Across Europe, women work in local administrations, both at the technical and the political level. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we want to showcase their outstanding work and give visibility to their stories, challenges, and achievements.
Women face disadvantages on a structural level that block their way to decision-making positions. This gender gap adds to other discriminatory factors such as race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or socioeconomic level, to name a few.
So, even though women are 50% of the population, they struggle to make it to leadership and political positions. For those who come from ethnic minorities or suffer from disabilities, reaching the top is even more infrequent worldwide.
In the following lines, women facing a variety of discriminatory factors share their experiences on their road to politics from Hanover, Helsinki, Berlin and Ljubljana.
A tiring but rewarding road up
Hülya Iri is the Vice-Chair of the Social Democratic Party in the Hanover city council and Spokesperson for integration. She is also a member of the Committee on Urban Development and Construction, the Committee on Gender Equality, and the Committee on Integration, European Affairs, and International Cooperation.
“When we look at political meetings at all levels, it is sad to see that most politicians are men. But half the people in the world are women. Therefore, we must have equal representation in the political bodies. If this is not the case, critical issues that affect women are pushed into the background,” she declares.
Hülya ran for Hanover’s city council in 2016 and 2021. She held her ground against male candidates in both elections and won. “That was very tiring but rewarding,” she remembers. “Without a joint effort, we would have one less woman today. The proportion of women in the council has already reached its lowest level in the last 20 years,” she explains.
Her Turkish origin plays a crucial role in politics, Hülya maintains, and defends the importance of being a role model. “People with a migration background usually have more barriers to getting involved in politics. 38% of the people in Hanover have a migration background, and they also need representatives in politics,” she proudly says.
Unfortunately, politically motivated crimes against politicians from a migrant origin have increased. Since Hülya has been in politics, she has been exposed to exclusion, racism, and death threats. “The worst experience was that my office was shot at. The State Security Service classified the shooting as politically motivated. Young people lurk around my home, loudly making death threats,” she adds. “Crimes against politicians have reached a new dimension. The development is frightening.”
For that reason, she advises women about stepping into local politics to be brave and persevere. “A Turkish proverb says: If you don’t even have an enemy, you haven’t achieved anything,” she concludes.
Can a man be a president?
Nasima Razmyar is the Deputy Mayor for Education in the City of Helsinki. “Hopefully, I am a face that you can become. You can be a refugee from an Afghan background and still be in a political position,” she says.
Nasima also mentions receiving hate speech messages as part of her daily life for a very long time. “Of course, it hurts very much,” she says. “But when it comes to your family, it makes you feel hopeless. If I speak about this, my email inbox will be full of hate speech, and I know I’m not the only one.” She mentions that women represent 12 portfolios out of 19 in the Finnish Government, and the Prime Minister is a young woman. “They get a lot of hate speech. But being a woman politician, young and having a migrant or refugee background is too much for many,” she adds.
However, Nasima can rely on her network of supporters, “people who are surrounding me: my party, my friends, my family. The support is so much bigger than the hate”. The deputy mayor underlines the need to speak up, “because this is not a normal thing.”
As a refugee woman, Nasima feels that breaking the glass ceiling becomes even more difficult. It’s needed to go beyond that defining factor of immigrant background politician. “Because if you really want to change things, you should be a politician no matter your background, your name, how you look like,” she declares.
Her road to politics was inspired by the first female Finnish president Tarja Halonen, “who encouraged so many young women and me to pursue our goals in politics, crashing through the glass ceiling.” She remembers when young schoolgirls used to ask, ‘can a man be a president in Finland?’.
A network of women
Anna Stahl-Czechowska works in the Senate Department for Integration, Labour and Social Services of Berlin. She is also a deputy in the Committee for Economic, Labour, Equality and Europe in her district and the Diversity Council of the Greens.
Anna was born in Poland and migrated to Berlin in 2003 to study for a bachelor’s degree. She defines the impact of her migrant background as “very positive” so far, as she feels comfortable in both countries and cultures. Anna is convinced that Germans and Polish citizens can learn from each other in many European topics, such as recruiting skilled workers. Both countries may face the same challenge but solve them differently. “Digitalisation and migration, for example, are common denominators where we could work together,” she explains.
Anna is also engaged in local integration strategies, migration policies, and enhancing women’s political participation. She was also involved in drafting the Act on the Promotion of Participation in the Migration Society. It now ensures more political participation and employment of people with migration biographies in the administrative structures.
However, Anna did not find any when looking for a mentor or a programme for women with migration backgrounds interested in getting involved politically. For that reason, along with the association agitPolska e.V., she founded the first nationwide mentoring programme for Polish women, ‘PolMotion Movement of Polish Women‘. The initiative runs in Berlin to encourage political and socio-political engagement and visibility of women with a Polish background. “We need more women in these structures,” she adds.
In Anna’s opinion, local politics should think more intersectional and have two tracks. The first one involves changing the structures by bringing the topic to the spotlight. The second one is a strong legal basis needed to promote the participation of persons with a migrant background.
Asked about women that inspired her, she mentions her grandmother – Anna calls her “the best networker” even before the word itself exists, making contacts, cultivating them, and always having an open door for anyone to think critically and speak confidently. In the political sphere, she admires Agnieszka Brugger, member of the Bundestag, and Annalena Berbock, Minister for Foreign Affairs, “as they both strongly advocated for more feminist foreign policy,” she states.
Women and men, stronger together
Tjaša Ficko is the Deputy Mayor of Ljubljana City Council. She received the award ‘Woman of the Decade in Public Life’ after implementing the programme that made Ljubljana win the European Green Capital 2016 award.
“I decided to work for the city and its citizens because the mayor was promising a lot of work and concrete improvements and tangible results in the field,” she says. Tjaša gets satisfaction from participating in the planning and growth of city projects that provide residents with high-quality services.
During her childhood and later in her professional life, she does not remember being deprived of anything, treated differently or having fewer opportunities in life due to gender. Moreover, she never thought about the issue of gender inequality in her youth, “maybe because I have always been surrounded by strong and successful women who were recognised and respected in their environments,” she mentions.
Today, she admits she can consider herself lucky and that equality is not to be taken for granted. “I could have grown up completely differently. The fact that I am a woman could have felt like a negative both in my education and getting my first job or at every career step and in my private life. From there, all the way to extreme cases where you are not allowed to drive a car or open your own bank account. All this is happening around the world. It is impossible to turn a blind eye.”
The deputy mayor is convinced that everyone has the right to pursue their goals and try to make their dreams come true, not only regardless of gender but also regardless of gender identity, race, religion, or economic status. “At least, that is how it should be,” she declares.
With that aim, it is commendable that we are talking more and more about this in society, Tjaša explains. An even more effective move from words to deeds, she says, starts with the seemingly small steps of every single one of us that can make a significant impact. “In an extremely complex and uncertain world that is changing at supersonic speed, we need all the knowledge, experience, ideas and suggestions available to be able to resolve our present and future. Women and men can do more, and we are stronger together,” she concludes.
A step closer to gender equality
Also in Ljubljana, Simona Topolinjak is the coordinator of equal opportunities. Her work covers cooperation with NGOs and experts in LGBTI+ inclusion, prevention of violence against women and strategic planning for the council. Among her most significant achievements is the local Strategy for the Development of Social Care 2021-2027, the yearly action plan for gender equality and the booklet For gender equality in Ljubljana. She also coordinates the city project LGBTI+ friendly business certificate.
“A municipality plays a significant role in achieving gender equality in society, as it plans, creates and implements policies, while at the same time encouraging the integration of gender equality in all areas as an employer,” she says.
Simona works towards a social atmosphere and political culture without prejudice or stereotypical gender-based behaviour. To prevent the social invisibility of women, Ljubljana encourages gender-sensitive language in written and verbal forms. Other activities focus on the inequality of genders, such as a day children spend with a woman role model (for example, a CEO or a deputy mayor), art or literature contests that discuss different aspects of gender equality and exhibition projects that address traditional social roles.
“In Ljubljana, we have taken many steps towards gender equality, but there are still many ahead of us,” Simona says. “I believe that we will gradually achieve gender equality and with that a society with a high-quality and beautiful life for all.”