The World with Maryam and Nivaal Rehman

Maryam and Nivaal Rehman Interviewing Ambassador Melanne Verveer at the Girl Up Leadership Summit (2019)

“We think that the education of girls can truly transform them, and eventually their communities too. When an educated girl starts implementing changes for the better in her family and community, the whole society changes, cultural shifts occur and ultimately these lead to the overall empowerment and upliftment of women too, because educated girls are better equipped to fight for their rights.”

You were eight years old when you first became activists for girls’ education, after visiting a school in Pakistan that your grandmother had donated her inherited land to build. The students at the school told you that they would quit school when they reached grade five because they would have to work to support their families. Is this experience what fueled your passion and energy to begin “The World with MNR”?  

This experience was the starting point of our activism journey, as we were motivated to contribute in whatever way we could to inspire these girls to continue their education. After volunteering at the school in whatever way we could on family trips to Pakistan, we were motivated to volunteer and get involved in social justice initiatives here in Canada too. About five years into our journey of activism and volunteering, we decided to start sharing about our work to inspire others to get involved too and that’s when we started The World With MNR. Initially, it was a media platform designed to bridge the gap between the issues that exist in the world and actions people can take to help. In 2019, it was officially launched as a non-profit organization that essentially combined all of the work that we have been doing for over eleven years now.  

You have continued to work with the girls at the school through empowering workshops, conversations with their parents, donations of school supplies, and more. What do you find to be the most critical factors to ensure that girls stay in school? 

We think that community involvement is the most important. We always tried to play a role that worked in partnership with the community, whether this is the girls themselves or their parents, and work with them side-by-side instead of playing the role of heroes or people trying to impose ideas just because we “know what is best.” We have always tried to understand where they are coming from, what their unique circumstances are, and why girls stopped going to school in the first place. Over the years of doing this community work, we have learned that poverty is a critical issue that cannot be ignored when considering factors related to girls’ education. There also have to be incentives for the girls to continue their education instead of dropping out to work and we’ve found that achievable job opportunities, like local businesses that pay well and hire girls of a certain education level are important for encouraging families to keep their girls in school. 

A workshop held in Maryam and Nivaal’s Village in Pakistan (2019)

What have been the greatest challenges to keeping girls in school? In your view, what can we do to overcome them? 

We think poverty has been the greatest challenge to keeping girls in school from what we’ve seen in our village in Pakistan and the best thing we can do to overcome this issue is understand the structural issues that contribute to poverty. We must evaluate which changes need to be made at that structural level and what the people can do themselves, and also consider how we can support. Understanding the bigger picture is very helpful and can prevent us from reaching mismatched and ill-equipped solutions for keeping girls in school and most importantly, working in partnership with communities is one of the best ways to overcome these challenges. Obviously, we are a long way from achieving these structural changes, but especially as we study these challenges at university, we are becoming better equipped to be able to address them. For so many years, we have just been passionate activists who have used our voices to help in whatever way we can in our community, and we think that it is because of the passion of the amazing girls in our village that they have been able to continue their education. We hope to continue playing whatever role we can in that journey, and especially towards poverty reduction as we learn more during this time.

Maryam and Nivaal with former Managing Director of the IMF, Madame Christine Lagarde ~ G7 Summit (2018)

In your opinion, why is the education of girls imperative to the overall empowerment and upliftment of women? 

We think that the education of girls can truly transform them, and eventually their communities too. When an educated girl starts implementing changes for the better in her family and community, the whole society changes, cultural shifts occur and ultimately these lead to the overall empowerment and upliftment of women too, because educated girls are better equipped to fight for their rights.

As “MOVERS, SHAKERS, and CHANGE-MAKERS,” you continue to challenge norms through unique multimedia, development projects and transformative events. As much as we may recognize how utterly significant and imperative this movement is, many will push back on it. How have you grappled with challenging or opposing perspectives? 

Challenging or opposing perspectives can often be very important and useful for allowing us to learn and grow in our work, and we welcome them, especially from an academic perspective. This helps us improve our work significantly and build on areas in which there are gaps. That being said, we have been so overwhelmed with all the support we have gotten for our work and have not really faced significant opposition for our work around education, climate or gender equality. However, sometimes we have received backlash against key human rights issues that we speak up about, including the atrocities taking place in Indian Occupied Kashmir. We understand that receiving criticism as a nonprofit is important to help us improve and learn, but we also understand when it needs to be the other way around, and when people criticise us simply because of their political beliefs. We have learned to put our energy into conversations where people are willing to learn from us and continue to do our human rights advocacy even when there is backlash. Often, it is the oppressors who feed their people misinformation around human rights issues, but there are still some people who are willing to see past that and stand up for what is right. We find hope in them, and know that we must use our voices to speak up about causes, especially when these issues are related to human rights and have been politicized, and do this despite the backlash we might receive.

The three main pillars you support include gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and our planet. In your opinion, how are these three discussions intertwined, and why is an intersectional approach so crucial? 

Gender Equality, diversity and inclusion, and our planet are definitely interconnected in many ways. A part of gender equality is the impact of issues like climate change in exacerbating women’s inequality, as women face increased burdens and risks from climate change, especially when living in poverty. Diversity and inclusion connect to both gender equality and our planet because this ensures that we understand the importance of an intersectional approach in resolving these issues. Intersectionality, as established by Kimberlé Crenshaw, considers how people’s identities overlap to produce the inequalities and prejudices they experience. As a result, gender inequality is experienced differently by a South Asian, visibly Muslim Woman and it is also experienced differently by a Black Woman. In the same way, people’s diverging identities contribute to varying experiences with climate change and this must also be recognized to ensure that the actions that are taken are effective based on this inclusive, intersectional approach.   

Maryam and Nivaal with former CEO of the World Bank, Kristalina Georgieva ~ G7 Summit (2018)

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your time with the non-profit? What are some of the greatest successes? 

Some of the biggest challenges we’ve faced during our time with the non-profit have been oriented around not having enough resources, especially in terms of time, to achieve all of our goals. We always feel like we could be spending more time on our initiatives, but this can be difficult because we are also full-time students. Some of our greatest successes have also come despite these constraints, including our Girlz,RTW Conference, dedicated to inspiring and supporting young women in pursuing their dream careers, which we have hosted for the second year in a row and the numerous initiatives we have been able to run with our incredible team over 2020 despite everything being digital. 

Traveling between Canada and Pakistan, what differences have you noticed (if any) when it comes to the status of women and girls? What are some of the biggest misconceptions (if any) that the West has in relation to the Middle East and vice versa? 

We think the status of women and girls between Pakistan and Canada is different because the cultural contexts between the two countries are so unique. For example, in Pakistan, some of the issues are related to girls’ education access and the factors contributing to this vary throughout the country as well. In Canada, although many women and girls have access to a quality education, there are other issues, like a lack of representation in non-traditional career fields for example. There are obviously many other issues, but there is also work being done in both contexts to improve the status of women and girls. 

Some of the biggest misconceptions that the West has in relation to regions of the world like South Asia (where Pakistan is) or the Middle East, is that these regions of the world are “backwards” and that an evaluation of their societal progress must be done based on what exists in the West. Although there are certain things that are definitely valuable in Western contexts, progress is not a linear notion and not everything can be measured from a Eurocentric or Western-oriented perspective. There are things that can improve, but these must be done with local contexts and ambitions in mind. Their measures of progress and solutions are just as valid as Western ones. 

The biggest misconceptions that these regions (like South Asia) have of the West, are that there aren’t many social issues here. However, this idea is deeply flawed, because people still experience poverty, gender inequalities and injustices that need to be resolved, although these can vary significantly  even within countries and regions. 

Overall, it is important for both sides to go beyond stereotypical understandings and seek to learn more about each other to overcome misconceptions. This can help build more understanding among people and help us make the world a more inclusive place, which in turn will help us tackle some of the world’s biggest issues. 

Maryam and Nivaal with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan ~ Bani Gala (2015)

How do you hope things will be different for women and girls in 2050? 

We hope that in 2050, more girls are a part of the conversation and have no structural barriers preventing them from pursuing their goals. We also hope that women and girls will have access to quality education around the world, and are key decision-makers in their communities and lives. 

What are your future plans for “The World With MNR”? 

We hope to do a lot more work in person after the pandemic, and expand on the current work that we are doing including initiatives like Feminae Carta. This is a digital advocacy tool we are developing to help make gender equality a policy priority in countries around the world, and we are currently working on developing a background guide for this initiative with our team of incredible researchers. 

For those of us who wish to get further involved in or support “The World With MNR’s” mission, where can we get started? 

You can get started by following along on our social media accounts @theworldwithmnr, and especially on our Instagram account, where we share many ways that you can support not only The World With MNR, but also ways you can take action with us and other organizations. 

Maryam and Nivaal with the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau and Malala Yousafzai ~ Parliament of Canada (2017)

What do you do to relax?

We love spending time being creative, and lately, that has involved filling up our travel sketchbook with paintings of destinations we’ve been to in the past as well as places we’d love to go to in the future. 

Who is your biggest role model / inspiration?

Our biggest role model/inspirations are our grandmothers, for their dedication to uplifting women and girls in their communities and standing up for what they believed in. Our maternal grandmother donated some of her land to have a girls’ school built in our village and that is where our activism journey began. We also learned over the years about her non-traditional decisions like insisting on sending her daughters to university, which initially brought resistance from other family members but ultimately contributed to a shift whereby all girls in our family now pursue their higher education if they want to. Our paternal grandmother on the other hand, was just as fierce and dedicated, and she built a vocational institution to enable women to gain technical skills for jobs even if they had not gone to school. Although they lived in completely different regions of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, they transformed their communities in their own ways, and we continue to learn about the amazing things they did in their lifetimes. Although we did not know about these aspects of their stories when starting our work, it almost seems like we were meant to do this work because of them and continue to be inspired by them! 

What has been your favorite travel destination? 

Our favorite travel destination so far has been Istanbul, Turkey, which we visited in 2019. It was incredible to experience the rich history, culture and hospitality of this extraordinary city, and after planning the trip for so long it has definitely been our favorite!

I really enjoyed this conversation with twin activists and journalists Maryam and Nivaal Rehman, who co-founded the global non-profit organization The World With MNR. The World With MNR works for gender equality, climate justice and inclusivity through storytelling, advocacy and development projects. Consider learning more about their mission and supporting their efforts here.

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