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She worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 14 years and was active as a refugee lawyer and human rights lawyer, among other things. We talk to alumna Fatimazhra Belhirch about her Master's in International and European Law, but also about the meaning of moral leadership and how to promote diversity. 'You need a changed landscape of the top of the Netherlands.'

'That seed was planted from an early age,' says Fatimazhra Belhirch about her social involvement. Even in her youth, she is occupied with equality and she watches all current affairs programmes on Dutch and international politics. She discusses society, human rights issues and emancipation with her father. 'Always with the realisation: you can do something about it,' says Fatimazhra. 'You are not the victim.' She calls politics one of the means to change things. 'My father felt it was important to pass this on and I was interested.'

At secondary school Fatimazhra considered studying medicine and economics. Until she saw the film A Few Good Men. 'It was really about legal injustice. It was a wake-up call. It felt good to choose law for something I had always been involved in.'

Social impact

Fatimazhra studies law at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. The corporate, company law and private law aspects interest her the most. She learns how to analyse, argue and negotiate, participates in international moot courts and gains international experience by studying in France and Japan. In Rotterdam, she entered student politics, where she developed her leadership qualities. 'I thought that things had to change. Now I could mean something and make a difference instead of staying on the sidelines,' she says.

After obtaining her Master's, Fatimazhra went to work for a large law firm. 'But I never really had that ambition,' she says. 'When I started studying law, I thought: after this I will do something international. At a multinational, perhaps international arbitration. Then the legal profession came my way. But there was a nagging question: is this it?' She starts working in London, but realises that she wants to have social impact. 'The UN is an interesting employer where you can put your ideals into action. But if you want to work in international law, you need a different basis.' Fatimazhra started looking for a suitable Master's, initially abroad. 'Until someone told me that you can also just go to Amsterdam, to the UvA,' she says, laughing. 'I chose International and European Law, mainly because of the subjects that were taught. Like International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law and refugees in the north and south.'

'What really struck me is that there are relatively many female lecturers and professors at the Amsterdam Law School. It also struck me how they teach and how passionate they are. Kiki Bröllman, Cindy Horst, Erika de Wet: women who do this with passion.' Fatimazhra believes there are still too few women in the academic world. 'It has improved, but there is still room for improvement.'

Put humanitarian interests first

During her master's, Fatimazhra learns about moral leadership. 'International law is often very political. That makes the moral leadership of, for example, political leaders important. Lecturers and professors taught us that you have to take responsibility in this. You have to take decisions which may not be good for you, but which are good for the greater whole. In international law, this is not always easy,' she explains. 'We see various international cases that are not going well. We now have the example of Afghanistan. You see that political will is ultimately more important than international law. And that is frustrating, of course. What a study like this teaches you is that you have to realise that. You have to look at yourself.'

'Domestic politics and economic interests often play a major role in decisions,' Fatimazhra explains. 'Yemen receives relatively little attention and little responsibility, while a humanitarian disaster is taking place there. Fortunately, there are organisations that are committed to Yemen, but in order to make a real difference, leaders must take action. But then there are conflicting interests: economic, geopolitical and humanitarian. But when you see that people are dying, I think: now we really have to put humanitarian interests first.'

If you want to make a difference in society, you have to set a good example yourself.

Symbolic politics

'As a leader, you shouldn't put yourself first. If you want to make a difference in society, you have to set a good example yourself. Moral leadership is important here. It's about your moral compass. It leads the way, shows real commitment and intentions and creates vision and more support. The Netherlands is a beautiful country and we should be happy with how things are, but here too change and improvement are necessary.' According to Fatimazhra, groups are becoming more distanced from each other. Here lies a role for our government and our political leaders, she believes. 'If you keep on hitting certain groups harder and others harder or not at all, you cause alienation. Do you really want us to live together more and do you, for example, want to solve integration issues and inequality of opportunity? Then you have to set a good example yourself. Make sure you really mean what you say, not that you only do it because of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, for example. Just putting a few people with a different background and more women on the electoral list is actually symbolic politics.' Fatimazhra sees symbolic politics both in the business world and in government. 'There you can see that all kinds of coordinators in the field of diversity and inclusion are being appointed. It is about the top actually wanting the change and standing behind it. I have supervised a number of change processes. If you look at behavioural science, you see that you cannot change behaviour just like that. It takes will. One of the most important aspects is: put it on paper. Make agreements with the top of the business community, but also within the government, to do more about diversity. If you make agreements, people have to keep to them and they can be called to account. But they also have to show the behaviour that goes with it. Then you see that this is adopted by the rest of the organisation.'

In the boards and supervisory positions in which Fatimazhra sits, she sees that directors, supervisors and supervisory boards are often white, of a certain age and 'self-selected'. They offer more opportunities to a white man with fewer qualifications than to a woman who is also of colour. 'Because they see less of themselves in them. Or they choose someone with more experience just to be on the safe side, when they could just as well take a risk with someone else who has it in him.' The Dutch Senate has just passed a law to increase the number of women and diversity on boards and in supervisory boards. She considers this a good first step. 'You need more than just a law, you also need the will to work it out. This is where headhunters come in. I have a lot of experience with headhunters and some are very good. But the other day at an assignment, the same result came up again. Then I asked whether there were any women, people with a bicultural background, young people. The agency couldn't find them, but that's nonsense. Then they're not looking properly. They do exist.'

Showing colour

Fatimazhra is hopeful that things will improve, but steps need to be taken. 'The hype that you see in the newspapers every day about diversity and inclusiveness is not enough. You need a changed landscape from the top of the Netherlands. I see that every time, the same kind of people are put in place. Then I think: people don't recognise themselves in that. Certain parties will continue to be tough in their rhetoric, but the rest will have to come clean, and not just when it suits them politically or career-wise'.

Fatimazhra is clear about her own future. 'I want to stand for something and make a difference, for example as leader of a social organisation. And maybe in the future in politics. For me, it is important that you continue to live up to your core values. I will always continue to look critically at our society and beyond, and raise issues. I really hope that we are all heading in the right direction.