Dr Nussaibah Younis (2004)
Dr Nussaibah Younis is an expert on the politics, foreign policy and economy of Iraq. She is a senior advisor to the European Institute of Peace, where she advises on high-level mediation efforts in Iraq, as well as a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and a Research Associate at The University of Chicago's Pearson Institute. Her previous high-profile positions have included an Associate Fellowship at the global think tank Chatham House, and she directed the Task Force on the Future of Iraq in her role as a senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. The latter role involved putting forward recommendations to the US administration for long-term US engagement in Iraq.
Nussaibah has long been passionate about enabling young Iraqis to transform their country. In 2017, she founded the Iraq Leadership Fellows Program at the American University of Iraq, which offers training workshops in political and campaigning skills, and enables young leaders from across the Middle East to engage with each other.
Nussaibah came to Merton in 2004 to read Modern History and English. As an undergraduate, she was already interested in politics and the media, and found much scope for these interests at Oxford. She coordinated events for the University’s European Affairs Society, was an elected member of the Secretary’s Committee at the Oxford Union, and was Features Editor at Oxford’s weekly student newspaper, Cherwell.
A desire to take the academic life further took her to Durham University, where she did a PhD in international security, specifically on foreign policy in Iraq after 2003. As Nussaibah herself puts it, she then ‘meandered’ through academia, with a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, before moving into the think tank world and then into mediation, the field in which she now works.
Most recently, in October 2020, Nussaibah chaired a panel discussion at the virtual Wilton Park conference on women in mediation in the Arab world. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also spoke at the conference, challenging the leaders of the Arab region to involve women in peace-making – a sentiment that Nussaibah heartily endorses. Amidst everything, she also finds the time to write as a commentator in media outlets including The Guardian and The New York Times.
Nussaibah once said that international affairs is a "precarious field" in which to build a career:
"Mentorship and good management are rarely seen, and people have their careers sunk by their own colleagues just as often as by competitors. To succeed requires a thick skin, a strong entrepreneurial streak and a willingness to accept uncertainty. But if you can make it work, it can be fascinating, it offers occasional opportunities to make a real difference, and it puts you at the centre of world events."
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a student, what was your first impression?
I was totally in awe of Merton and I felt so lucky and proud to belong there.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
I spent a lot of time in the Fellows' Garden having big contemplative thoughts of the type that you can only really indulge in as a teenager. Rose Lane also holds a lot of happy memories for me, as a place where I made life-long friends who are still important to me today.
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I spent a lot of my time at Oxford feeling like I wasn't clever enough to be there, and I think it's important to be open about that. As a woman of colour from a state school in the North, Oxford was very intimidating, and I want to reassure students like me that they are good enough to be there and that its totally normal to struggle with those feelings.
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?
I attended and convened so many fascinating events with important speakers, but felt nervous to build networks and relationships with those people because I didn't feel like I had value to offer them. I would advise myself to be more confident about building and maintaining networks with the successful and powerful people that I met.
Describe Merton in three words.
Beautiful; calm; supportive.
Nussaibah and Dr Julia Amos, Merton Junior Research Fellow and Research Lecturer in Global Wellbeing (2011-2016), who is also being profiled this week, had a chat about their careers and some of the challenges they’ve faced as women, as well as the changes they envisage for women 40 years from now.
Dr Nussaibah Younis (NY): I am interested in hearing more about your research on conflicts in Western Africa, particularly in Ghana, and why you were drawn to this part of the world.
Dr Julia Amos (JA): I went to the Northern Region of Ghana to research an ethnic conflict that took place in the mid-1990s. In this conflict, the traditional authorities were key in the peacebuilding process, and the potential of these institutions is what really interested me, as this isn’t usually the norm. It was not long before I realised that the research was not going to happen in the way I had imagined. Rather than conducting interviews one-to-one in a private space, the traditional authorities in Ghana held court and so the interviews were public. People wanted to interact and the entire process became a sort of group exercise. Looking back, I learned so many different things from this experience.
First, the state was not functioning very well in this area, which is why the traditional authorities were the ones building peace. I needed to get these people on board for my research, yet the interesting thing is that these were also the people who were involved in the conflict. They were in the conflict, prosecuting the conflict, and then, working to end the conflict. It could be quite nerve-wracking at times. Here I was just starting out, and I had people giving recorded interviews about quite serious matters such as arms smuggling.
I realised that what had happened was that local NGOs had come together to build a crisis response and naturally started looking for what they called voices of reason, which were people who had overlapping loyalties. Ethnicities are never clear-cut; many people have multiple identities. There was one man who had been farmer of the year, which is a prestigious title where you win a tractor. Because he had interethnic loyalties, as well as local standing, he was the type of person that the NGO’s brought together as a voice of reason.
Before this, the newspapers were reporting on very strident people who saw themselves as spokespeople for their ethnic group, and who got into a slinging match in the media, causing tensions to rise. However, the coalition of local and international NGOs worked quietly and iteratively in the background to bring on-board more important traditional and other leaders. With more and more people joining the negotiations, the high-profile leaders who had previously been very negative wanted to get involved and not be sidelined. This was beneficial in creating a peace process that was organic, from the ground up.
I learned a lot doing this research, including about the intersection of race and gender. I was trying to train a team to interview the people who had signed the accord. My local contact asked if I wanted a gender balance. I replied, "but we are," and it was clear that he wasn't counting me as a woman.
At that point, I was traveling with my best friend who is originally Ghanaian and had agreed to help with the interviews. It soon became clear that her ability to carry out these interviews was severely compromised by the interviewees seeing her as a woman junior to them in status. They did not take her seriously, despite her being the same age and gender as me and obviously having much deeper local knowledge as someone who had been born in a different region rather than in a different part of the world entirely. Someone even tried to send her off to get a coke in the middle of an interview! It was frustrating for both of us and hampered her ability to collect data. For me, it was eye-opening.
Nussaibah, you work in the fields of foreign policy, diplomacy and peacebuilding. I would love to hear what it is like working as a woman in these fields?
NY: I can relate to what you said about not being counted as a woman when you were in Ghana. I often have a similar experience in Iraq, as a foreigner who is coming in from the outside to do research or work on peacebuilding. I tend to be treated like an honorary man. Colleagues of mine at other organisations and at the United Nations (UN) have similar experiences. In fact, the current UN team in Iraq is, at the highest levels, almost all female, including the UN Special Representative to Iraq.
When you are working with ministers or with government authorities and heads of political parties, they are very used to foreign women coming in as researchers or representatives of embassies, the UN, or peacebuilding organisations. Iraq has a 25% quota for women in Parliament, though women are still not included in the highest levels of political leadership. So it’s more open than one might expect it to be.
I think one of the real difficulties is around building the close one-on-one relationships that you need in order to receive sensitive information and to have the inside track on what's going on. I see male colleagues who are able to build relationships really successfully and get advice, guidance and information, before it's publicly available, and what I get is propositions. It is frustrating to struggle to build professional relationships that are informal.
I can go to formal meetings in a Dewan, a large room where you sit on these throne-like chairs, with a photographer, but it's much more difficult for me to build informal relationships, which matters a lot in terms of the information and the access that I have. It means I need to work much harder when I have seen men in the same position in their career being able to move ahead much faster because they develop those informal relationships. Yes, I can have relationships with women, but on the whole, they're much less powerful so it doesn't give me a competitive advantage.
There are times when working in my field can feel very threatening. For instance, some of the people who proposition you have armed forces at their disposal. You have to be quite careful with how you deal with these situations, making sure that you are never alone in a room with them, and you can’t get angry or push back too aggressively, because you're in a country where ‘accidents’ can happen.
When I'm outside Baghdad it can feel more threatening. I may be working with tribal leaders, for example, who are less used to dealing with women. There can often be quite strict segregation in these areas, and I am going into households in which the women are very much in a separate part of the house and it is extremely unusual for there to be a woman sitting with a group of men.
Some of the advances can feel more threatening when you're in a rural area where it's more remote and men are less used to having foreign women around and knowing how to work with them professionally. I have been in situations that have felt unsafe. It is frustrating and upsetting that even though I have followed all the steps that a man would have followed to get to this place in their career, I must deal, additionally, with these kinds of emotional challenges, as well as with the fear for my safety. It is possible to make a success of it, but the cost is higher as a woman.
It's an industry where you must prove that you can still do it, even though you're a woman. I do not want to bring up barriers that I face because that makes me a less desirable employee or consultant compared to my male competitors. So, I don't talk about it and just deal with it, but it means that it's more emotionally taxing and stressful to do the same things my male colleagues are doing.
Does that speak similarly to your experience?
JA: Definitely, and it's interesting, this intersectionality of different identities that you’re navigating, and people judging you by your gender, or even your background. All these things are constantly being played against each other.
I have found that because I am a lot less threatening than a man that can be helpful if you’re in a situation where there are a lot of men who are macho, but also that it can be an unwise position in which to put yourself in. You need to be careful and sensible, and perhaps more mature than I was when I started out.
I have been working on this project which is partly about providing ethically collected, freely volunteered narratives of women’s experiences which will be open so that it can be used for things like building more grounded theories of International Relations by drawing on what it is like existing as a woman in difficult situations. Most current understanding is not composed from the viewpoint of women generally and, if you are a woman experiencing it locally, you are not going to necessarily think of the conflict in the same terms that it is thought of in International Relations. You may, for example, think more in terms of how your day-to-day life is impacted. People come in and study these incidents of large-scale violence, which might have started with something like an argument over water in a market, and how that is described is interesting, because we are often doing so in a way that is not how it is understood to the people involved. It is important to bring it back to different understandings because they're not going to be the same locally either; people are going to have very different views of how something happened and why.
NY: Before we move on, I want to make a point - I've talked a lot about how challenging it is to be a woman working in the field, but I don't want to give the impression that there's something substantially different about being in the field and being back in western capitals.
Many political leaders in the Middle East have treated me very seriously, regardless of the fact that I am a woman. They know I am someone who does TV interviews, who speaks at events in Washington, DC, who speaks to policymakers in the UK, the EU and the US, and they take that extremely seriously. They come to our meetings properly prepared, and really try to get their message across knowing that my opinion of them matters.
On the other hand, I have worked with very senior men from western countries who have failed to offer me the same level of respect, because I am a woman. I brought a very well-known senior US former military commander to a meeting that I’d convened with senior political figures in Iraq. Although this was a process that I had created and put together, and the Middle Eastern leaders present were treating me accordingly, the senior American treated me as a caterer.
For example, at one point there was a sensitive piece of “choreography.” I'd given the American an opportunity to meet with one of the Middle Eastern political figures, but it was important that the others didn't see that; however, when I tried to end the meeting to ensure they wouldn't be seen leaving the room at the wrong moment, the American said, "I'll be done when I'm done - and if you come back it needs to be with a Diet Coke for me!"
So inevitably, the two of them came out of the room in full view of the other leaders, and this caused a huge problem in terms of coordinating the talks. The participants from the Middle East, on the other hand, took me seriously as a convenor of the talks and listened to my instructions.
I was treated as irrelevant by this American senior figure, and that created a significant barrier for the continuation of the talks. So, it is by no means just a problem in the Middle East.
Julia, have you come across discrimination, working as an academic in Oxford?
JA: When I came to Oxford as a graduate student in 2004, when you were here as well, gender discrimination and other kinds of discrimination were very noticeable. I vividly remember academic discussions where if a woman would make a perceptive remark it was then often misattributed to a man: it was surprising.
Of course, there were senior women who were supportive, as well as the occasional man. In particularly I remember one man who stood out to me. He was unlike the others and attributed people's remarks correctly, whichever gender. I later found out that his mother was an important poet, so perhaps the fact that a strong woman raised him meant that he treated people equally.
I also feel that Oxford is very high-powered and fast-paced, so if you are not constantly involved you may be forgotten. This creates real difficulties for women who go on maternity leave, for instance. I think that there can be a fear of the unknown - that any concessions or adaptations will be taken advantage of. I remember a discussion around shared parental leave where someone said to me "It's certainly not about you, what if a man decided to have lots of children just to have time off?"
When I came to Merton in 2011 it was not very diverse and I made the case that intelligence is a bell curve. So, if we miss sections of society, whether that's women or any other kind of subgroup, we're not getting the best and brightest, which is what Merton is about. I think that was very persuasive and that was one of the things that led to change starting to happen.
I don't want to give the impression that women are powerless: I think they are always important in different ways. In West Africa women are incredibly important to the economy, as market women or as entrepreneurs, at all levels of society, and I think this is an external misunderstanding from those in western countries.
Moving on, what are your thoughts on women in leadership, in politics, in comparison to their male counterparts?
NY: I don't buy into the perspective that women fundamentally lead in different ways, or that there are feminised leadership characteristics. I think that when you are operating in a political system and you have ambitions to be successful and to lead within that system, then there is a series of incentives and games that you need to play well and succeed at.
That can involve embracing all kinds of characteristics that societally we might describe as being masculine characteristics, but I think it is a question of if you want to succeed politically in different environments there are different things you need to be able to do effectively.
JA: Yes, and different political systems will select different women. For instance, the women leaders that have led well during the epidemic, like the Prime Ministers of Finland or New Zealand, are part of a political system that has thrown up a different type of female leader then Margaret Thatcher, for example. The men who succeed in such systems are also likely to be different!
NY: Absolutely, and we don’t need more female political leaders because they supposedly lead ‘more empathetically’, we need more female political leaders because there are incredibly capable women whose talents are not being used. We also need more empathetic politics in general, and incentives that allow for those kinds of politics to succeed and to flourish, and for those characteristics to be able to be displayed by both men and women.
In terms of getting more women into politics it is like the bell curve that you referenced in terms of diversity in admissions. There is a wealth of talent and ability across the female population that is not being effectively used and promoted, and that is being lost because of barriers to entry and success.
I am quite engaged with the women, peace and security agenda and UN resolution 1325, which is about getting more women involved in peacebuilding processes. There's a lot of confusion about why we want to get women involved and often that conversation can go in strange and essentialising directions, where people think that women should be involved because they are inherently non-violent. Of course, this is not the case, women can be violent. I don't think it's about women being engaged because of any inherent feminine characteristics, I think it's about involving all the stakeholders – all the people who have been affected by the conflict.
JA: Yes, and getting all the information from all the bits of society.
NY: Exactly. It can be so paternalistic, the way in which inclusion is talked about, and actually quite patronising. I don't think that's helpful.
JA: Women are rediscovered repeatedly in International Relations and Development and in Security Studies generally, where people are surprised that groups of women are involved with terrorist networks. However, if you think about it, this would obviously be the case as a lot of recruitment and bonds are familial, so it is hardly surprising.
Some of the best scholars are women, but many often do not get the recognition that they deserve. That can sometimes be because if they talk about women’s issues they get labelled as “women talking about women” and it's not seen as “interesting” and is tacked on at the end of conversations.
Have you found it difficult to talk about women’s issues within the context of your career?
NY: Yes, I've always been quite cautious, especially early in my career, to not get too wrapped up in so-called women’s issues because I don't want to be pigeonholed as a woman who is only able to work on gender.
I think to be able to position yourself as an expert on Middle Eastern policy and talk about geopolitics and security issues and energy politics, you're often trying to present yourself as someone whose input, perspectives and research are as good as a man's would be. You don't want to draw attention to being a woman or to the barriers that you face. You want to present yourself as someone who can do it all as well as a man could and play down any differences that there might be.
Then I think that as you get more senior and more established, you've got the track record and I certainly felt a little bit more able to start talking about including female perspectives and about barriers that women face in the field. But I can do that after spending 10 years not talking about women ever, and only talking about hard security issues to establish myself in that way.
JA: When I was editing my biography I thought, “do I mention that I have four kids?” It's still an issue, whether you discuss if you have children. And then it's, of course, one of the reasons that after a certain age women drop out of things, because they become seen as not relevant, or not fully committed, which is a shame.
There is research showing that if you are a non-white woman and you engage in work that is supportive of diversity that it will be negative for your academic career. Likewise, women do try to not become associated with these issues, and that speaks very much to how we value, or don't value, women and generally the diversity of input. I think it's shameful really.
NY: Thinking about International Women’s Day, what does it mean to you?
JA: I think International Women's Day is understood very differently in the various places I've lived. I grew up in Sweden, where it is very much about rights and justice. These conversations that we're having now, to do with gender, are conversations that we’ve had for a long time. My mum was very much involved in the women's movement in the 1970s, and then people said there shouldn’t be so much focus on women when there was the class struggle – what we would probably call today poverty eradication. Now we are having the same argument but with climate change and international inequalities.
I lived in Italy, where International Women's Day is understood much more to be a celebration of women. It's at the same time the acacia trees are in flower, so people give women a bunch of acacia or mimosa flowers on the day.
NY: Looking ahead to 40 years from now, what changes would you like to see for women around the world?
JA: One of the great things I have seen in our current student cohort is that young people are starting to see women's rights as a straightforward justice issue. And I think that's really positive.
There is some interesting work going on at Oxford, too. There is someone called Sabina Alkire here at the Oxford Department of International Development who is working on development as freedom from an economics perspective. And then of course there's people like Kate Raworth at the Environmental Change Institute working on developing globally just and environmentally sustainable economics. It's interesting that a lot of the most progressive work that is trying to protect both individual rights and freedoms and our environment and planet is being done by women and is being pioneered here, and I think it's something that Oxford could showcase more and be prouder of.
How about you, what changes do you hope to see for women in 40 years?
NY: With the young women I've worked with in the Middle East I've seen more entrepreneurship and more innovative thinking around how to address and work on social and political challenges. In the protest movement that we saw in Iraq in 2019 and 2021, one of the notable things was the participation of young women - even in rural provinces outside of the capital of Baghdad. Now these young women are challenging traditional social notions of their place in society, seeking to participate in politics and mass protest movements and creating their own businesses and their own organisations.
However, they are facing a ton of pushback. There is a lot of effort that goes in, especially in rural areas, to attack their reputations and their morality, to put pressure on their parents and their tribal connections, to do them reputational damage - but they are pushing back. It's a struggle now and my hope is that in 40 years’ time that the struggle will be over, and it will be completely normal and accessible for women in the Middle East to grow up with the full range of opportunities in front of them that their male peers currently have.