Androulla Vassiliou: ‘‘Behind every successful woman, there is a successful man’
- Androulla Vassiliou is a Cypriot and European politician.
- Elected president of the World Federation of United Nations Associations and re-elected for two terms before being made an honorary president.
- 1996: Elected to the House of Representatives of Cyprus and president of the Cyprus Federation of Business and Professional Women.
- 2001 – 2006: Vice-president of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, chairperson of the European Liberal Women’s Network and chairperson-of-the-board of trustees of the Cyprus Oncology Centre. During this time, she served on the European Affairs Committee and the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Cyprus and the EU. She was also an alternate-representative of the Cyprus parliament to the European Convention, which drew up the European Constitution.
- March 2008 – February 2010: European Commissioner for Health.
- February 2010- November 2014: European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.
- Married to George Vassiliou, former President of Cyprus. They have three children.
- Hobbies: Music, walking, swimming and reading.
- Languages: Greek, English and French.
Androulla Vassiliou is very active in social and cultural fields, particularly within the UN and the EU. In Cyprus, she has held many important posts and is on the board of many public and private companies.
You started out as a lawyer. How did you decide to become a lawyer and why did you decide to leave the practice?
From a very young age, I had the gift of public speaking. I could argue in favour or against a given topic, with ease. On the other hand, I was also very good in designing and I dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. I even enrolled at a very good college of design in London. My parents, however, were thinking about my future. They rightly thought that, in the 1960s, there was not much prospect in making a career in designing in Cyprus. So, with the encouragement of my grandmother, who wanted me to exploit my gift of elocution, I agreed to study Law. I, also, agreed that the legal profession would give me better chances of success. So, I enrolled in the Middle Temple Inn of Court in London and I finished my studies in record time. However, as I was under age, I had to wait to be called to the English Bar. So, in the meantime, I followed a 2-year post-graduate course in International Relations.
Upon completion of my studies, I returned to Cyprus and started knocking on the doors of big legal firms, but no one was prepared to employ a young unknown woman, at the time. My husband gave me strength and told me I should not be discouraged, but that I should open my own legal office. So I did, at the age of 24, and, after giving birth to my first daughter, I gradually built up my clientele. After six years in practice and with the encouragement of many, I became the first female lawyer who dared to apply to become a judge, but the all-male Judiciary Committee did not at all favour the appointment of a young woman to ‘the bench’. It was only 14 years later that the first woman was appointed and, today, I am pleased to say that we have “50 – 50” gender equality on ‘the bench’.
You left your career upon your husband’s election to the presidency of the Republic, in 1988, but you diverted your energy into cultural and societal matters. How difficult was this change?
Yes, I left my practice. However, in addition to the normal duties of a First Lady, I decided to help in areas where I thought I could help the society at large. I created the “Music and Fine Arts Fund” and, through it, we tried to help young musicians. We organised concerts, master classes and musical education evenings in order to promote musical culture in Cyprus. We brought teachers from abroad to teach instruments that did not exist in Cyprus, at the time, and that would complete our symphony orchestra, like the oboe, the cello and other musical instruments. It is a great reward for me to see so many young people playing these instruments today. I also took the initiative to construct a nice amphitheatre on the grounds of the Presidential Palace, where many musical and theatrical events are still taking place up to today.
I encouraged my husband to create the “Permanent Agency on Women’s Rights” and worked diligently in this field with all of the women’s organizations.
I tried to fight the taboos that existed, at the time, regarding children with special needs, patients with HIV or AIDS, etc. One of the most rewarding experiences was to accompany the Cyprus team to the Special Olympics; both the international and the European event.
Did your husband consult with you during his presidency, especially on serious matters?
My husband and I always talked about many things. He always advised me and, likewise, I also expressed my views on matters that he had to deal with. This relationship always existed. His famous phrase “Androula and I” is remembered by all Cypriots.
You were elected to the House of Representatives after your husband’s presidency, in 1996. What were your impressions of life in parliament?
Parliament life was a new experience for me. I decided to follow two important rules: To be well-prepared for all topics that came before us and, secondly, to be punctual with my responsibilities in the different committees. I believe that I was respected for this. During the time of our accession negotiations for the EU, I was a member of the European Affairs Committee and we had to work very hard and methodically. We had to review some 80,000 laws and make sure that they were compatible with the European law, including the adoption of many new laws. It was a great experience. I participated, also, in the Joint Parliamentary Committee of the EU and Cyprus and this was a great introduction for me to the EU, to which we later became members.
I also promoted, or joined other parliamentarians in promoting, legislation very important for Cyprus. I will give you a few examples: Until the 1990s, if a Cypriot man was married to a foreign woman, their children automatically became Cyprus nationals, BUT if a Cypriot woman was married to a foreigner, their children did not automatically obtain Cypriot nationality and had to apply for it and it was up to the authorities to grant it or not. I promoted an amendment to this law and women eventually obtained the same rights for their children as men had. I was also involved in the promotion of the law against violence in the family and the law regarding the rights of children was originally my own initiative. As well, I participated actively in the adoption of the law regarding the Rights of Patients and many other laws. These were, indeed, very productive years.
After parliament, you were appointed European Commissioner. After your work in the EU, you left behind a very good name as one of the top European politicians. What are your memories of this time?
I remember that, three days after the presidential elections of 2008, the president rang me and asked me “to go to Brussels” and that I should reply in half-an-hour. I called my family, we got together and all of them encouraged me to accept. After my approval by President Barroso and my confirmation by the European parliament (after a three hour hearing before them), I took office, at the beginning of April 2008. For the first two years, I was responsible for Health, Food and Animal Safety and, with a new Commission in 2010, I took over the portfolio of Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Youth and Sport; a very wide portfolio with a lot of responsibilities.
After working in Brussels, I became an even more convinced European. I visited all of the countries in Europe and I got to know their people, their cultures and their civilisations; the sum total of which make up our European culture and civilisation.
In my cabinet, as Commissioner, I had to work with seven different nationalities, speaking a different language and coming from different backgrounds and cultures. However, after a few months, we all worked together as a family towards achieving common goals. It was a wonderful experience that convinced me that the motto of the EU, “Unity in Diversity”, is so right.
Should a woman sacrifice some things to achieve success in life?
Of course! You have to give up your leisure time and work very hard in order to find a balance between your family and your career. We have three children and bringing them up and, at the same time, trying to build a career is, indeed, very hard and stressful. I never had a moment of peace, but my husband was very encouraging and kept me going. Indeed, when the children were grown, things became much easier. Looking back, I often wondered whether I did my duties as a mother. This is the typical question of a career woman, but my children made me feel at ease when they told me: “You gave us quality time, you gave us principles and you showed us the way forward. You were the best role model for us.”
How can a woman who was always working so hard and raised three children find the time to be so good looking and always be so well-dressed? What is your secret?
I believe that no woman, whether a lawyer or other professional or a politician, should allow herself to lose her femininity. She should always try to take care of herself. It also makes YOU feel well. I remember the “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher. She certainly had her own style, but she was always well-dressed. One should also watch her weight and eat healthily and do exercise, as far as possible. I love the sea and I swim a lot for 5 months a year. I do Pilates, as well, which helps me to keep my flexibility. I also love nature and walking, when I find the time, but, most important of all, I keep always active and I do not know the meaning of the word “boredom”.
Do you find time to do your favourite things, like reading and listening to music?
I love going to concerts and, when abroad, I also go to the opera and ballet. I, also, love going to the theatre. I listen to music regularly. As far as reading is concerned, I must confess that I do not read as much as I should. I read books mainly in the summer. I should say that the social media and all of the news on-line have spoiled my reading habits.
What are you working on now?
Well, I still keep up a lot of activities. I chair the Board of Trustees of the Bank of Cyprus Oncology Centre. I am a member of the High Council of the European University Institute in Florence. I am, also, the V.P. of Europa Nostra, the biggest European organisation dealing with cultural heritage, and participate in many other activities, both in Cyprus and abroad.
I just gave, to the publishers, the book that I have completed on the development of Cypriot woman in the past 100 years. I interviewed a great number of elderly women (many of them dead by now). I wanted to help women, especially young generations of women, to understand and appreciate the struggles of so many older generations of women and women’s organizations that fought to bring about changes and reach the state that we presently find ourselves in. At the time of independence, 27% of women were illiterate. Now, there is no illiteracy and 57% of university graduates are women.
The family law was based on ecclesiastical law; the constitution of the Church of Cyprus. I will give you an example of the prevailing law at the time: Up until the 1970s, if a married woman spent one night, without permission, from the husband, at the house of a relative of second degree and up, or if a wife was not a virgin the first night of marriage, these gave the husband the right to divorce. All these have now changed and we have modern family laws.
Women of Cyprus have made tremendous progress, but a lot remains to be done, especially in fighting violence against women and, also, in promoting women into positions where decisions are made, whether as ministers, as parliamentarians, on boards of public companies, etc…
Do you agree with the saying “Behind every successful woman, there is a successful man”?
This saying goes both ways. For either spouse, to become successful, he/she needs the encouragement and support of the other. This was applied in practice in our case. When my husband decided, after consultation with me, to run for the presidency, I supported him all the way and gave up my practice as a lawyer for him. At the same time, my husband was always supportive of me and, as I said, he morally supported me to keep up my career when the children were small and encouraged me to take up the position of EU Commissioner, although it was a sacrifice for him, having been left all alone in Cyprus. Mutual respect and support is essential for success.