amel Karboul, CEO of the Education Outcomes Fund, and former Tunisian Cabinet Minister

Always having to defend where you come from requires a great deal of energy and can undermine self-esteem

Tunisian flags
Tunisian flags

Standing with my colleagues during the state visit flag passing ceremony, tears run down my cheeks. Chancellor Angela Merkel and my boss, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, in front of the Tunisian and German flags, the sound of both anthems, a magic place and time bringing together both my country of birth as well as my country of adoption. Germany has been practically my home for most of my adult life until in 2013, when I was called back to Tunisia to become a cabinet minister responsible for tourism.

False assumptions

Soon after, something happened to jerk me out of my emotional state of being. Walking into the chancellery, I, together with the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs, was supposed to take an elevator to join a private lunch with Chancellor Merkel. A woman responsible for protocol suddenly blocked my entrance to the elevator after my two male colleagues entered. There was an awkward moment – until a gentleman from behind informed her that I was a cabinet minister and invited to the lunch. She apologised half-heartedly, mumbling some inaudible explanation. I stood in the lift wondering if it was so hard for her to imagine that a woman could be a minister for an Arab country.

I had experienced this before in my years living and working in Germany. Somehow, at almost every party or business dinner, I would be asked: ‘How is the situation of women in Tunisia?’. I could sense the person had already made an assumption that I was going to say ‘horrible’ and then give thanks for being saved from chauvinism and patriarchies in the modern West. I often had to disappoint them.

Yes, it’s not perfect – like anywhere in the world. But in Tunisia many more women study engineering (41%) than in Germany, where the proportion is currently less than 20% (during my years at the University of Karlsruhe studying mechanical engineering, female students made up less than 1%). And 40% of professors at universities in Tunisia are women, compared to just one in six at German universities.

Despite this, my daughter often experienced prejudiced assumptions, when children in Kindergarten, after hearing that her mother was Muslim, asked her if I was at home and oppressed. I am not sure how she could summon the humour at the age of three to answer: ‘Not exactly!’

A drain on your energy

These types of encounters – always having to explain and defend where you or your parents come from – do require a great deal of energy and create over time a form of defensiveness and, in worst cases, even a lack of self-esteem, especially for the second generation of young women growing up in the West.

One encounter with a young German MP whose parents came from Turkey as guest workers was illuminating. After hearing me speak, she came up to me and said: ‘You don't have an accent, but my guess is that you grew up back in Tunisia, didn't you?’ I answered: ‘Yes, how did you guess?’ ‘Because you are so self-confident!’ she replied. She told me her own story as an example of the many second-generation migrants who have been confronted with prejudices since childhood: a lethal cocktail of sexism and Islamophobia.

And then there were the questions that, during my time as CEO of a consulting firm, I faced at each new client meeting. When did I come to Germany? When do I go back? What do I do with my children when I'm working? How can an Arab woman and engineer move so freely when Oriental women live in domestic prisons? The world in which I moved was (and, unfortunately, is still) largely male, older, German, made up of fathers who see their children on weekends, with mostly stay-at-home wives.

Dealing with these issues can be incredibly draining, and sometimes infuriating – like the time a client told me in confidence that we didn’t win a bid because I was visibly pregnant. I could certainly do a lot with that extra energy, but until then, I am pleased to think I help others who face discrimination, especially young women in business and politics, just by the fact that I do exist, even if I shouldn't.