Usually when one would talk about interviewing UN Leaders, or even a Prime Minister, we’d expect the interview to be conducted by CNN or BBC, or a similar media outlet – but never had we expected two 17-year-old girls to have been at the crux of the action, spearheading the questions and gathering the answers.
Rarely have I ever met two individuals of such a tender age who have carried out their work with such sincere dedication and commitment, simply oozing passion in every degree of their work. Maryam and Nivaal, “The Rehman Twins”, proponents of social change for gender equality and women’s rights were the subject of this interview. The two came to fame with their campaign for girl’s education, having interviewed both Malala Yousafzai and Canadian President Justin Trudeau in addition to multiple leaders from the G7 Summit.
True to their word, they arrived at the table exactly at 5 pm. It took me a minute to tell them apart, especially since the two wore the same exact clothes. They responded to my questions in their crisp Canadian accents with an aura of twin telepathy, as the two interchangeably carried along our incredibly interesting conversation where they described the roots of their journey as firm advocates for girl’s education to some of the plans that they have ahead.
Childhood – “We could never imagine that children could actually be quitting school”
The sisters went to “nursery for one year in Pakistan” after which they moved to Canada at the age of 5, and continued “studying in Canada for (their) whole lives”.
They continued to visit Pakistan throughout the years for the occasional family trips, which is where their initial interest in girl’s education sprouted from. “We visited a girl’s government school in our village, for which our grandmother had donated the land to build. That school was where we met all these girls who were the same age as us, and they had all these dreams and aspirations, but at the same time they said that they would leave school once they reached grade 5. And we’re like ‘what’? Because we In Canada, you have to go to school – but we could never imagine that children could actually be quitting school”.
“When we were young, we really couldn’t understand the reason as to why this was. But as we grew up and kept on visiting Pakistan; we realised that it was because of the poverty in the country. The girls’ parents would much rather prefer that the girls go and work in people’s houses instead of going to school because they don’t see the benefits of education. They don’t see where it’s going to take them years into the future.”
Where did your initial interest in activism come from?
“It was definitely from visiting that school and seeing those girls. Every time we went there, we wanted to help them out. At times, we would go all around our village to their families, and ask them ‘why aren’t your girls going to school?’ and told them why it was so important. At first, they were like “you’re the same age as my daughter. Who’re you to be telling me what to do?”.
“But then eventually they started to listen to us, and then in 2015 when we came to Pakistan again, some of those girls actually went on to high school which was a huge deal for us because we had played some sort of role in that process. Their determination played a much bigger role than we played, but we’re so glad that we saw that happen”.
“Then whenever we came back to Canada, we tried to participate in everything related to social justice in school – we would take part in food drives, toy drives, all that sort of stuff, and that’s where it came from”.
Sources of Motivation
“Both of our parents. They work so hard every day to be able to allow us to be able to do what we are doing. The motivation will come from them – they’ve never put any pressure on us to go into a certain career.”
“They were both in the social work sector in Pakistan. Our mom used to work with UNICEF’s ‘Girl Child’ project and our dad worked with the government in Kashmir in organising non-profit projects. In moving to Canada, they had to start from zero with regular everyday jobs. They struggled a lot to be able to work for our education – for us to be able to get where we are today, and were really encouraging throughout”.
“Now, we live in a small town that’s further away from downtown Toronto, but we have events taking place in downtown Toronto all the time and it’s an hour and a half drive with traffic and stuff, but our parents never stopped us from going to these places”.
How did you get involved with the Malala fund?
“In school, we were involved with ‘GirlUp’, which was an initiative of the United Nations. From there, we started our club and would do a number of events. One of their challenges given to us was to host a screening of ‘He named me Malala’. We were also hosting an international women’s day event and we just asked ourselves ‘Why don’t we ask the Malala fund to come and speak?’. So, we approached them and they got our story and our event went really well. All of a sudden, one week before Malala was coming, they asked us “Do you want to join Malala in Ottowa? And after that was successful, we went to the G7 and so we think it’s really cool how the Malala fund supports girls like that.”
How do we tackle gender inequality? – “When you’re educated, you feel empowered”
“One of the main ways through which we tackle equality in Pakistan – or in any country – is through education. Education is the main difference. When you’re educated, you feel empowered, you also learn more about the world. You’re able to get out into the field and you become more confident. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, you see that people don’t value girls’ education – they don’t feel that it is something which will benefit their girls in the future. They don’t give boys and girls the same opportunities”.
“There are a lot of social constructs that have been built which need to tackled. To an extent, it’s improving a lot – it’s possible – but those intuitions need to be set up for that change to be possible.”
Difference in Standard of Education
“There are good things in both countries and we shouldn’t overlook them, but there are also problems in both countries. There are issues that we need to understand that exist. Over here, the difference between a rich person and a poor person is quite large and its most likely going to stay that way, whereas in Canada if you work hard enough then you can actually change social classes. Here, very rarely do poor people come out on top. Over there, it’s like every other person is a success story. Similar to the American Dream. What we’ve found in Pakistan is that there are more tight-knit communities. Everyone really supports each other and it’s more of a collectivist society while Canada is more of an individualistic society”.
Economic Hearing for the G7 Summit
“It was definitely one of the coolest experiences that we’ve been through. The time at which it happened was really crazy. We were both the assistant stage manager and co-producer of a really big musical event for our school’s theatre. That was a very big week for us, but at the same time, we got the call and were asked that “Do you want to be in Whistler for the Summit?” – only to find out that it’s on the day of one of our performances”!
“We had our first performance in the morning, and then we ran to the airport for the Summit, and as soon we get got back, there was another performance. We had to travel from one side of the country to another and we had never even been on the other side of the West Coast before”
“We were so honoured that the Malala Fund asked us to represent girls at this amazing event, and it was just so interesting to hear them speak and we got to meet some leaders after. It was a surreal experience. We do a lot of social work over here in Pakistan too, but that was the first time we were at the forefront of change like that. We were there: where the decision making was happening”.
“For all the people that we interviewed, we tried to get them to invest $1.3 billion dollars into girls’ education, and whether we had a good conversation with them or not was going to be one of the determinants as to whether they were going to invest”.
“When we met these people, they already knew our story which was really surprising. We were introducing ourselves, but they knew our story beforehand. Canada ended up donating $400 million while collectively, the countries ended up investing $3.9 billion, an amount that is currently increasing and it’s also going to go to 3rd world countries with refugees in Syria who can also get an education, as well as other places where people don’t get access to education at all”.
Have you ever felt as if you have a celebrity status?
“When we interviewed PM Trudeau and Malala; that went everywhere. At first, we thought ‘Okay, it’s on Facebook but no one’s really going to know it’. But the next day – literally every single one of the students at our school knew about it! That was the only time where we felt like celebrities”.
“For the interview, we had to fly to Ottawa, come back at night and we also had a bunch of tests to study for – and it was just so stressful. But the next day, we got to the school and we couldn’t even walk through the hall because everyone was stopping us and asking about how it felt like, and we would have to tell them the same story again”!
“I think it’s really cool that people appreciate what we do too and it’s good because we can get people involved for a cause, and people really do support it”.
In addition to the documentary that they are currently making in Pakistan where they interviewed figures such as Ali Zafar and Ali Khan Tareen, the twins highlighted a certain issue in Canada that not many people would be aware of, especially taking into consideration the country’s status when it comes to the living conditions of the general population.
“One of the biggest things with the indigenous population in Canada – the original people who used to live in Canada before all the settlers came –are that those people are given a scarcity of rights. It’s like their living in 3rd world conditions on Canadian land and wherever they’re living is considered their own territory, Canada’s on top of the world in all the ‘clean water tasks’ but they don’t count the conditions of the indigenous population as a part of the statistics”
“So, their water supplies are awful, they don’t have electricity and their schools aren’t even properly built; and not a lot of people would imagine Canada facing such an issue. That’s one of the biggest problems that we want to tackle in Canada”.
Message to fans
“The first step is to start in your community. You have the power to create change there. We, too, started in our village in Pakistan, and then we continued it in Canada. If you start with something small then you’ll find how it can spread. When you care about the little things, then that determines how you’re going to do life, and you can go a long way”.
“What we set up, ‘The World With MNR’ is basically a media platform which engages youth to raise awareness for the causes that they care about. Each time we get a cause, we try to share it on social media and get involved with different organisations where we can get the youth to put forward their ideas so that we’re highlighting all these different issues. I think the Pakistani youth, especially, are very energetic and they want to make a difference so we feel as though they can be mobilized in this way”.