At 17, I founded the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE), a self-defense, leadership, and entrepreneurship program for Muslim women in New York City. In the past five years, WISE has engaged hundreds of participants across the country and our program has become a year-long course in an Islamic girls’ school. Each year, our fellowship provides high school female students with the opportunity to challenge themselves through extensive trainings. WISE’s social enterprise competitions empower young Muslim women to critically think about and develop sustainable programs to address issues they see in their communities. The explosive growth of WISE and its impact on the community – my community – has been beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
During this same period, I traveled back to the Middle East, learned about the region and delved deeper into the gender issues I had witnessed as a child. At an orphanage in Egypt, a young woman drew me a map of Cairo to warn me of sexual harassment hot spots. Malak, a Syrian refugee in Istanbul, explained to me the violent tactics soldiers used against women. Their stories showed me that there is need for sustainable policy reform that would institutionalize protection for marginalized women across the world.
Running Start’s Impact
The impact that Running Start programs have had on my life have been the force behind my vision for WISE. Given my experience with Running Start, I decided to run for Student Government Association (SGA) my first month at Middlebury College. After knocking on almost every freshman dorm room, I was elected as First Year Senator. Given the significant role that SGA had on campus, this became an important responsibility. I worked to co-found the First Year Committee, focusing on creating alcohol-free social alternatives for students. Due to my work, I was re-elected as Sophomore Senator.
That year, something came to my attention. During both of my races, not one other female student had run for the position. Of 12 senators, only three were women. And most shockingly: in the previous ten years, Middlebury College had not elected one female president. The SGA dealt with sexual assault, academic and health policies. It was important to have female representation when dealing with these subjects. I secured a grant from Running Start to bring Elect Her, a women’s political leadership training, to Middlebury. In order to build excitement around the event, my peers and I created a nomination process, held informational sessions and hosted female political leaders on campus. On March 9th, 2013, 48 female students (a substantial attendance for a small college) participated in the workshop. After two months, one of our participants ran for office and we finally elected a female president. For me, my success lay in being able to bring women’s voices to the table.
Today, as both a Thomas R. Pickering Fellow and Harry S. Truman Scholar, I am in line for a career in public service. As a child of Egyptian-Muslim immigrants, I came into Middlebury College as a Pre-Med major. I pushed aside my dreams of a career in politics because I thought that my gender and religious identities would be barriers. Running Start truly provided me with a network of peers who supported me and gave me confidence that allowed me to move forward in my career. More importantly, I really believe that “you cannot be what you cannot see.” Running Start helped to provide me with female role models that inspired me to reach for leadership positions and support other women along the way.
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