Courageous Enterprising Optimistic: The women who are redefining the age old term

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Spreading Positivity: Maimuna with her colleagues

In conversation with MAIMUNA AHMAD, Founder and CEO, Teach For Bangladesh

In December 2011, before Teach For Bangladesh (TFB) was born, Maimuna Ahmad took a trip from Dhaka to Pune, India. After spending the two years working as a mathematics teacher in a Washington D.C. public high school, she had moved to Bangladesh earlier that year leaving her family behind in the United States, “Growing up between Bangladesh and America, I was clear from a very early age that I would spend some part of my adult life living in and trying to contribute to Bangladesh. I moved to Dhaka initially to explore where I could personally make the most impact.” It was that drive to make an impact that took Maimuna across the border to visit classrooms in a low-income community in Pune, and led her to meet a young student named Chaitrali.
“Chaitrali exuded warmth and positive energy,” Maimuna recalls, “After volunteering to give me a tour, she instantly took my hand and was telling me about the neighborhood and how she was the manager of her school’s football team.”
The child proved to be a popular guide. Neighbors invited them into their homes and offered tea and biscuits. Finally, they arrived at Chaithrali’s house, a tiny space with meager belongings. “The contrast between this bubbly outspoken child and her home struck me immediately. Her home was a tiny dark room with a bed, stove, and a single chair. A picture of her father was hanging on the wall,” recollects Maimuna.
The teacher who had accompanied them explained that Chaithrali’s father had passed away. Chaithrali’s mother worked as domestic helper nearby and rarely came home before evening, leaving the child in charge of taking care of herself after school.
It was suddenly evident to Maimuna what was next for her, “Something just clicked. Of course, I had always known that there were tens of thousands of children just like Chaitrali being deprived of a quality education in Bangladesh. But intellectually knowing something is different from knowing something in your heart. Sometimes it can take going to a different part of the world to realize a truth that’s been at home all along. At that moment, I knew that if I were not a part of trying to make a difference in the lives of children in Bangladesh, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
Over the next two months, Maimuna wrote the first business plan for Teach For Bangladesh, building off the model of Teach For America, the program that initially brought her into the classroom, and Teach For India, which she was visiting when she met Chaitrali. She consulted Bangladeshi educators, entrepreneurs and leaders to adapt the model – that was already gathering fast momentum globally – for the context of Bangladesh.
Five years, 4,500 students and 28 partner schools later, Maimuna has built Teach For Bangladesh into a highly selective leadership development program that recruits exceptional Bangladeshi graduates and young professionals to fight for educational equity and systemic change, starting with a two-year full-time teaching commitment to Bangladesh’s most vulnerable students.

Maimuna Ahmad

There is a common misconception that the development world is less competitive than the corporate sector, less results-oriented and less efficient because our results are measured on a different scale and because we’re not focused on generating profit. Still, we have to hold ourselves accountable for the results of our work.
Bangladesh is truly an example of what development work can achieve through vision and innovation. At Teach For Bangladesh, they continually seek global best practices and learnings in management and strategy from the corporate sector. “I am curious to know if that same flow is happening in the opposite direction, from the nonprofit world to the corporate one. For example, I know so many inspiring non-profit organizations are redefining what it means to have a values-based work culture. Sometimes I see employees in the corporates sector feel disconnected from their work, feeling like cogs in a machine. Even if generating profit is your primary target, this does not mean the work can’t be meaningful or rooted in values,” observes Maimuna.

“While we’ve made great strides in education in Bangladesh, especially in enrollment and gender parity, Bangladesh still has one of the lowest spendings in education compared to overall GDP in the world. Most children from low-income communities spend just a couple of hours in school every day.”

Maimuna is not surprised that the nonprofit sector is comprised of more women than other sectors. Women are traditionally grouped as caregivers and nurturers are assumed to have more “natural” affinity for the development sector and its “soft” mission and values. However, she think that such assumptions do a great disservice to men and women who lead courageously, open-heartedly, and fiercely in both the private and non-profit worlds.
She is proud of the fact that she work with a team of such leaders at Teach For Bangladesh, “They represent for me the greatest hope that Bangladesh has for the future. I am reminded of this hope every time I witness a strong male colleague openly shed tears while describing the challenges faced by his female students, or a strong female colleague defy social pressure and to make her own choices about career and family.” Gender norms and gender-based discrimination are deeply ingrained in most societies – she notes that ours is no exception, “As a female leader, I’ve experienced many of the challenges this brings first-hand, including being propositioned in my office by officials of one of our various national security agencies. However, change is not only possible; it is happening through everyday acts of resistance by men and women both.”

From her vantage point, one of the most significant challenges in education around the world and in Bangladesh is a crisis of expectation, “We simply do not expect greatness or excellence from children in marginalized communities the same way we expect them from children in affluent communities. You see this in the kind of research that is available out there. I haven’t found any research that compares the performance of students in the elite schools such as Sunbeams, International School of Dhaka and Viquarunessa to government primary schools or NGO schools serving low-income communities.”
Instead, we mostly compare government primary schools in cities with counterparts in rural areas. She exemplifies, ”When a child demonstrates excellence in such schools, we are surprised, and we laud the achievement as exceptional. Imagine if instead, excellence was the expectation of all students, and every time a child demonstrated excellence, this was considered further validation of the potential of all children. I believe that such a re-orientation would drive radical change in our classrooms, our communities, and our nation.”
She commends Bangladesh on its progress, “While we’ve made great strides in education in Bangladesh, especially in enrollment and gender parity, Bangladesh still has one of the lowest spendings in education compared to overall GDP in the world. Most children from low-income communities spend just a couple of hours in school every day. Until we as a society change our expectation that all children have not only the ability to achieve greatness but also the right to equal opportunity, it will be hard to drive sustainable systemic change.”

Maimuna’s deepest wish is to raise a generation of brave children, “I want every child to have an unshakeable belief in themselves, and for that belief to drive them to take risks. This mentality includes intellectual risks in the classroom – venturing to solve a math problem in a different way than the teacher taught, or writing a haiku when asked to describe the characteristics of a cow. This includes risks outside of the classroom – in standing up for their beliefs, in making friends with people who are different, and creating the change that they want for themselves.”
She points out that TFB Fellows encounter tragic scenarious, “Our Fellows work within communities where they come across stories of abuse, prostitution, rape, pregnancy and child marriage. They integrate community advocacy into their classroom content and afterschool activities so our students learn to be changemakers.” Recently, TFB showcased some of the projects that Fellows are implementing to encourage boys and girls to speak up against social injustices in their communities, “As a teacher, you build the most effective change when your students speak up for themselves,” she affirms.

She was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by strong adults who encouraged her to pursue excellence from a very young age, “While the strong female role models I had in my life like my incredible mother and brilliant grandmothers, the men in my family also played a significant role. I remember from a very early age being encouraged to participate in discussions and debates that adults would have in our home – on every topic from politics to the economy.” When children experience adults engaging them with respect and encouragement, it is deeply validating and builds the foundation for confident adults, “When I was starting Teach For Bangladesh and had doubts about my qualifications and experience, an uncle gave me the push I needed by telling me that the “right” leader for any job is the one who is willing to show up every day to do the hard work.”

At Teach For Bangladesh, Maimuna and her team are launching a new program called the School Leadership Residency this January for high-performing alumni of their Fellowship who are interested in reimagining how schools in Bangladesh work. Residents will be spending a year embedded in low-income schools not just in Dhaka, where Fellows currently work, but in rural and remote parts of Bangladesh, working very closely with the head teachers and the existing teachers to think about what it takes to turn around the way a school operates, “I’m hoping those who come out of this intensive experience are going to accelerate their leadership as innovative starters of schools, trainers of teachers, policymakers who reinvent entirely the way you think about schools and school leadership.” Maimuna concludes sharing the future goals with IBT, “Plus, we are also expanding our flagship Fellowship beyond Dhaka to Chittagong and are currently recruiting our sixth cohort who will begin teaching in classrooms in 2019.”

Safety Comes First: Zaiba with her students

In conversation with Zaiba Tahyya, CEO & Founder, FEM

Working in the field opened Zaiba’s eyes to the disparity that is the everyday reality for women, “As a 19-year-old attending college it dawned on me that I was living a very sheltered life. I was studying criminology, and I wanted to do an internship in my field. I knew that this would give me a much greater sense of reality.”
She had applied to BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust) and researched women and rape. She details how every day would ensue with some shocks, “I would have breakdowns every day when I came home. My mother told me to leave the internship if I was going to be this depressed. But I was determined to see this through. I felt like I owed it to the women who face such atrocities and live with it.”
The most disturbing detail of her research came to light as she was interviewing a judge, “When we sat to speak I noticed that woman’s nipple size was recorded in the medical file that the judge was examining. I inquired as to why this was necessary not knowing that his answer would leave me in such a shock.” He explained that this was necessary because the victim’s attractiveness would come into question; the prosecuting lawyer could argue that she is not desirable and therefore the perpetrator would not want to engage in any sexual act with her. Zaiba explains that the story still makes her emotional while motivating her, “I was utterly shocked as the judge went on to tell me that the defendant’s lawyers could then show her measurements to prove that she was desirable. Here was a woman that was violated and her physical appearance was coming into questions here. I knew at that moment that I needed to be a part of a world where women can stand up for themselves.”
Zaiba has taken the realities of her research and created a haven for young girls in Korail, the largest slum in Bangladesh. Within the narrow alleys, tin lined houses and hustling of thousands of people, you’ll see the FEM school empowering young girls of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Zaiba Tahyya

One of the first activities that FEM teach its girls is to ride a bicycle. Some people wonder why this is relevant, but Zaiba believes that this is just as important for their mental stability. Learning to ride a bike is traditionally associated with boys; when girls master the trade, they are motivated to compete with their counterparts. These activities allow many of the girls to let out some of the aggression and frustration from their past experiences of inequality or even abuse.
“The main reason that we teach them self-defense is because there are a lot of mental awareness programs but not enough preventative measure. I know we cannot easily change the mentality for the age-old narrative of a girl being at the wrong place at the wrong time or wearing desirable clothing. This dynamic goes back to the implication that women are weak. Our lessons start with learning how to block. We teach them how to jab, punch and various kicks but these are defense mechanisms. We want them to be able to defend themselves and stop any form of abuse,” she explains. The lessons inspired some of the girls, and they did stand up against a local tailor that was harassing them. The fact that they were able to stand up creates visibility which is a strength. If they can show this power, men and boys alike will be hesitant.

“The main reason that we teach them self-defense is because there are a lot of mental awareness programs but not enough preventative measure. I know we cannot easily change the mentality for the age-old narrative of a girl being at the wrong place at the wrong time or wearing desirable clothing.”

A study has shown that if educators emphasize math and science in classrooms, girls are more likely to take on leadership roles. Zaiba wants girls to aspire to be engineers, governing bodies and CEOs. They prioritize teaching these subjects, “I have been to many organizations that have to teach girls how to make jewelry or train them in arts and crafts. Yes, these subjects are necessary and can lead to a career, but I feel like they are also very limiting.” This mentality leads to many girls think that their best and sometimes their only options are crafts that can be made at home, “When you merely teach them these skills, you are perpetuating the stereotype that has been in play. An eclectic range of subjects allows them to know that they have choices.”

Girls at FEM learn English with particular attention, and one would be astonished at how that empowers them. They know that English is an international language that they are not customarily taught; command of the language motivates in the sense that they receive an education beyond what they would have expected. It allows them to think beyond their boundaries, “We want them to know that they are entitled to everything that their potential can bring them.”
This very idea inspired Zaiba’s team to teach them circuits and electronics. The girls learned how to make low-cost fire alarms with a temperature sensor, “We focused on making these alarms because Korail is more prone to fires and making this alarms gave the girls a greater sense of purpose in their community. We wanted this mentality to transcend into their homes once they took the alarms there. We hoped to show their families that these girls are just as capable as their fathers, and brothers,” postulates Zaiba. Once you create an environment that fosters and empowers girls as equals you’ll see a change in the community.

“I wanted to focus on a self-sustainable model from the beginning. I remember asking for funding from a particular organization. They responded by telling me that they would not fund a project in a slum. Furthermore, they had no visibility in that specific area, and therefore it would serve no purpose for them,”details Zaiba about the funding difficulties she faced. It is important to build relationships with beneficiaries that care about your cause. She wants to show that FEM can be indepedent, “Nevertheless, when you demonstrate that you can run on your own, that shows a sustainable stance. We charge our students a very minimal fee to keep FEM running.”

Zaiba articulates that the challenges of a becoming a female CEO go back to the ideas of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. The mentality that men are the most suitable regarding vocational work is the most significant barrier.
Draw from my own experience, she mentions, “I was never taken seriously when I would tell people that I am a CEO of a development sector. Even women would categorize my work into teaching girls, and they would say that my job is gender appropriate. I refuse to adhere to their being a gender for any job because intellect and capability are not a matter of sexes.” Moreover, this concept that women have an age-appropriate timeline for events in there is a conservative notion. Marriage, children, education and career paths are choices and the time should not be a determining factor. She believes women are the ones who suffer abuse, violation, and crime in a different sense than men which makes them more equipped to tackle such challenges.


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