Sawsan Chebli is a former German Social Democratic Party politician, who recently held the position of State Secretary for Civic and International Affairs in the Berlin Senate. As an outspoken Muslim woman, she has suffered sexist and xenophobic abuse throughout her career. She is a member of Apolitical Foundation’s Global Advisors network.
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How would you describe your political path?
My political path has been one of ups and downs, though I feel I emerge from every down stronger! I stopped being state secretary, which wasn’t my decision, in the last few months. I’m now able to see some of the positives of this change and have been reminded that people can be interested in your voice, in what you stand and fight for even if you don’t hold official office.
What are the most useful lessons you've learnt on the way?
I learnt too late that you need to build alliances of colleagues and allies. You need allies to get things done. It’s much harder to fight and achieve change if you are alone. It’s also helpful to have allies when you are in difficult situations. It’s much easier to get through these when people have your back and raise their voices when you are struggling to raise yours.
I’ve also learnt that people don’t necessarily like you being loud, particularly when you are a woman and especially for me as a muslim woman. It’s important to be able to say to yourself: “you don’t need to be loved by everyone.” People who truly want to make change happen will never be loved by everybody.
I’ve also learnt how important it is to be true to yourself. Never change your mind just because you want to please or because you think you might harm your political career. I was very unhappy whenever I felt like I couldn’t speak my mind in political office. You want to be able to say to yourself at the end of your career: “I was true to myself”.
“People who truly want to make change happen will never be loved by everybody.”
What are the top three things that could be done to get courageous, ethical and trusted politicians in your area?
People need to have role models. That way it’s easier for people who want to be politicians to feel inspired and find direction.
Politicians need to be able to establish a wide network who will support them to not give up in difficult moments. Even if you end up feeling isolated, don’t give up. Better times will come soon and you will emerge even stronger out of every crisis you experience.
Establish and observe quotas. Do not feel offended if people tell you you have been selected for a certain position because of your background. Our world is dominated by white people. It will take time to change this and it will not change without establishing and introducing a quota system. So if people tell me now I got a job because my boss wanted a more diverse team I tell them: that’s true. But without my hard work and competences I wouldn’t have been elected either.
What ideas and/or people are inspiring you at the moment?
The young women in Iran who are out on the streets risking their lives to fight for freedom. I’ve had to deal with a lot of hate, including death threats, during my time in Germany, but when I look at what these women are dealing with, I think: “Well, what I deal with is nothing”. It’s up to us to keep the spotlight on their protests. Equally, the women and girls in Afghanistan inspire me with their fight for educational rights.
Women should be able to do what they want, wear what they want and love who they want. These things are on my mind every day and make me determined to help every woman be free.
What story do you want communities to tell about politicians?
I want communities to be able to believe in and trust politicians. I want them to see politicians as real human beings with feelings, principles and identities that they don’t need to cover up. I don’t want them to tell stories about politicians only interested in being in power; power is nothing if you don’t do anything with it. I joined the Social Democratic Party because I wanted to make a difference. My parents arrived in Germany poor and stateless and couldn’t do anything about it. This experience helped write my story. It helped me decide to become a politician to help make the world a better place, especially for women. I want more stories like this.
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