Cherie Blair, the wife of Middle East envoy and former British premier Tony, is a power in her own right. A high-flying lawyer, she is now dedicating more time to her foundation, which helps women in the region achieve their potential. Helena Frith Powell talks to her. Last month, Cherie Blair fulfilled a promise she had made to a group of women in Palestine two years earlier. "I went to the region after my husband became Middle East envoy in 2007 and I was invited to address a conference held by the Palestinian Business Women's Forum," the wife of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister says in a telephone interview from London. "They were such a remarkable group of women and I asked them how I could help. They said they wanted a centre where women could train and be mentored and not feel alone."
Through the Cherie Blair Foundation, set up in September 2008 to offer women better access to business development support, networks and finance in parts of the world where they lack equal opportunities, Blair will support a new centre in Ramallah to the tune of US$400,000 (Dh1.47 million) along with her partner in the project, Business Women Forum-Palestine. "It was a very moving moment," she says.
At the same time Blair launched an educational project in Western Galilee along with the Western Galilee College. "Western Galilee is a part of Israel where 70 per cent of the population is Arab, but there are only seven per cent Arab women in the labour market," she explains. "Likewise only 30 per cent of women from the Jewish community are in the labour market. My foundation will create 22 Cherie Blair fellows, 11 from each community, and support them for three years on a higher education programme which provides tutoring, workplace training and business development opportunities."
Blair has been working on setting up the foundation since she and her family left Downing Street in 2007. "I have always been passionate about women's issues," she says. "I was brought up by strong women myself and then spent 10 years as prime minister's wife going around the world meeting some incredible women. I wanted to do something where my experience would be useful, where I could make a difference and not duplicate what is already being done. There is nothing more helpful to women than networks and I can help to create those. I am not saying I will come to the Middle East, for example, and say I know all the answers; the people on the ground know the answers better than me, but I can identify the local partners and create something with them."
The foundation is examining several more projects in the region. It is trying to set up a centre similar to the one in Ramallah in Beirut and also in Nablus. Here in Abu Dhabi it is looking at a project with the Khalifa Fund. It will probably be a business development centre and, as with all the projects the fund gets involved with, it will target women. "Women entrepreneurs face barriers," says Blair. "But this is not confined to the Arab world. There is no country in the world where women have equal opportunities. And I refuse to accept that it is a natural state of affairs that they are not represented in the business world."
One of Blair's aims with the business support centres is to ensure that women who are educated have the necessary skills to get jobs. "There is nothing crueller than educating girls and then saying there are no jobs. These centres will help them get internships, set up their own businesses and join already established companies." She may be most famous for being the wife of Britain's prime minister, but this is a woman who has had an impressive career of her own. In her professional life she is a top barrister and goes by the name of Cherie Booth QC; the initials stand for Queen's Counsel, a title that denotes her special status as one of the lawyers appointed to be "Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law". She is also a part-time judge and a founding member of the Matrix Chambers in London that specialises in human rights law. On top of this high-flying legal career and her role as the prime minister's wife for 10 years, she has four children, the youngest of whom, Leo, is only nine. How does she do it?
"Ugh," she sighs. "When people ask me this they hope that I have some magic formula. I don't. Please don't take me as a role model. As every other working mother does, I spend a lot of time worrying that I'm not good enough at either role. I think we should be more confident in ourselves and not worry so much. "I had the support of my mother, who was abandoned by my father when I was eight years old. She went out to work to give me the education she didn't have. The fact that she went out to work and did that made me understand that she was a fantastic mother. I live in the hope that my children will cut me some slack as well."
The one sector that has never cut Cherie Blair any slack is the British press. She has been more or less demonised by the press from the moment she opened the door of the Blairs' house in Islington, north London, wearing her nightdress the morning after Labour's general election victory. They have called her everything from Cruella de Vil to Lady Macbeth on a good day. Has the negative press affected her?
"I'm only human," she says. "It would be difficult to be completely unaffected by it. But Tony always used to say that complaining about the British press is like complaining about the British weather - it's just part of life. We took the decision when he became prime minister that I would never give interviews. We felt it was very important that it was Tony's voice that was heard, and that worked up to a point, but then they became obsessed with what I was wearing. I'm not saying I don't care what I wear, but it's not necessarily at the heart of my daily obsession."
The Blairs were in Downing Street for 10 years. Cherie Blair says that what she misses most from those days are the people they used to work with. "I was speaking to the switchboard earlier today and I remembered what a fantastic team we had there who really became part of our extended family. But I am a great believer in never looking back and I think it is important to be able to concentrate on things I am passionate about and not be totally focused on, for example, British charities, as I was as the wife of the prime minister."
The most memorable thing from that time was the people she met. "Not just the famous ones like Nelson Mandela, but the people you don't hear about who are doing fantastic work, like the women of Rwanda who saw their children killed in front of their eyes and are taking in orphans and being mothers to them. We complain about our lot, but the women of Africa are an inspiration." And what was the most surprising thing about being the prime minister's wife?
"My husband would say the most surprising thing is that I managed to be as diplomatic as I was," she laughs. "I'm not sure I always succeeded, but I tried." Blair says that as far as her four children go, she has tried to instil in them the importance of giving back and working hard. "I think if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well," she says. "And I also try to get them to understand that nothing in life is worth having that you don't have to work for. But beyond that, it is also about giving back."
She also says that she enjoys being able to do things that she was not able to do as the PM's wife. For example working on a Channel 4 documentary, making a home of her own and handling legal cases that could have been difficult to take on in her previous position. She offers no advice for other premiers' wives, such as the US first lady. "I think Michelle Obama is doing a fantastic job and she certainly doesn't need any advice from me. She probably hopes she doesn't make the same mistakes I did."
What does she think was her biggest mistake?
She laughs. "I probably shouldn't have opened the door in my nightie."
Born September 23, 1954, in Bury, northern England. Brought up by her mother and paternal grandmother after her father (the actor Tony Booth) abandoned her mother when Cherie was eight. Becomes a member of the Labour Party at 16. Becomes the first person in her family to go to university and studies law at the London School of Economics. Graduates with first-class honours. Meets Tony Blair in 1976 while studying to become a barrister. Marries Tony Blair in 1980; they have four children. Becomes Queen's Counsel in 1995. Publishes her memoir Speaking For Myself in May 2008. The book becomes a Sunday Times bestseller. Launches the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in September 2008. www.cherieblairfoundation.org