Politics The World

Meet Maureen Ahmed, badass social justice activist, gender rights advocate, and DC policy changemaker

Maureen Ahmed has  programmatic, advocacy and research experiences in human rights, particularly women and girls’ issues at both the local and international levels. She has worked on gender advocacy, gender based violence and gender mainstreaming programs within international organizations such as: Women Deliver, United Nations Development Programme, Parliamentarians for Global Action, and United Nations Population Fund.  Maureen is also the youngest Board Member for Turning Point for Women and Families, the only nonprofit working to combat domestic violence in the Muslim community in New York City.

We sat down with Maureen to learn more about her work closing the gender divide locally and globally,

Can you tell us more about your transition from local community organizing to more internationally focused gender-based programs?

As a born and raised New Yorker, I always felt closely tied to the stories and experiences of people from my city.  When I finished undergrad, I wanted to focus my activism in helping women,  immigrant communities and communities of color across New York City. To me, it made little sense to reach out to the world without first having a nuanced understanding of the contextual experiences of those who lived around me.  

Through my experiences in NYC, I worked on  human rights issues such as: women’s rights in the workplace, accessing equitable services within public housing communities, youth activism in the South Asian community, domestic violence in the Muslim community and civic and political engagement for women and girls.

It’s from this community work that I grew a curiosity to understand the broader policy context of human rights issues, particularly those relating to women and girls.  My experiences showed me that in order to make systemic change for women and girls, we must streamline the policies and resources between the international and grassroots platforms.  Over the  last two years, I refocused my attention on working with international gender-based programs. My work thus far has been very enriching, and I accredit that to having an understanding of women and girls’ issues at both the community and international levels.

What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?

If you are going to be working on women and girls’ human rights issues, you hope to make an impact on marginalized communities around the world.  The unfortunate reality is that marginalized communities are almost always synonymous with women and girls of color from the Global South.  The even bigger reality? Women of color are not proportionally reflected at the top executive-leadership positions within international and U.S. based women’s organizations.  How do we intend to make an impact on women and girls of color around the world  if we are not even leveraging them to do that work in the first place?  

This disconnect is one of the reasons gender policies are not community-driven or context specific: our leaders don’t reflect our communities.  As a Bangladeshi-American and Muslim- American woman, it is important for me to see a woman of color leading the space, and that is rarely the case.  Women of color (particularly from the Global South and/or from different socio-economic stratas) MUST be mentored, leveraged and supported in leadership positions in the international development field

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

In five years, I would love to lead international-based policies for women and girls, particularly confronting gender-based violence within the Global South.  A big motivator for me has always been to confront the contexts in which women and girls are raised, so it is important for me to see a world where girls are raised securely and free from bodily and mental harm.

I would love (and hope) to be a part of the executive leadership bodies at the international level that are working towards ending violence against women and girls in all its forms.  At a personal level, I hope to mentor the next generation of women of color who are hoping to pursue a career in women and girls’ advocacy.

How did your childhood influence your career decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

Growing up with so many layers: being Muslim, being Bangladeshi, being a first-generation product of an immigrant family, and being a WOMAN (of course!) has helped me understand my purpose and motivations.  For me, that purpose and motivation meant that I must be actively involved in a career that can make a difference for women like myself and women and girls around the world.  As a child of immigrant parents, I was taught that a sustainable career path would be to become a doctor or engineer.  But very early on- perhaps by age 17, I knew I wanted to dedicate a life to women’s rights and activism.   In order to get my parents on board, I knew I had to do this professionally and get to the top of my field, so I have been giving it my all.  I have been continuously seeking out opportunities to gain more professional experience, and that includes over 500+ hours of volunteer experience as well as 10+ internships thus far.  Now at 27, I feel confident in the experiences that I have gained so far and hope to continue gaining skills and experiences that will make me an expert in international gender issues.

In terms of doing things differently, I wish I did more study abroad and/or volunteer abroad opportunities during college and right after- when financial and personal life obligations weren’t as heavy as they are now.  I think gaining global perspectives are so important, and I wish I took more advantage of that, though it is never too late!

What’s some advice for young women of color looking to pursue the same dreams as you?

I have so much advice, where do I begin? Mainly I’ll stick to these four main points:

1. Just because you don’t know someone personally who is doing what you want to do, doesn’t mean you can’t do it: be the first one on your block!

Growing up (and even until very recently), I had no access to women’s leaders in the UN/international affairs space, but I worked very hard at the community level over the last ten years to have transferable skills to the international platform.  You don’t have to have years of field experience in a foreign country to have international affairs experience: work with an issue that you care deeply about that impacts communities of diversity and build some hard skills (like fundraising, writing, research, organizing, etc).  You will be a stronger candidate when you apply for more international-based jobs and programs.

2. Seek mentors!

This is so important, and something I struggle to do myself: I always think that everything I have to do has to be by myself.  But there are so many other women (and men!) that would be willing to help you figure out your goals,  you just have to reach out! Whether its mentors in your community or mentors at the international level that you develop an online relationship with, seek out people who you admire and want to learn from.  A great place to start is your own community.  LinkedIn is also very helpful.

3.  Don’t let anyone EVER silence your voice

As a woman of color, you will come across people who are uncomfortable, threatened or even disapproving of your presence: do not let anyone silence your voice and make you feel like you don’t deserve a seat at the table.  When people judge you based off of your physicality, remind them that you are there because of your hard work, innovative ideas and creative energy by speaking up and taking that space that has always been yours!

4. Save up and travel the world

I have been to 20+ countries across 5 continents so far, and I don’t come from money! I always try to save up for my next trip and even have let go of certain spending habits, like buying coffee, getting manicures/pedicures and excessive clothing shopping just so I can save up to go travel.  Working in women’s and girls’ issues at the international level requires you to see the situation from the ground.  So if you don’t have access to an opportunity to live abroad for an extended period of time, save up and go abroad! Do a smaller service project, write about women’s issues on the ground or even contact NGOs while there to see if they need volunteer help. Perspective drives innovative solutions, so gain as much as on-the-ground experience as you can.

You can follow Maureen on Twitter @maureenjahmed. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

By Asma Elgamal

Asma Elgamal is our Head News + Society Editor at The Tempest. She's currently a student at Harvard University.