A Seat at the Table: The World Is Counting on Women to Speak Up

In the late 1980s, campuses across the United States were experiencing ugly racist incidents. We felt this particularly acutely at Smith College, where I was an undergraduate. In 1986, racial slurs were spray-painted on the door of the Afro-American cultural center, and at the end of my junior year, in 1989, a group of black students received racist letters. The latter incident led to emotional interactions and rallies, and our sense of community was broken apart.1

To address the situation, our president, Mary Maples Dunn, decided to hold a campus-wide discussion about race and diversity. I had just been elected student body president in the spring of 1989, and I ended up on stage in front of all the students, the staff, and the faculty to take part in the conversation. It was our opportunity as students to talk about what we stood for and how important inclusion and diversity were to us. I had to represent our diverse student body and work closely with the administration to ensure that we were given a voice and that we came to a solution that allowed us to heal our campus.

That experience was pivotal. It is really when I began my journey of leadership and of understanding the importance of using my voice—and of the importance of women everywhere speaking up and taking part in shaping our society at all levels. We must ensure that women and people from a variety of diverse backgrounds have a seat at the table when it comes to creating policies that affect our world.

“I spoke about race, diversity, mutual respect, and how vital it was that our community be a community for everybody.”

During the summer vacation, a few months after the campus discussion on race and diversity, I received a letter from the college telling me that First Lady Barbara Bush would be attending Smith’s convocation in September. It is a Smith tradition that the student government president speaks first—she opens the school year at convocation, and I had been thinking about the speech all summer. I was concerned about what I was going to say to my fellow Smithies and how, after the events of the spring, we had to do better. I wanted to start the new school year in the right way. With Bush listening on the stage as I stood at the podium, and thousands watching in the audience, I spoke about race, diversity, mutual respect, and how vital it was that our community be a community for everybody.

The next day, the White House called Smith and asked for a copy of my speech. Bush subsequently began quoting me when she spoke at other campuses, and it was incredible to experience, especially when college presidents wrote to tell me about it. It was crazy! Bush also used the speech in other venues, and I was sincerely humbled. Even more incredibly, during that year (my senior year), I was lucky enough to correspond with her. She was warm and friendly but also gracious, writing back in her own hand. When I was close to graduation, I wrote to ask for advice on going out into the real world. She suggested I visit her at the White House and meet her chief of staff, Susan Porter Rose. That’s how I landed a position at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Because I gave a speech about race and diversity and Barbara Bush was sitting on the stage and heard my words, I got my first job and experienced the honor of being in public service.

At USAID, my role was typical for a recent graduate and young staffer—answering phones, responding to faxes, and helping in any way that was needed. But I was doing those tasks for the head of the agency and was in the front office, an experience that taught me how USAID worked in DC and on the ground around the world; how it connected to other parts of government, especially the White House; and how important it was to understand what was taking place at the grassroots level in the countries in which we worked. I was able to have that experience because I spoke up about creating an inclusive community and a first lady heard me and then took the time to help me.

“One thing you should know about me, because we’re talking about women’s voices, is that I am not somebody who sits back.”

That first government job led me to spend most of my professional life (so far) in the public sector. Serving this nation is one of the most amazing gifts that you can imagine receiving, because you truly learn about your own country and about who you are—and you have a chance to give back. As an American, but as someone born in India and raised near Boston, I feel strongly about how much this country means to me. It is extraordinary to see what you—through service—can do. You see firsthand what our nation is all about. You have a chance to help create policies that make a difference to us and to others around the world. Our leadership matters. I was so honored to serve our nation.

After USAID, I went to graduate school and was out of government for almost a decade. But I came back after September 11, 2001. I had earned my graduate degree in foreign policy—specifically working on issues around Islamic civilizations and international security—and after 9/11, I wanted to serve our nation. It didn’t matter to me what my role was so much as it mattered that our country was attacked. As an American and a Muslim, I wasn’t going to let a terrorist organization define either our country or my religion. One thing you should know about me, because we’re talking about women’s voices, is that I am not somebody who sits back.

I was asked to serve on the National Security Council (NSC) in the George W. Bush administration. In a role focused on Muslim outreach, I navigated some very scary things happening across the world. We were watching Al Qaeda continue to build steam. We had begun the war on terror, and US troops were in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were also dealing with terrorism in Europe—including the March 11, 2004, Madrid bombings and the July 7, 2005, London bombings. I was working on the non-kinetic aspect of this war—the war of ideas—and focused on the ideology of the terrorists and how they were able to recruit Muslim youth. In the aftermath of the Danish cartoon crisis, which involved protests by Muslims globally after a Danish newspaper published satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, I was asked to move from the NSC to the Department of State so I could do more on issues of youth and identity. I ended up spending two years focused on Muslim youth in Europe.

When the Obama administration came in, right before I was planning to leave government, I was invited to a briefing with the new secretary of state—and another (former) first lady—Hillary Clinton. Everyone was packed into the room, and I had a spot at the end of the table with a clear line of sight to Clinton. But I was sitting at the table. That is important.

The meeting was scheduled for only an hour, and I didn’t think we would get to the issue of Muslims in Europe. But after forty-five minutes, Clinton paused and said that she wanted to make sure that everyone sitting at the table had a chance to speak. She turned to me and asked why I was there. When I described my work on stopping radicalization in Europe, she was interested and engaged and asked several excellent questions. Women’s colleges also came up, and Clinton noted that she had gone to Wellesley College. I said that I had gone to Smith, and she smiled broadly and raised her hand to give me a high five. That might have been the best moment of the briefing for me—it was real and natural, and you could see her genuine interest in the person briefing her.

When I finished my briefing, my boss, the assistant secretary of state of European and Eurasian affairs, explained that I would soon be leaving the State Department. My going-away party was in two weeks. Clinton leaned forward and gestured to me, asking, “Where are you going?” The entire room was pin-drop silent as I told her that I planned to start a job at a think tank driving a new effort countering violent extremism.

Clinton looked at me and said, “We’ll see about that.” I thought she was being funny, but the next day, the State Department’s chief operating officer asked to see me. When I went into his office, he smiled and said the secretary had asked what it would take for me to stay. I told him that when the secretary of state asks you to serve your nation, you salute. Clinton asked me to do what I had done in Europe but to do it around the world. That’s how I became the nation’s first special representative to Muslim communities.2

“So, I stirred the pot and made it crazy.”

During the George W. Bush administration, when I was serving on the NSC, I attended a meeting in the Situation Room. Many people were crammed into the space to discuss an issue regarding Al Qaeda. As I looked around me, I suddenly realized that I was the only female in the meeting. I was astonished and then, internally, got really mad. Why weren’t there more women at the policy table, especially on a subject that was so important?

My anger was not about how I was being treated—I was treated with full respect. Instead, I was upset about the lack of gender balance. It was wrong. After the meeting, I voiced my frustration to a colleague, whose wife is an alumna of Wellesley. He jokingly asked what it was with women from women’s colleges. We both laughed and then I said, “Something needs to be done.” He said, “Right. So do something.”

I started thinking about how we could get women’s colleges to cultivate more women leaders to sit around the policy table. A government mostly run by men shouldn’t be telling women what to do. We should have open conversations, more on-ramps, practical tactics, and policies, as well as more opportunities for mentorship, that combine to help women move forward in their careers—and to build a legacy of women’s leadership. Multidimensional viewpoints need to be represented at the table, where not just policy people make decisions but a range of experts—historians, anthropologists, and more—offer input. Gender matters. Diversity of disciplines matters too (I call this “open power”).

I started talking to trusted colleagues and friends and then reached out to presidents at women’s colleges. Once we developed our ideas and got buy-in, we piloted a relationship with the State Department and three of the Seven Sisters women’s colleges to advance leadership training with minority communities in Europe. By the time Clinton became secretary of state, we were ready to expand our work on getting more women to the policy table. While part of the answer is electing more women to public office, another piece is having more women in civil servant roles, including foreign service officers and appointees across the board and at every level—local, state, federal, and international. For instance, why have we never had a woman serve as secretary-general of the United Nations? What are we doing to prepare young women in the pipeline for positions of power within the public sector, and what are we doing to interest young women to enter public service?

I wanted to ask these questions and more. So, I stirred the pot and made it crazy. I engaged a lot of people to find out what was happening around public service and women. The answer was, not much. Obviously, this issue had to be addressed.

Several women’s college presidents helped craft what we believed to be the kind of program we could get our hands around. We were eager to draw attention to the issue and spark a global movement. Internally at the Department of State, I talked to the director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who urged me to work with the US ambassador for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, to think through the idea. Verveer was inspiring and wonderful, and in time we presented the program idea to Clinton, who then asked us to formally develop the Women in Public Service Project. Launched in 2011, the project continues to work worldwide to advance women into the public sector.3

“When women start to change, the whole community changes.”

As special representative to Muslim communities in the Obama administration, I was tasked with engaging Muslim communities around the world. My work was about building new connections, listening to youth, finding ways to develop networks of like-minded thinkers, and creating programs at the grassroots level that build resilience to extremists. The narrative of the extremists is based on an “us versus them” ideology, which is easy to absorb if you are having a crisis of identity and asking questions such as, Who am I? What’s the difference between culture and religion? After September 11, I discovered that for Muslims under the age of thirty, this crisis of identity was universal no matter where in the world they lived. Approximately one-fourth of the planet is Muslim—that’s about 1.8 billion people. Around one billion of that number is under the age of thirty.4 If we don’t engage with the youth and understand how important it is to address the identity crisis, what are we doing? We have to focus on that issue because that is the very heart of how extremists prey upon youth.

Thus, instead of holding formal meetings at high diplomatic levels, as special representative, I worked at the grassroots level, traveling to eighty countries to visit places like schools, community centers, houses of worship, and nongovernmental organizations. I talked with members of civil society—mothers, fathers, young people, teachers, and activists. I spoke with young people who had amazing ideas about what was happening in their communities and what they needed in order to build resilience to reject extremist ideas. We helped them turn their thoughts into action through small grants, training, entrepreneurship skill-building, and the development of networks of like-minded thinkers. What I understood from these firsthand interactions was how dangerous it is when young people experiencing a crisis of identity lean on extremist content to feel secure about who they are. And now, unfortunately, the different types of extremist content affecting our world today aren’t only from terrorist organizations. We need to protect vulnerable youth everywhere from becoming radicalized by an us-versus-them ideology—whether it comes from ISIS, white nationalists, or other groups.

During my international work, I also learned how important relationships (particularly maternal ones) are in preventing youth extremism. A mother is a child’s first teacher, and she is usually the person who first notices a change in her child. We brought in experts to help us understand the impact of women within communities. Were women able to help prevent extremist ideology from spreading in any special way? Did their roles as mothers add value to the way we looked at how kids became radicalized?

We took information we learned from youth—what could be considered a form of ethnographic or cultural data—and used it to create a movement that would strengthen the role of mothers in a community. To consider what was possible, we looked to a grassroots example here in the United States: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). We talked with the MADD’s various chapters and leadership about how they were able to get mothers and other people in communities involved in preventing drunk driving. We realized that MADD could be a good model for setting up mothers to help on the issue of extremism and identified several questions raised by such a role: What do mothers see happening in the home, and what can they do to help dissuade their children from finding extremist narratives appealing? What systems, tools, and programs can help mothers (as well as fathers and other community members) navigate the challenges kids might be facing? In other words, what resources do we need to make available for mothers before their children become radicalized?

While much more can be done to help women in communities build resilience against extremism, we also need to recognize that young women are not immune to being radicalized. Extremists have specialized, curated approaches for targeting females. This fact shocks a lot of people, particularly men. When I was working on countering violent extremism, the programs were designed only for men. Women getting radicalized was not the norm, and many in the policy world were not thinking about a plan for what to do if it became more common. We are not developing programs to counter violent extremism that are designed specifically for women, which is unfortunate and shortsighted because when women start to change, the whole community changes. If more women become radicalized in a community, that can have a deep impact. With ISIS, for instance, we saw women forcing their husbands to become more extreme.

“Where are you getting your news?”

In an age in which a tweet substitutes for in-depth historical content, we have to work harder at ensuring youth are equipped with tools to help them discern real information from fake. We need more awareness about our world—basic knowledge like geography and history—and we need to help people understand the reasons they see what they do in their newsfeed. We must ask people why they believe what they believe. We should be talking about who we are as humans before a crisis happens. On college campuses, we should be widening the understanding of diversity of human experience and ensuring everyone has a voice. If we’re not creating better awareness offline about the world we live in, we won’t be able to combat misleading and biased information online.

During a trip to New Zealand as special representative, I met with a group of about two hundred young women of Somali descent who were Muslim. We spoke about identity and what it was like to live in New Zealand. One young woman asked a political question about Israel and the US position on the West Bank, Gaza, and Palestine, and I felt the best way to respond was with a US government talking point. But I also asked her, “Where are you getting your news?” She looked at me strangely. We spent the next ten minutes discussing how to gather and assess news, and I suggested that each morning, the young women visit the websites of five different US think tanks—two on the right, two on the left, and one in the middle—to understand how each reports the issue of Israel-Palestine differently. Then the young women had to make their own decisions about what to think and why. The more we can help students and people everywhere think more thoughtfully about their information, the better off we will be.

The lesson about assessing sources of information also applies to books. I love the feeling of a book in my hand. The printed word is powerful—you believe what’s written inside a book. The bad guys know this, too. In 2007, I visited the first Islamic academy in Lyon, France. In the library, I studied the wall of books on Islam with mounting anxiety. I recognized the titles and knew that the books offered particular translations of the Qur’an—translations that were made in Saudi Arabia and that omitted key words and nuances, inserted new meanings into scripture, and analyzed the text in a way that set up an us-versus-them ideology.5

Later, I asked the public diplomacy officer at the US embassy in France whether we could send the librarian from the Islamic academy to the United States to take a course in library science. The embassy did end up sending the librarian and several teachers to the United States to learn about library science so that they could better assess the academy’s books and build a better library. Several years later, I returned to the school and found that its entire collection of books had changed. While we can do much more, ensuring students have access to the right kinds of books is a starting point in helping kids understand the diversity of Islam and the many different views on various topics.

“We must help the next generation of women use their voices in ways that they haven’t yet imagined.”

Today’s students are learning to be the democratic participants and leaders that our nation and the world need. They are learning these skills at an early age through their activism on campus, through coalition building and networking, and in their formal and informal leadership roles. They’re also learning from the people around them—who students are on a college campus comes from their peers, professors, and leaders of higher education. It comes from the way in which college presidents put forward their agendas. Role models are critical.

I learned how to be a leader, in big and small ways, both in high school and in college. I became skilled and comfortable at bringing different kinds of people together, because I did it over and over again as a student leader. I wasn’t always great. But I practiced. We need to give young people the opportunity to explore and learn what they think while they are on our campuses. College is the time when you get to test yourself, and you get to do so, in some ways, without consequences. Students learn confidence and empowerment as they work on academic projects and participate in campus activities. Colleges and universities have the ability to prepare a diverse array of students to shape society at all levels—we can start by putting complicated issues front and center and build from there.

When I think about where change needs to happen, I think about the next generation of women. I think about what we need to do to help them achieve their mighty potential. I think about what we need to do to activate them and to help change the ecosystem to allow them to thrive. I think about what we must do to help them to believe that they can actually sit at the table and also use their voices in ways that they haven’t yet imagined. We need to find new ways to make a difference. What we have been doing is not working. The change we want to see will not happen with the same old system of leadership and policy creation. Building a stronger world can happen, and bringing women to policy tables across the world is a start. Let’s do that together.

NOTES

1. Stephen Franklin, “Is Racism on Campus Increasing?” Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1988; Alex Roth, “Hate Violence Against Campus Minorities on the Rise,” Columbia Daily Spectator, CXIII, no.106, (April 1989): 5; Joseph Berger, “Deep Racial Divisions Persist in New Generation at College,” New York Times, May 22, 1989.

2. Farah Pandith, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019); “Secretary Clinton Appoints Farah Pandith to Head New Office of the United States Representative to Muslim Communities,” US Department of State, September 15, 2009.

3. For more information, see “The Women in Public Service Project,” http://www.50x50movement.org.

4. Michael Lipka, “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.S. and around the World,” Pew Research Center, August 9, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/09/muslims-and-islam-key-f... “The Future of the Global Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2011, https://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/the-future-of-the-global-muslim-popu....

5. For more information, see Ziauddin Sardar, Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).


Farah Pandith is an author, foreign policy strategist, and former diplomat. She served as the first-ever special representative to Muslim communities for the US Department of State. She is the author of How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat (HarperCollins Publishers, 2019). This article has been adapted from her talk during the Women’s Breakfast at AAC&U’s 2019 annual meeting.

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