By B.L. Wilson
Not one thing led the women ambassadors to diplomacy--not their professions nor life experiences in business, as professors, refugees or doctors. The women, who hailed from Oman, Rwanda, Monaco and St. Kitts & Nevis told the students at the George Washington University Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program Thursday evening that it was not a position that had ever occurred to them to seek.
Maguy Maccario Doyle, Monaco’s ambassador to the United States, was a young woman in her 20s, feeling hemmed in by living in the second smallest nation state in the world. “I needed to see a challenge,” she said.
She took a job at Monaco’s Information Center in New York, a two-person office in a brownstone on Park Avenue, promoting tourism. By the time Monaco established diplomatic relations with the United States 12 years ago, Ms. Doyle had worked her way up to becoming the country’s consul general.
“If someone had told me at the time, one day you will be ambassador of the principality of Monaco to the greatest country in the world, I would have said you’ve got the wrong girl,” she said.
The evening program, “Diplomatic Leadership by Women,” focused on the changing role of women in different countries and was cosponsored by Oman’s Ambassador Hunaina Sultan Ahmed Al Mughairy, an economist who served as adviser to the sultan of Oman. “I became an ambassador by default,” she said. Her husband was a career diplomat whom she accompanied when he was appointed Oman’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“When I arrived in New York, the government of Oman asked me to set up a center for investment promotion,” she said. She became involved in negotiating the free trade agreement between the United States and Oman. She is the first woman ambassador from an Arab country to the United States.
The students who are part of the Women’s Leadership Program, which is housed on the Mount Vernon Campus, divided into group discussions with each ambassador in the early part of the evening and then came together for a panel moderated by Tara Sonsenshine, a senior career coach in the Elliott School of International Affairs and a former undersecretary at the State Department.
Rwandan Ambassador Mathile Mukantabana’s family was forced into exile when she was 13 years old amid rising ethnic conflict in her country. “When you are a refugee, you rely much on what people give you. Some people fall through the cracks. When you are a refugee and a girl anything can happen,” she said. She wound up in the United States as a student at Sacramento State University and went onto to become a history professor.
The worst was yet to come. Most of her family, her parents, siblings, aunts and uncles were killed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Seeking a way to deal with the resulting poverty, disease and trauma back home, she went back to school to get her master’s degree in sociology, formed a nonprofit and began traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Rwanda to help survivors. She was appointed ambassador after the government learned of her work.
“What I want to say is it has really to do with what you need to do,” said Ms. Mukantabana. “It is not that you are trained to become an ambassador.”
During a Q & A session, Maya Sandel, a first year WLP student, asked whether the experience of working in the United States was very different than in countries where there were stronger patriarchies.
The ambassadors cleared up discrepancies and misperceptions about the culture of so-called patriarchal societies. Ms. Mughairy, Oman’s ambassador, said she’s always asked if she can drive in her country and responds, “I’m representing my country to the most powerful country in the world, and you are asking me if I can drive?
“In Gulf countries, we have women ministers, doctors, women who are professionals, teaching, engineers,” she said. And yes, she acknowledged, women also bump up against the glass ceiling.
Ms. Mukantabana, the Rwandan ambassador, pointed out that her country has one of the highest rates of women in government among African countries and that half of the cabinet is made up of women.
St. Kitts & Nevis Ambassador Thelma Phillip-Browne noted differences between women’s roles in Caribbean countries like hers and the United States. “We are a patriarchal society in the Caribbean. We have five female heads of state. And America has not yet had one,” she said.
Ms. Doyle, Monaco’s ambassador, advised the students to be prepared when opportunities present themselves, even mundane tasks. “You really have to play the hand that you are given and be the one to show that you can take a project and move it forward,” she said. “When you do that, you will be asked to do more.”