Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast

Episode 9: Vera Jourová interviews Roya Rahmani

In this episode, Vera Jourová, the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, interviews Ambassador Roya Rahmani, Afghan Ambassador to the United States, about the successes and challenges of women’s leadership in politics, peace, and security






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 episode, Vera Jourová, the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, interviews Ambassador Roya Rahmani, Afghan Ambassador to the United States, about the successes and challenges of women’s leadership in politics, peace, and security.

Vera Jourová: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Vera Jourová and I am the Vice President of the European Union for Values and Transparency. My guest is Ambassador Roya Rahmani, who is the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States. I am very much looking forward to this conversation.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Thank you, Vice President. I am pleased to be here for the conversation. Thank you for having me here.

Vera Jourová: So I will start questioning, which is a great opportunity for me to, to know more from what you think about the progress in gender equality worldwide, and also your personal experience, which is definitely very valuable for all of us. So I will start by maybe a little bit personal question. What motivated you to get politically involved? What, was there any personal connection to an issue and a political party? What about your family? What, how did they see you engaging in politics?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Thank you, Vice President. I started my career working with NGOs and the government was always heavily critiqued by these institutions. I found that there were lots of issues and practices that I disagreed with the government about, but I wasn't content to just complain. I wanted to manifest change in the system and transform it from the inside out. So that was the motivation for me, how I started to get politically involved. My family has been always apolitical, but a personal connection that I had in the realm of politics has been also the issue of women's rights or just simply being a woman in politics. Working in politics is so much more difficult in my experience in so many ways when you are a woman, especially when you are not aligning what the, some of the practices and certain traditions in the society that you are living in. The whole system is very masculine. It's very difficult to even become a placeholder. To make changes, to assert new ways, it takes a lot more effort when you are a woman. So, but I have to say that my ultimate goal has always been to change policies, systems, and structures that if a woman does not want to abide by the binary, traditional gender roles, they still find themselves an active member of society.

Vera Jourová: Yes, very interesting. Thank you very much. Well I think that we all have the driver that we engage in politics to change things for the better. And I think it's the motivation of many women entering politics. Do you think things have changed for women in political leadership and decision-making in the last 25 years and what impact of that engagement have you seen? Do you have any example?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: I have noticed that globally there has been a good number of positive changes. There has been changes in cultural norms and perception of women in power in the past twenty-five years. It has becoming more increasingly acceptable, or even encouraged, for women to enter politics and positions of power across the board. In Afghanistan, for example, our parliament is now made up of 28% of women, which is higher than the global average. We have women in the high level decision-making position more than ever before. And worldwide, the gap between men and women in management position has narrowed, 38% over the past 20 years. And women's representation in legislatures, legislative bodies has doubled since 1995. But, but the circumstances that allow women to access power or, while it is improving, there are still some very stubborn things that are staying the same. Despite all the progress that we see, especially in the realm of literacy, which has tremendously changed in the past 25 years, women are still the first and the hardest hit during crisis. Whatever this crisis may be man made, natural, whatever. I mean, now that we are experiencing a pandemic, I have heard the financial, emotional, and physical effects impacting women in particular referred to as a shadow pandemic. Women are suffering under increased levels of domestic violence and are losing their positions more than men do. This is all happening while they're also carrying a very heavy burden of caregiving and domestic work. Prior to the pandemic women, on average, spent one to five hours a day [more] than men in unpaid domestic work and childcare. And that also translated to working one to six hours less a day than men in market activities. But the biggest gap that I see that it still remains or, in the areas that are preventing women from being able to access the positions of powers, is access to political equity. Women cannot open bank accounts in 72 countries still around the world. Women are only owning 28% of the businesses worldwide, and they receive 1.7 trillion less when applying for finance or micro or small and medium enterprises. This is huge. This isn't just a question about what happened in the last 25 years and what is going to happen in the next 25 years. The World Economic Forum has estimated that it will take 257 years for women to reach economic parity with men, at the pace that we are moving right now. And without being economically empowered, women will not be fully empowered to engage as equal members of the society.

Vera Jourová: Well, yes, COVID-19 crisis shows to us that the negative trends and things, which we saw before the crisis are now amplified and that they require maybe stronger action. So when I ask you what will you, personally, do to accelerate some of the policies or steps to empower the women and through empowerment of women also to help the women who appear in troublesome situation to get out of the problems and to have better position?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Well, three things, if I could list. First, I would like to continue not to give up because there is sufficient forces to - that is trying to steer you to that direction. But we do not - we have to make sure that we are not going to give up what we are doing. Secondly, of course, I want to continue to support women around me and wherever they are. This is extremely important factor and I see this as also as one of the differences in the way that the men and women lead. Unfortunately, women do not tend to support each other as they should. And finally, I would like to continue to use every opportunity to assert myself and call the young ones along. We have to recognize that we have to empower them and keep and try to pass on the torch. As a woman, we understand the difficulties that other women experience. So we need to go, we need to start our day every day with that empathy for everybody that's around us.

Vera Jourová: Do I understand as well that you are the most optimistic about the young generation? Where we should invest and try to address them and encourage them to create better world for themselves as well?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: I am optimistic about the younger generation. I see that as they grow, the internalization of the gender role is becoming less common, at least in many places in the world. I think that this has to do with increased exposure to global culture due to the dramatically increased connectivity. And connectivity has increased massively in recent years. We have noticed firsthand how significant its impact has been. I am also very hopeful about all the successful leadership we are seeing in women that they demonstrate all over the world. And finally, what makes me hopeful is when I see men who recognize and understand this importance, the importance of diversity and change. In my country, for example, in the past five years, women have reached the levels that they have never reached in the history of our country, and we are not a new country. So the top-down leadership promoting women and giving them an opportunity has been massive in my personal experience, as well as what women experienced in my country.

Vera Jourová: I think that, and for me, but it's very interesting to listen to you and your experience from your country, because you know, I come from Central Europe, and it is always interesting to hear how we try to solve the problems, the same problems, on different places on the globe. So very interesting, also speaking about the young generation and the empowerment, I always say that the world will be better place when we will have more women in decision-making power. So my question to you is, do you think there is a difference in the way women and men lead and engage with others? Do you have any example either way, differences or the same, from your experience?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Sure. Yes, I think there are some differences in the ways that men and women lead. I wouldn't say that they are completely different, but there are some distinctive features based on the experiences I have had. May not, of course, there is empirical evidence that in the leadership role, men are more assertive and overconfident sometimes, whereas women usually downplay their skills and abilities, and also women tend to be more empathetic and agreeable, detail-oriented, less assertive, and some, a lot of these traits are often portrayed as negative ones. And also as a way to basically tell women that they are not qualified for certain positions. I want to give an example of how women lead and stir things about women in Afghanistan and particularly their engagement in peacebuilding. Something that we have been yearning for for now 40 years: peace. Women are not usually the perpetrators of violence, and in the case of Afghanistan they have not been engaged directly leading parties into war. And also unfortunately, they have been always underrepresented in the negotiations and peace talks and solving the conflict. However, Afghan women are very highly skilled in consensus building. This takes usually more time and effort, but it leads to broader inclusivity and the durability of the outcome. Afghan women have successfully encouraged local insurgents to participate in peace talks and coordinated with the wives of the insurgents to facilitate several hostage releases. Women also build bridges, and they can do so decisively. Assertiveness should not be confused with decisiveness, which is usually unfortunately the case when it comes to women leadership. Another difference that I have noticed between the male and female leadership seems to be that women are content to do a lot of work behind the scene, and they are more focused on getting the desire out and care less about the pomp or the privileges or the show of their positions. And of course men tend to support each other in the leadership positions, a point that I mentioned before. But unfortunately women are widely, very critical of themselves and the other women in the position of power, something that we, I believe we all need to work on. So I would say that even sometimes women are more critical of other women than men are. So it, this shrinking audience for themselves or the position for themselves even more and putting additional restriction. So these are a few of the traits that I have noticed.

Vera Jourová: Yes. It's very interesting. I mentioned yesterday, very similar things. So I think that there are many commonalities. And the women not supporting women, I think that that is a big space to work on it. If I may come back to a little bit of a personal tone, can I ask you what surprises you about being in public life?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: That's an interesting, and also a hard question, but of course I will start by saying that what actually most surprised me is how little the public understands how political life works and about the role that media plays in that. I feel like people often don't know for example about my job, what I am expected to do as an ambassador. And I'm of course again, as I mentioned, that the role of the media, now there is a social media, which is an added layer, without any accountability, people usually, get, what surprised me in the public offices that the office holders get criticized for things that they are not responsible, and also celebrated for things that they didn't do. So I think that there is a lot of false imaging being crafted when people are in public office. And this was one of the areas that has surprised me in the public office. But some major pluses are of course that while in public office, I personally have been able to meet wonderful people like yourself,

Vera Jourová: Thank you.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: And many more. And my biggest encouragement is the youth who say they are encouraged by me. The biggest compliment I have ever received is when a young high school girl tells me that they look at what I do and it's encouraging for them. And they are aspiring for holding political office because they see women like myself holding them. So I would stop at that.

Vera Jourová: Okay. Thank you. Well of course, pluses and minuses interesting to hear from you, but what did you,

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Let me, sorry, let me add one other thing. It's important, especially that we have this, this opportunity to speak what we do. I think one of the minuses, and we need to recognize is that the toll that it does take on our personal lives and family lives, because in my experience for being in politics, but especially women in politics, the situation is always of sink and swim, sink or swim. You are, you have to continuously work very hard, multiple fold harder, both because you need to certify yourself, and this is our part of our nature being a little too hard on ourselves, and also to continue to keep up because we are a lot more under scrutiny than any male counterpart would be.

Vera Jourová: Yes. Well we see that one of the problems we face are the internal enemies, the low self-confidence, and also our habits to focus on the substance, on the subject, on the problem, rather than on our fame. We have a proverb in my language that the success has many fathers. I have never heard that the success has many mothers. I think that we should also change that. Next to those our own internal enemies and barriers, what about the acceptance by the society? Because I think in no culture, it is so, so obvious that the women go to politics and take important decision-making positions. How about the society? What were the challenges you had to face from this side?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Well, a lot of course as you said, there is the proverb you share from your culture, but then there is a world known expression that, you know, like behind every successful man, there is a woman. And the key word in that is “behind.” The role of women or the place of women in minds of many being internalized is behind. And so when you are at the forefront, you are misplaced in minds of many people. So the challenges in the society is huge. This is why it is, I think there is a direct correlation between the lack of confidence that you were referring to, the internal enemy, and the society, because they are reinforcing one another. Young girls from very young age are not prepared to take on public life and public office and leadership positions. Just a very basic example of that, like in my country, as the young little girls, like children, when they grow usually you will just notice that at the very early ages the little boys are playing outside on their lane and they are engaging with the neighbors and being out and about in the public space, but the girls are helping their mothers, they are giving the bottle for thee baby sibling, or expected to learn how to do the work around the house. There is no surprise that a lot of men after even being exposed to a variety of experiences or different places having a different experience and consciously thinking that there is nothing that women have less to be at the leadership position or demonstrate that competence, they still believe that there is that sort of internalized behavior. One of the things I heard from a very wise man was that it is like bodies, the same cells regenerate the same cells. So when they, when they are hiring, they're thinking more of the male candidates than the women, than the female. In the networking spaces, women are not as present as they, as they should be. Therefore men sometimes even feel uncomfortable when there is. And you have, must have had a lot of such experiences in your role, that the majority are men and you would happen to be in minority, if not the only woman in many meetings. So that really puts you in a minority position, in a distinctive position. And this is how the lack of confidence and the society and the internalization of the roles are continuously reinforcing one another. So, yes, the society and the norms and the perception is huge. But also on the hindsight, I have to add that by just ignoring it and keep going, especially this message for the younger women, and just ignoring and keep going and focusing on your goals, you will see that changes, they get used to it. It is hard, but they do accept and they get used to it. And I have seen, as I mentioned before, so many examples of it, particularly in the last five years when the government made a commitment to empower women in Afghanistan.

Vera Jourová: Well, so what you said before that your advice is never give up. This is a message for all of us, because of course, I can also confirm that in European Union, the so-called traditional position of a woman is one of the barriers which prevents the women from getting the positions in politics and business. And the only way how to break it is to not to give up. And as you also said before they work, did you say four times harder than the men? Was it four times?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: No, I wouldn't say that. No, I haven't quantified that. I wish it was four times, I think multiple roles I would say.

Vera Jourová: Okay, multiple. Yeah, we still have I think three minutes, Madame Ambassador. So just one last question. How do you see the perspective of cooperation with the Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris? Because you will be close to her as the Ambassador to the United States. Is there any plan, are we only, still passively happy about having the woman in such a high position?

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: I would just say, yes. We are happy and we should never be shy to say how happy we are. This is a huge success. As the Vice President like herself said, it is about the little girls that are watching.

Vera Jourová: Yes.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: About basically breaking that barrier that women can't do, right. So in terms of the prospect of work with her, I am looking forward to the new administration, whichever administration it is, to work with them. And also working with another woman in such a position is always a source of additional energy and confidence for women like myself. I have looked up to many women world leaders, including Vice President-Elect Harris. And I am looking forward to making, to strengthening the relationship between our countries in ways that women lead, in ways that that is empathetic, in ways that has long-term impact, in ways that we move policies with care, care for the constituencies, for both of our countries and we find as women, even more areas of convergence of our national interests. And I see multiple ones of that. And one of the biggest successes that United States has had, and they should be proud of in, is in terms of their support to women's rights in Afghanistan. And we need to further nurture that. And I am very much looking forward to working on these issues. 

Vera Jourová: Thank you very much for this answer, and for all the other answers. It was a great pleasure to speak to you. I read and heard a lot of things about you and your political career. And, and I can confirm after this short discussion that you are indeed a passionate advocate for the participation of women and youth in democratic processes. So thank you very much. It's been a pleasure for me and good luck in your future work. Thank you.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Thank you for everything you're doing Vice President Jourová. The honor has been mine. Thank you. 

Vera Jourová: 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 


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