Changing the Face of Politics Podcast
Episode 4: Nighat Dad interviews Mimoza Kusari-Lila
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute's Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this fourth episode, Pakistani digital rights activist, Nighat Dad, interviews Mimoza Kusari-Lila, a member of the Kosovo Parliament and the former deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo about her journey to political leadership and the obstacles she faced and overcame along the way.
Nighat Dad: Hello, Welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. My name is Nighat Dad and I'm the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. My guest is Mimoza Kusari-Lila. Ms. Kusari-Lila is a minister in the Kosovo Parliament and the former deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo. She was also the first ever woman mayor in the history of Kosovo. I'm looking forward to this conversation because as a woman activist from Pakistan, I'm interested to know how this journey of working as a young woman, politician in Kosovo has been for you so far Ms. Kusari-Lila.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Thank you for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here today with you.
Nighat Dad: And Ms. Kusari, I have been reading a lot about you and I'm very interested to know what motivated you to get politically involved. Was there a personal connection to an issue, a political party, your family, any context?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yes, I got politically involved in 2009. It was very personal involvement. Even though I had a previous experience with institutional life, I'd never been a member of a political party. In 2009, I was offered a candidacy for a mayor of my hometown, Gjakova. And Gjakova, for those who don't know the history of Kosovo, is actually a town in southwest of Kosovo, about 100,000 inhabitants, but a town that was mostly destroyed during the last war in Kosovo. So we had the highest number of people killed, the economy destroyed. And in 2009, even 10 years after the liberation, the situation was not good. So I felt that despite my life going on in Pristina, in capital of Kosovo, my position at that time was as a head of American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo, I thought that getting engaged in political life and in particular in local governance was the best mix between my business experience as an MBA graduate and executive director, and also politics, because I was, I would be able to deal directly with people's needs and try to find a solution. But then also feel in my heart the empathy for the loss and the grievance that was still going on in my hometown. Was I successful in my first endeavor? No, I was not. It was highly contested election, local election. I was subject of a process that was associated with fraud and voters manipulation as well. And it was very narrow results, but the other party was able to win. And that was my first harsh entrance in reality with politics in my country.
Nighat Dad: Wow. That's actually I mean...I was just like, wow. I was also reading that you were the first ever woman mayor in the history of Kosovo. What it was like for you being the first woman mayor - was it being welcomed in your society, or was there anything positive, like how was your experience?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: To connect the two questions, my reason entering politics was mayorship. And when I was not successful the first time I still continued to be in politics. So I had built up my career in politics, then participated in general election and was elected an MP and had a position in the government that I held for three years and then went back again in 2013. And this time for the second time I won and I became in 2013, Kosovo had the first and only woman mayor up to this date. Unfortunately, I'm still the only one that can be remembered that won. It was for me because I run two times in 2009 and in 2013, people welcomed, and then I even felt that victory was mine the first time. So in a sense, it came natural with the position, but then when it came to dealing with issues I realized why there are not more women in politics because men used to do things different way because I realized that a lot of issues that need substantial change in handling were done superficially. So my predecessor did not go into the depth of checking on problems, rather they were focusing on problem pleasing members of their political party or trying to push on their own agenda, but not the agenda that is politically blind. I on the contrary was trying to treat, actually was treating everyone equally, did not discriminate people based on their political affiliation, of course not at all on gender or faith or any other differences that humankind presents. But on the contrary was trying to be in services of all.
However, was facing a lot of propaganda from my political opponents. One of the things that sort of hurt me the most was the fact that they were trying to perceive me as the urban lady who does not like, or do not get involved with the rural areas, which was on the contrary, the budget and the project was saying the opposite. We had more than 60% of the budget assigned for the rural areas. But it's unfortunate housing in countries like ours that are not developed, people more tend to believe the propaganda rather than the facts and figures. We've opened up the municipality on very transparent processes. We went and put a portal online for the Gjakova municipality, so everyone could see the contract, the tender, the expenditures. We had a series of public debates, so for any other big project, we would organize a public debate because I wanted to hear what people think and believe that what's the path we should go together. So there's probably more of the energy that goes in this is for someone who has a concrete and sincere agenda is facing these, the propaganda and political battles. And this is when I realized that definitely you have to stay in politics, not just to change the face of politics, but to change how politics is done. Politics should be at the service of the people, not the service of political parties and their very personal agendas.
Nighat Dad: This sort of brings me to another question where it's also sort of interconnected that this year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. What do you think has changed for women in political leadership and decision-making in the last 25 years? What has stubbornly stayed the same?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Well, unfortunately in political processes, we still have a quite wide gender gap. I was looking at - the World Economic Forum has a very important for last 15 years, they're doing a report on gender gap. And there are two main areas that I also have a great passion and energy put in, is political empowerment. And that it’s believed that actually, it's going to take about more than 90 years to get into the, to close this gap. And then also economic empowerment. These two areas are those that are lacking quite a lot of attention. Worldwide, if you look at the presence of the women, it has increased in last 20 years, like now it's better than ever before. So women parliamentarians are about 25% and women in ministerial position are 21%, but yet, we have to keep in mind that women are 50% of the world population - they are not 21% nor 25%. So the representation of women and this gap needs to be closed. And I think there is a lot of effort that needs to be put in, a lot of encouragement for girls and women, and again, a lot of alliances that need to be built with men who are open into accepting and also working together with women and actually not discriminate because of gender or not put prejudice for women in politics. And my belief was always that we need to be active in politics, not to act like men or the replacement, but to present a new way and methods of doing politics, of being involved in politics, and that is women in politics bring new perspective. And this is my goal. And I think even twenty-five years after Beijing Declaration there's a long way to go. And as the statistics are showing in our lifetime, we will not be seeing the diminishing or closing the gender gap, but still we can all contribute to narrow it down as much as possible.
Nighat Dad: Yeah, I think Mimoza you had just mentioned why we need more women and girls who should be engaged in political movements and in politics of the country and also what kind of impact we can see through their engagement. Do you, you have already talked about this, but I would like to specifically ask you this question, and if you have an example that, do you think that there is a difference in the way women and men lead and engage with others? And if you have any example around this.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yes. I truly believe that there is a difference, at least in the societies where you have a more patriarchal culture, or when you have women in very traditional - perceived in very traditional roles. I will give you a personal example. I found out that it was so much more needed to have a woman in particular, in my role as a mayor in the areas where you had crisis happened before, like in my hometown that faced severe war and severe consequences. Women have a higher tendency of, tendency of empathy. They empathize more with other women who have lost their children, with men who have lost their family members. They tend to consider the situation and based on very personal experiences, and also act upon that in an emotional and more sensitive way. And I found that my communication with a lot of categories from they've been touched, or they've been, actually gone through a horrendous experience of the word.For me, it was more natural and at least I had much more sort of communication and engagement on their situation. But then not leaving alone or not leaving aside other engagement in politics. Other element of our societies is that as girls, we tend to be educated to multitask. So we don't only been told to learn because we need to excel at school, we've been told to, you have to keep the house clean, you have to take care of your brother, you have to actually do groceries and you have to and, and also excel in school.. These things, actually, I only understood, but I enter politics on multitasking, how much it has benefit me and how the advantage that it gives you as a woman, as opposed to a man who has one objective follows that objective and leaves everything else aside. So that empathy, soft-skills elements of being aware of every other circumstance around you is very important. And women bring that in politics.
Nighat Dad: Yeah it reminds me of how you know, expectation from women in our society, which is deeply patriarchal male dominant society in Pakistan. We have a very few percentage of workforce of women in the country. And since I also come from a very humble, low middle-class background, I remember that when you ask your male elders to join any workforce, you know, you actually need their permission. And if they give you permission, they think that it's basically, they're giving you a benefit or a privilege that you basically don't deserve. And you can do the work outside home, but the rest of the home shouldn't be disturbed. You know, the business of caring the entire day to take care of entire family, your parents, your siblings, your husband, and the family of the husband. It's the main chore or the main duty that people think that the woman has to do. But this also sort of brings me to another question, how do gender equality and democracy work together in your mind?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: I think there are inseparable, not just gender equality and other equalities as well. I see that we cannot have a functioning democracy if we don't have women involved, because then we basically don't have a proper representation. And if democracy is the essence of having people represented and having people have the representative with the interest and with the issues that they face, then without women, we don't have a proper functioning democracy. So if you look at the - again, going back to the numbers, countries that have been able to either close the gender gap or increase women's participation in politics, are known as countries that score better with the index on democracy, the freedom of speech, the equal rights. And I think that the two have to be the essence and the core of anything that we speak about democracy and state building. One of the important things is that anytime that the democracy is in danger, you have women marginalized. So in old processes or in countries that have been democratic or have prices, and then something happens, you would see that the first marginalized group would be either women in politics, how women are perceived or neglected or left on the side. So the two are definitely interrelated and one is the core of the other.
Nighat Dad: Such a wonderful response. Although you have mentioned about your personal struggle and the propaganda that you faced by the opposition parties and all. But I'm also interested if you, if you're comfortable sharing any challenges that you face at your personal lens, because I, and I'm interested to know, because I want to understand the different contexts of different societies. We have a very patriarchal society, and before you step out of home, you have to fight another battle in between the home for us to get several, several freedoms and liberties. And I'm just wondering if you had that kind of struggle as well.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Oh, yes. We all struggle and it's the struggle that it's ongoing. Initially that I did not have the support of my parents - even though I was mature, independent, married, had a son - my both parents reacted negatively to my initiative to join a political party and run for mayor. And it's not because they didn't trust me or because they thought that I can't do i, it was more because they felt pity for me in a sense that you're going to enter into politics and gonna to face a lot of difficulties. So it came more of from the love and caring for their daughter, rather than from the disbelief. On the contrary my husband was supportive. He believed, and he also understood, that you cannot change the society, or you cannot change how the processes are done at the management level, local or national one, if you are not involved. But then after that, there's a lot of - it was a lot of sacrifices and a lot of how to say, emotional burden for myself as well. Considering the fact that after a year and a half that I joined politics, I was pregnant with my second son. I delivered here while I was a Minister of Trade and Industry. And also immediately after I delivered him and recover like a week or less than a week, I went back to the office because we were in the middle of the crisis situation on a reciprocal trade related issue with Serbia, with whom we fought. So a lot of dynamic events were happening, however, a lot of judgements as well. And one at one time, one discussion, my little baby boy has become a topic of discussion in the parliament. I was very much touched, and felt that this is completely unnecessary, but just because the fact that I decided that I didn't want to take away a mother from a baby, but that also, I didn't want to take a woman from politics, I decided to keep breastfeeding my son and then also do my job. So I would take him with me and if I would travel abroad and had this series of promotional events, and then because I didn't want him to be a burden to cost of a budget, I was actually engaging different people on hourly basis, wherever I would travel, I would arrange it with hotel or with our embassies, and trying to find someone that I would pay for a few hours that would take care of my baby boy while I would be presenting or being in the meeting. And even that was being looked into with high criticism, and how can she do this? And despite the fact that it was only burdened to me and to no one else, still people found ways how to judge me or fight a political battle on it. And I was thinking it would never have happened to a man. I mean, a father would have a baby boy at home and he would leave it with his wife and then continue his career and be looked at as oh, a wonderful minister, even though the successes were not missing - I was a very successful Minister of Trade and Industry - but the judgment and a lot of, a lot of bad mouthing. And I say, well, it's such a hypocrite society. But still it's one of the, it's one of the realities that we live in. Up to this day, I'm happy that I've done it. I probably would have done it again. I mean, now I'm a little bit terrified of the, of the experience itself when I go back and think of, you know, waking up like early 5:00 AM taking him as a baby boy while he's sleeping, taking a stroller and his luggage and my luggage, and, you know, getting on the plane. He was a quiet baby, so he was working with me, like he felt the energy, he was not crying on plane. But when I was having to connection flights when we would get off on after the second one, I remember him when we arrived in Paris, we had a meeting there, and we got in the car to go from the airport to the hotel. At the embassy, their representative of our embassy were waiting. And then he started crying so loud that no one could ever say a word until we got to the hotel. And I think he, this was his, like I had enough with you.
Nighat Dad: I'm so proud of you. And when you said that you might think to do it again, I mean, you should know that you have, you know, like all force of nature and all these women who are with you and who are so proud of you, what you have done. And thank you so much for sharing these very personal stories, but these are, these are very important and I think these stories need to be told. And coming to this very, these uncertain times that we are living through, this global health emergency pandemic. So my question is, has the COVID-19 crisis influenced or changed your political point of view? If so, can you give us an example, have you changed the way you interact with other politically, like politically engagement because of the social distances caused by the COVID virus? Like how it has changed your life as a political person?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Yes, COVID affected a lot of the ways how we do business. I mean, how we engage with other people. Unfortunately it, for our us politicians or for the people in the office has cut off the, sort of the main artery of our work. And that is communication with others and, you know, listening and being in gatherings or organizing public debates. This is the hardest part. Even though our parliament was holding sessions and we were going through quite a heavy political crisis in Kosovo during this period of time, I think that still I realized one thing that despite of the crisis, it is how, it is going to matter how we respond to this crisis, what are our stands, and in politics, as in any other profession, you need to adopt. One element that a crisis had affected me directly it had made me more certain on the goals. I never believed that something like this would happen, and you would be much more assertive and much more firm on what you believe is right, because we have seen that can slip so easy. Like with health crisis, we've seen that, you know, situation can go really at the wrong direction, really fast. So my energy went at the higher intensity into trying to defend rights of women in business, as a member of parliament, and as a member of budget committee, and a member of another economic development committee, I actually proposed the code for women in business, budget code that would help assist women in business who have been affected by the crisis situation. Then also have been much more vocal on the quota, gender quota, that I proposed in previous legislation for women on boards of the corporation, and also share holding companies. And when this legislation we started voting, there was a tendency to actually look over it and probably, oh, they're not, they're not many women who have applied. I was much more firm. And in two cases we actually sent it back list or put it in re-voting just to have women represented. And realizing that, you know, if you don't take this opportunity to make the change, the change is never going to happen. I mean, one thing that I realized in politics - change hurts, even if it's for better, because people like status quo and they don't want to engage in change because change means that you don't know what's coming and it's fearful. And as we've seen with crisis, there's a lot of uncertainties, but then there was a tendency on, well, we have this higher crisis, that's not the gender issue. I'm like, no, no, this is a part of it. Because if we had all crisis, women have been double affected more than men because they were at home, they were facing a lot of difficulties, so let's try to help. So in my personal case, this crisis made me more assertive, more firm. And then also realizing that you don't have to wait for right moment. The moment is now. It's like, you know, if we wait and wait until political crisis is settled till health crisis settles, but, Oh, we don't talk about this. No, we have to talk constantly. This is our prime agenda.
Nighat Dad: You know, that's why we need more women in the politics. You know, it's not just, it's not just the empathy that they bring into their work, it's also gender sensitive budgets, gender sensitive quotas. And especially looking into this public health emergency, I mean, not, especially when it comes to male politicians, I mean, the, usually the budgets or the initiatives that they take, it's usually gender blind. And I'm so glad that you did, by seeing COVID as an opportunity, especially for women in the business and in other fields. And Ms. Mimoza, what will you do to accelerate the pace of change on women's political empowerment in the next 10 years?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Well, I started with my own party. We have all 50/50, we actually, in our last local elections in my municipality, we had the list of, because we have, based on the size of municipality, there is a number of local assembly members that you have to propose in a list. So in my municipality, there was 38 that you have to propose and then it depends on how many get elected. So out of 38 we propose 20 women and 18 men. And out of that number, we got four women and two men elected, which is the first and only case in Kosovo that you have a political party group that has the majority double more than men, women represented to the local assembly. And this is going to be my approach and attitude throughout. And this is again today, one thing that I've realized, and this is a criticism to women as well, women tend to criticize or look a sort of a more closely other women in politics and men as well. So if we have a quota, for example, like we have it in our parliament of 30%, if we talk about women's rights, and if I try to promote more participation of women, they say, but look, you have 30% and out of 30%, probably 15%, we never heard their voice. And my take on this or my answer on this is like, okay, look at the 70% and how many out of 70% of men, you never heard their voice, or you didn't see them being active, why you were being so harsh on women. Like we barely could have a quota to have the representation properly, why you have to criticize and look them so closely. It's the same with women in politics. They look, what's the color of their hair? What are the dressing? What's the makeup? And other things. And then the men, no one judges. And it's like, this is the problem with us as well. You have to stop judging and open our minds and believe that until the moment that we are totally equal we cannot be judging one side, much harsher than the other. We have to look at their policies. We have to look at their actions, when given equal opportunities, not when you have still men dominating and then try to even discourage women, even though in a much lower percentage to be present in politics.
Nighat Dad: You know like listening to this I, this reminds me that when we talk about patriarchy, it's not all, it's not all about men, you know, and patriarchy and misogyny and sexism that they show. It's also about the internalized patriarchy that women sort of tend to internalize while living, you know, like for so long in patriarchal societies that they don't even realize that they are reacting the same way, that we the you know half population tend to like behave towards women. And yeah, I mean I think you actually said it very correctly that we have to stop judging people and, you know, like, look everyone with an equality angle. And coming to the last question for me, it has been really, really inspiring talking to you. And I'm sure that the listeners, especially our young woman who are listening to this, it'll inspire them to join politics in their own context and jurisdictions. But the last question is what are you most optimistic about?
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: I'm most optimistic about women performing the best when they're given the opportunity, chances. Or the examples like Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, Chancellor Merkel, and other strong women around the world who, when given the opportunity have shown that they can really act and manage a crisis far way better than men, is what gives me a sense of hope and optimism that, yes, if we manage to have more women at these position, and if we encourage more girls and women to join politics, we will all benefit from it. It's just not, it's not just, you know, women, half of our population is everyone, every single person, every single category. Because women just are much more natural in politics, even though it's been perceived as men are mainly dominated. I think when women come in number and when the difference will be so visible, that it will be seen that if politics is about daily life, then women would be way more in charge and professional that men have ever shown or have the capacity.
Nighat Dad: I think you said it very right, that more women in politics will benefit everyone. Thank you, Ms. Kusari-Lila. It has been a pleasure talking to you and good luck with your future endeavors.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure talking to you too. And I hope sincerely that we were able together, me and you, to send on a strong message to girls and women listening out there that they need to think about getting into politics, not being afraid. But even more important, those who are facing difficulties do not give up. Nothing comes easy, but the better days are ahead of us.
Nighat Dad: Yes, absolutely. We are not giving up. Thank you so much.
Mimoza Kusari-Lila: Thank you.
Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.