As Women’s History Month comes to a close, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) had the pleasure of interviewing Her Excellency Mrs. Hanene Tajouri Bessassi, Ambassador of the Republic of Tunisia to the United States. Amb. Bessassi opened her home to our Educational Programs Director, Jessica Diez, for an in-person interview regarding female leadership in diplomacy.
Bessassi is Tunisia’s first female ambassador to the US. Previously, she has served as Ambassador to Germany, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Tunisian Embassy to the United States, and Director of the Tunisia-EU partnership at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tunisia, among other achievements.
Throughout Bessassi’s professional journey, she has experienced a lack of female mentors to lean on in her Ministry of Foreign Affairs career.
“All my bosses were men, but some of them believed in my skills and my seriousness,” Bessassi said.
She highlighted the importance of showcasing her capabilities for her superiors and peers to see beyond her gender: “They trust my hard work, the quality of my hard work, and they push me.”
Outside of the professional realm, she did have one “exceptional mentor” growing up: her mother. Bessassi explained that although her mom is illiterate, she instilled a strong belief in her children that women can achieve independence and empowerment, specifically economic empowerment, through education and hard work.
Through her mother’s teachings, Bessassi solidified her belief in the importance of women having a seat at the decision-making table, including in diplomacy.
With diplomacy being known as the “art to people with a sensitive, efficient, and effective manner,” Bessassi believes women are fit for high-level decision-making jobs as women are “instinctively solution-oriented.” She aims to help dismantle negative stereotypes of women’s inability to lead pragmatically, and instead showcase the power of female leadership by focusing on peaceful and sustainable compromises.
“Having women in diplomacy, I believe, can change the style of leadership, improve the results, and the added value of a woman will be obvious in diplomacy,” Bessassi said.
The Tunisia Embassy is doing so with the mere existence of a female ambassador. Bessassi also applauded strides that the United States has made, specifically highlighting the current administration. A few examples of female White House staff appointed by the Biden administration include Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, White House Counsel Dana Remus, and Director of Oval Office Operations Annie Tomasini, to name a few.
“With Biden’s administration, you can see a lot of women appointed in various sensitive and high political positions and it’s a good sign. The 21st century is our century,” Bessassi said.
Bessassi also expressed commitment to the Tunisian-American relationship, which is in its 226th year of a long-standing friendship. The countries, according to Bessassi, share common values and strategic cooperation mainly at the military level, but have encountered various stumbling blocks since she was appointed as her nation’s ambassador to the US in October of 2021.
“Actually, I came back to the US as ambassador at a very challenging time in the relationship. Despite the concerns expressed in DC, I am still confident that we will find a common ground to move forward. Since I’ve moved here, I’m trying to explain that Tunisia is, and will remain, on the democratic path,” Bessasi said.
Tunisian citizens have been committed, since 2011, to the grassroots revolution towards democracy and are specifically “attached to the few gains they have achieved, but are waiting for the economic dividend.”
Explaining the circumstances, Bessassi highlights that Tunisians are “facing a very complicated economic situation and without the help of our partners across the world, and of course, among them the USA, we cannot move alone. We need to raise these economic challenges in order to help the Tunisian government sustain the democratic process.”
Tunisia’s economic situation was aggravated largely because of the pandemic, and more recently because of the impact of the war in Ukraine, leading to inflation and notable increases in the prices of hydrocarbons and wheat.
When diving deeper into Bessassi’s role, she acknowledges her tough but necessary duty of continuing to explain and reassure the Biden administration, Congress, and think tanks on Tunisia’s continued fight for a sustainable democracy that can meet the aspirations of the Tunisian people.
Bessassi wills the governmental sphere in the United States to allow for a greater understanding of the gains and constraints of Tunisia’s goal of a democracy.
“Democracy is the unique choice of Tunisia. We need to improve it at the economic level to keep people trusting the process and believing in democracy and seeing democracy as a good thing. They need to see it in their daily lives,” Bessassi said.
Bessassi ended in appreciation of her current role in paving a path towards female representation in unseen areas. She thanked her husband, Ezeddine, for being supportive in her role as a public figure and highlighted the importance of choosing the right partner. Bessassi is a mother of three and has consistently felt encouraged by her husband.
“It is very vital to have a supportive husband or partner to back you and push you and not pull you back. I am always extremely thankful and grateful for my husband. If I have reached this position, it is thanks to his support,” Bessassi explained. “If you have an open-minded man who believes in the capacity of women and the essential role women are able to play in society, he will be very supportive.”
When thinking about what advice to give to young girls, she fixated on a main component: believe in oneself and one’s skills.
As a daughter, a mother, and a public figure in diplomacy, Bessassi reminds the next female generation of leaders: “Never put limits in your dreams; dream big, never give up, and keep going. Learn from your mistakes to finish stronger by the end.”