Women with Middle East roots taking their place in Europe's corridors of power

'The National' profiles six female trailblazers with family origins in the Middle East and North Africa

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak at the Elysee Palace, in Paris. EPA
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Six women with roots in the Middle East and North Africa have emerged as powerbrokers in different European countries. Here is a look at these women who are climbing the political ladder in Europe.

Rima Abdul Malak: France’s culture champion

The Lebanese-born Ms Abdul Malak was appointed Culture Minister in May after three years as an aide to French President Emmanuel Macron during which, by her own account, she used to send him snippets of poetry.

Raised in Beirut, she left Lebanon with her family to escape the 1975-90 civil war, settled in Lyon, later studied in Paris and worked for a Christian group tackling hunger and poverty. But she was soon flying the flag for artists as a director of a group called Clowns Without Borders, which organises shows in refugee camps and orphanages in Sudan, Afghanistan and other countries.

Her political career began as an adviser on culture and live entertainment to the mayor of Paris, before she went to America as a cultural attache to the French diplomatic mission in New York. As a cultural aide in the Elysee, she oversaw a scheme to get young people to concerts, theatres and museums by handing out cultural passes with €300 ($300) of credit.

Her tasks as minister include tackling the thorny question of looted cultural property and she hailed her recent visit to Algeria with Mr Macron as opening new doors for collaboration between young people in art and cinema.

“The ministry that gives meaning and flavour to life” – on her new job, May 2022

Rima Abdul Malak, second left, accompanied President Emmanuel Macron on a recent visit to Algeria. AFP

Reem Alabali-Radovan: Germany’s face of integration

Appointed commissioner for integration in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s office last year, Ms Alabali-Radovan’s role has thrown her on to the front lines of the refugee crisis unleashed by the war in Ukraine — but her own experience of asylum goes back much further.

Her parents were Iraqi engineers who found themselves unwelcome in Iraq after opposing Saddam Hussein’s regime. She was born in Moscow in the dying days of the Soviet Union but the family took refuge in Germany when she was 6.

Almost two decades later, she returned to the refugee centre where she had lived as a young child, to help out during the 2015 refugee crisis when hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere sought shelter in Germany.

She was elected a Social Democratic MP at last year’s general election and as integration chief has lobbied for more skilled migration to deal with labour shortages caused by an ageing population.

“The issues associated with my office have accompanied me all my life – both privately and professionally” – on her ministerial role, February 2022

Reem Alabali-Radovan became a Social Democratic MP at last year's German election. EPA

Hadja Lahbib: Belgium’s rookie diplomat

A TV journalist with no political track record but years of experience covering Afghanistan and the Middle East, Ms Lahbib was the surprise choice to take over as Belgian Foreign Minister in July.

Born in Belgium to an Algerian family, she became a familiar face as a presenter of French-speaking TV news bulletins and turned her hand to documentary-making, with films about women in Afghanistan and Kenya. She wrote about Algerian history at university and led a campaign for Brussels to become Europe’s capital of culture, emphasising the city’s strengths as a showcase for multi-lingual coexistence.

Her move into diplomacy caught Belgian political circles off guard but was seen as a chance for the Reformist Movement, the party that nominated her to the Foreign Ministry, to modernise its image and show a more diverse face. At her most recent EU meeting, during talks on a Russian visa ban, she spoke up for anti-Kremlin dissidents who might want to make their voices heard in Europe.

“History knocks on our doors, and it’s up to everyone to respond in their own way” – on her surprise appointment, July 2022

Hadja Lahbib is greeted by chief EU diplomat Josep Borrell at her first meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers in Brussels. AFP

Amineh Kakabaveh: Sweden’s Kurdish kingmaker

Born in Iran, Ms Kakabaveh and her staunch defence of Kurdish interests threw her into the global spotlight this summer as Sweden fought a tug-of-war over its Nato membership bid.

Under pressure from Turkey to lay down the law to Turkish groups that Ankara regards as terrorists, Swedish ministers could not simply ignore the protests of Ms Kakabaveh, an independent MP, because her vote could have brought down the government in a knife-edge confidence ballot in June. She eventually agreed to abstain, but cried foul when Sweden signed a deal with Turkey and Finland only weeks later in which the Nordic countries vowed to get tough on the Kurds.

Ms Kakabaveh makes no secret of her past as a Peshmerga fighter who joined a dissident group at the age of 13 and subsequently sought asylum in Sweden. She was elected an MP as a member of the Left Party but lost the whip in 2019 after clashing with party leaders.

“It is in this chamber that Swedish laws are decided, not in Ankara” – on the struggle over Nato, June 2022

Amineh Kakabaveh is an independent MP in the Swedish Parliament. Bloomberg

Marian Hussein: Norway’s minority trailblazer

Born in Somalia, socialist MP Ms Hussein grew up in Saudi Arabia where her father was a migrant worker — before the family moved to Norway, swapping the Middle East heat for Arctic cold, when she was 10. In a 2019 interview she credited her experience of moving often as a child with her ability to pick up languages and learn to speak flawless Norwegian.

Ms Hussein started wearing a hijab as a schoolgirl in Saudi Arabia and, upon election to the Norwegian parliament, became the first MP to wear one in the chamber. She was also the first person of African descent to take a seat in the Norwegian Parliament. A social worker by profession, she also worked as a nursing assistant, therapist and research assistant before entering politics.

Marking the 11th anniversary in July of the massacre by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, Ms Hussein said some of the public anger in Norway had been directed at Muslims and she had feared for her safety after Breivik called for a war between Islam and the West. “I wish we had learnt more in the past 11 years,” she said.

“I knew about women in politics, but I never thought I would be one” – on her political rise, June 2022

Marian Hussein lived in Somalia and Saudi Arabia before moving to Norway. Wikimedia Commons

Kauthar Bouchallikht: Dutch climate campaigner

Born to a Moroccan family in Amsterdam, Ms Bouchallikht was elected an MP for the Green-Left party at last year’s general election after withstanding what supporters said was a racist and Islamophobic smear campaign against her.

After a furore over social media posts and her attendance at a pro-Gaza rally in 2014, which she said she regretted not leaving earlier because of anti-Semitic remarks made by demonstrators, she won her seat and made history as the first Dutch MP to wear a hijab in Parliament. In her maiden speech she described being stigmatised and seen as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or a threat to the rule of law by her critics. A few protesters from anti-Islam group Pegida demonstrated against her inauguration.

Her background was as a climate activist and she chaired a group called the Green Muslims Foundation. In a 2020 interview she said people were sometimes surprised that her faith inspired her desire to protect the natural world and serve a higher purpose — because many people still had prejudiced fears about Islam, she said.

“Although this Parliament represents the entire Dutch people, it is not self-evident that I am here, too" – on her election, May 2021

Kauthar Bouchallikht was elected an MP as a member of the Green Left party in the Netherlands. Getty
Updated: September 02, 2022, 10:31 AM
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