Parwen Babaker in Nina Magazine
Parwen Babaker is Kurdistan’s ex Minister of Industry and a business woman, wife and mother. This elegant, quietly spoken woman is tough and determined and has leveraged an impressive political and corporate career. Parwen champions building human capacity through non-for-profit organisations, supporting women in leadership and assisting young leaders to bring light to Iraqi Kurdistan and to the international world.
She takes time out of her busy schedule as current President of Wza Petroleum and Chair of the Executive Board of the Nokan Group to meet with Nigar Ibrahim, head of Nina Magazine’s Swedish chapter (and originally from Kurdistan) – in Nokan’s Sulimania Offices.
Women as peacemakers – this is something that has often been raised by leaders when confronted with situations of war or violence. Do you think women have a role as peacemakers and if so what is it?
When compared to men, women’s characters are naturally milder, but also far more empathetic. I believe we are created as a direct ‘contradiction’ to violence. This is borne out by historical references in Kurdish culture for example, where women are usually identified as peaceful creatures. For example, we have an old saying that when fight breaks out between two knights, a woman is able to put an end the fight, simply by wrapping her shawl around her shoulders in front of them!
One thing is certain; globally women are always the first victim of the wars. There are so many widows in Kurdistan and Iraq as a whole, not to mention other terrible things that happen. This suffering must be recognised.
What you ask is also relevant to something else though. I have often wondered whether having women Ministers of Defence – as is often the case in countries like Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, and Norway – contributes to the state of peace that exists there. Of course, if it wasn’t for personal and cultural freedoms enjoyed by women in these countries, and others across the Western world, standing for this kind of senior political office would not be possible. It is therefore important to consider the cultural and political events in these countries that have led to the equality women enjoy now. Vigilance in terms of maintaining personal freedoms and things such as equality of pay and access to education is also important and will ensure continued attention to women’s issues.
In the UK or Sweden politics and business are uneasy allies. In Kurdistan, government and the private sector are often linked, for example you are active in politics and Chair of Nokan. How important has political activity been to your career?
I don’t believe that politics and business are contradictory. In fact I would go so far as to say that they are complementary. Politics and business are the two major elements of any infrastructure that works towards providing services that are in the common interest of people, even if these elements do come from different directions. This is also true in your country (i.e. Sweden) – the government plans and the private sector carries out the plans!
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the private sector receives significant assistance from the government. The investment laws are a great example of how this can be beneficial. Created by government, they facilitate ease of investment, both from the outside and the inside. This is great politically as well as being good for business. In this way the private sector is enabled to implement a variety of projects – creating jobs and opportunity. Co-operation helps, and the reverse hampers; something all business leaders and politicians should consider.
In European countries and America businessmen offer assistance to major political candidates in the elections. This kind of relationship is found in many countries, albeit in different forms. It is important to mention that we should not let such relationships go too far, as things can so easily slide into corruption.
In my case, when there is a political issue, I work as a politician. When I work as a businesswoman, I am just that. It is not appropriate for me to use my political power, instead I do my work as best I can, based on ability and experience.
What is your policy towards inclusion and equal opportunity in the Nokan Group? Do you consider the policies of other companies when you look at them?
As head of the administrative function in Nokan I try to establish a system at an institutional level that is fair for everyone. I am very systematic in terms of providing equal opportunities, based on creating the right tasks for the right people and linking these to the correct measures. This approach ensures tasks are met. I am also very careful to ensure equality between women and men, balance is important. In different government sectors the number of graduates is more or less equal between male and female. At Nokan we emulate this, creating the same chances for both.
This also has a basis in my beliefs for equal opportunity as a politician and in our company history.
His Excellency Dler Said Majid, the founder of Nokan Company, embodies the Pershmerga spirit. The phrase ‘Peshmerga spirit’ is used when we serve our country faithfully in a way that is self-sacrificing. In this respect, he did his best to keep the balance of equal opportunities in work. I try to continue this practice.
With respect to the second part of your question, we gain benefit from the experience of the other companies, but we never copy. However, by ensuring that we learn from the positive practices adopted by others, we follow what are the key principles of success and continuation since the creation of mankind. The only person who is not able take advantage from earlier experience is Adam (as in Adam and Eve!). Another point of collaboration, that I do think is important, is that companies should work together with charities and communities in terms of citizenship and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
How important do you think your roles of wife and mothers have been along your path of business success? Can you give practical advice as to how you dealt with the challenges of managing a variety of roles?
We build our family on the basis of understanding and mutual support. My husband is a judge by profession. I help him, he helps me. My practical advice is that the different types of jobs or roles we fulfill shouldn’t be seen as obstacles. We can instead take advantage of the opportunities they present. For example, I can take advantage of legal advice from my husband. I am sure that another woman, whose husband is an engineer or a doctor, can take benefit his advice too!
I do think though that it is important to give ‘real’ time to all the roles we take. It is good for me to be a good wife and give time to my husband, the same goes for being a mother and all my other hats. If we give enough time to each one, they all develop in tandem.
While you were studying, was there a particular thing that catalysed your path from graduate chemist, to Minister of Industry, to your current high profile role in the private sector?
I never imagined to take any high post, but I do like achieving. I am very driven. When I finished my studies, I started working in a cement factory, later I became a minister, after that I continued working in the private sector. All the stages of my working life are relevant to industry, economy, and politics.
As Minister of Industry, you had a fundamental role in attracting inward investment whilst building an infrastructure able to create a sustainable social and economic future. How important is education to this future? How important are considerations such as protecting the environment and green technology?
This is a great question, but for me to be able to answer it properly, we must explore our more recent history.
After the Kurdish uprising, Iraqi Kurdistan experienced two stages.
1. 1991-2003 Barriers to Growth
This period saw the start of the Kurdish Uprising (1991) and the ending of Baath party authority in Iraq (2003). At this time only six percent of Iraqi industries were inside Kurdish territory. To make matters worse two embargoes were imposed on Iraqi Kurdistan during this period. One was an international embargo on Iraq and the second the Iraqi embargo on Kurdistan.
2. Post 2003: Reconstruction and Development
Kurdistan witnessed a huge development in all sectors of life which investment expansion reached 26 billion dollars in this stage and now Kurdistan is compared to the rest of Iraq, with 49% of Iraqi industry in its borders. This leap has come from huge development in the economic sector which has been achieved by the local staff and experts who have graduated in the universities of Kurdistan or other universities abroad, all staying in their homeland to serve.
Education is a key to the development of our region. We realized the need to expand the education sector in our early years of self- governing. If compared to the 1991, there was only 1 university and three institutes but today there are 22 universities and 24 institutes in the Kurdish region. All have played a vital role in providing the different sectors with the expert skills needed.
In terms of the environment, the reason we decided to shut down the cement factory of Sarchinar (this is where I started my career, so it wasn’t an easy choice!) was to protect the environment from pollution. I believe protecting the environment is as important as education. I am a member of Green Kurdistan Group and believe it is good that new technology is playing an important role in the protection of our environment. It is our duty to protect the planet we live in.
Do think that private sector can effect social changes? If so how?
The private sector is a key factor in the development of any country – and of course impacts social change also. I actually see government or public sector employees as representing hidden unemployment. Although they get paid, there are often significant differences in the levels of work expected from them (and given!).
For example, Sarchinar cement factory employed 650 civil servants however we only needed 150 employees to run the factory. It is also worth highlighting here the results of the first trial of privatization run by the KRG in conjunction with Mr Faruk Mala Mustafa Rasool and the Egyptian Orascom Company. When the factory was privatized its production increased dramatically. It is also important to note that none of the employees were fired in the process.
Before this pilot many journalists and politicians were against privatization, but now most people are in agreement that the private sector is considered important in terms of supporting economic development.
What have you achieved that you are proud of?
I am proud of what I have achieved, even the smallest ways in which I have been able to serve my country in these difficult times have been important to me. I am proud to be a woman and to be a Kurd. We are not done yet. I hope that our industry sector will continue developing, so that we are on a par with other developed countries. Economic growth and agricultural development are vital in this journey also.
As an inspiration to Kurdish women and Iraqi women as a whole, what message do you want convey to them?
We need to have courage and believe in our own abilities so that we work to the best of our abilities. If we women leave everything to men, believing they will do better, it becomes impossible for us to meet our full potential.