Sharing stories, ideas, and viewpoints.
At Harvard GlobalWE, we seek to explore and represent diverse experiences, ideas and perspectives on issues relating to global women's empowerment. In our Perspectives section, we will be publishing essays written by GlobalWE members, as well as other contributors who can illuminate our understanding of issues facing women in various parts of the world today. Over time, we hope our Perspectives section becomes an anthology of stories and essays representing both the diversity of experience and commonality of commitment to global women's empowerment. Please note that some stories and essays will be published anonomously to protect the privacy of the author and those of whom they write.
Harvard GlobalWE Essay Contest: In 2015, we launched our first annual essay contest for high school students. Please visit our Harvard GlobalWE Essay Contest Page to learn about our global contest and read select essays from our first contest in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Volume 1, Fall 2015
Choice as Empowerment.
A personal essay by a Harvard GlobalWE Co-Founder
My mother was a pioneer, the only woman in her law school class, an elected judge, the first woman president of her state’s Judges Association, and the first woman chairperson of the National Conference of State Trial Judges. When I decided to leave my job at a large law firm to spend time with my first-born son, she could not understand my choice. Why had she worked so hard to break the glass ceiling for future generations, only to see her own daughter abandon paid work? Over time, she tempered that judgment. When I presented her with grandchildren, and as they grew, she occasionally complimented me on my choice to work from home.
Still, she knew for sure that she had made the right choice for herself, for two reasons. First, my mother grew up in an era when a female choosing to strive for a high powered career was a revolutionary, and my mother had a rebellious personality. She was a tomboy, the youngest in her family, with an older brother who might have outshone her if she had allowed it. Her own mother, Mildred, my grandmother, had excelled in school and wanted to attend college, but had been denied the opportunity by her beloved father, Michael, and a culture that thought college for women unseemly.
My mother also had a personal a story that gave rise to her career devotion. My mother, her mother Mildred, her father Jack, and her brother lived in the same brownstone as Mildred's parents, Michael and Rose. When my mother was 11 years old, her grandfather Michael developed cancer. One morning, as Jack went to sit by his dying father-in-law’s bedside, Jack suffered a stroke and lost his own life. Mildred lost her husband and father on the same day, one death expected and one a sudden shock. She gathered her children together on her bed and wailed: “What will we do; how will we survive?" The subtext was how will we survive without men to provide for us? My 11 year old mother lost her father and her grandfather that day, and also her sense of security. She learned the importance of education, paid employment, and being able to provide for herself and her family. She wanted that security for me.
But I had my own story. My brother died when I was twelve, an unexpected and shocking event that split my life into two pieces, “before” and “after." When my first child was born many years later, my own story was my guide. My husband had a well-paying job and I faced a choice. I could be home with my new child, or pay for child care and go back to work at my law firm. I felt keenly the impermanence of life, and what I wanted most for myself was more time with loved ones. For me, the choice to work from home fit the needs and goals of my family and satisfied the call of my personal story.
Freedom to choose is empowerment. My mother and I were able to make choices that suited our own goals and stories. I wish the same for other women around the world. Freedom to dress as we wish, to speak up as we desire, to travel where we'd like to go, to drive ourselves, to educate our daughters, to work or to be home with children. I helped establish Harvard GlobalWe to gather Harvard alumni, men and women, from around the world to examine social structures, economic circumstances, governments, and cultures that limit or enhance these choices. We are dedicated to the empowerment of women through education, dialogue, and connection among individuals working for women’s rights. We hope you will bring your own stories and goals, and join us.
Volume 1, Fall 2022
A Journey of Hope
An essay by Farzeen Tariq - Harvard GlobalWE Essay Contest Creator
It was Friday night in 2018 when I scribbled a note to myself “what am I doing? Is this making a difference?” while grading GlobalWE essays. Little did I know that four years later, the essay contest would help a bright and remarkable student from Afghanistan find opportunities and scholarships in other countries.
While the essays contained moving and exceptional content from brilliant young minds, it was extremely difficult for me to grade them because I was “Them” – I was once an essay participant in various essay contests. Most of my essay entry submissions were written in my teen years while locked up in a room in Islamabad, Pakistan. I felt that I had no access to the internet, phone, or freedom of movement and expression. Outside the room, one could hear discussions about my potential arranged marriage – and inside the room, one could find me making escape plans to be someplace where I could be myself.
If I was being held back from contributing to the progress of my society, what hope was there for the millions of less privileged girls who did not have the same opportunities in life as I have? This is a question I have asked myself at various points in my life and was the driving force behind my decisions to start women’s rights initiatives, get involved in Harvard GlobalWE, and attempt to make an impact on my surroundings.
Growing up in a politically active family, I had always been aware of the social realities within my country. My father was once the Secretary-General for Pakistan’s only female prime minister. Inspired by my father, I aimed from an early age to contribute to the progress of my society. Although relatively progressive, my father discouraged my professional ambitions because when it came to his daughters, he at the time believed that women should pursue a more traditional and domesticated life.
When I experienced social injustices and witnessed women around me endure the same, I was tempted to speak up about it on various platforms. I would get accepted to the most prominent public speaking competitions but was not allowed to participate in them because in my community women were meant to stay at home. Outspoken women were considered “bad women” - I thought this phenomenon was unique to my community until I traveled the world and found a similar stigma facing women in the USA and UK. Essay contests were the only extracurricular activity I was allowed to participate in because my participation did not require me to leave home or get permission from anyone. This is when my love for writing started. I remember feeling trapped at times, but my writings were my escape.
My participation in various writing contests helped me build an extra-curricular profile that, along with my academic profile, helped me get a scholarship to a college in the USA. Due to the scholarship, I was able to leave my hometown in my teen years and become financially independent amidst my community’s dissatisfaction with the decision. Although at the time my community did not understand my decision and distanced themselves from me, my success story helped change their minds and opened doors for other women (including my sisters) in my family to leave home for their higher education and not be pressured into an early marriage. My first-hand account of witnessing a positive change in my community/family has made me a firm believer that change is possible no matter how challenging the situation is.
Although it wasn’t always easy to be on my own in a new country, in America, it was the first time I experienced the feeling of someone believing in me and my abilities. I had always heard “you can not do it” and now I was surrounded by people who somehow believed in me and told me that I could do it every step of the way – one of those people is Julie Palmer.
Julie and I connected simply because I was deciding which law school to attend and Harvard was on the list. We instantly connected over a phone call and soon after I got involved in the Honor Diaries project and Harvard GlobalWE. Julie was kind enough to have coffee every time she was in the area and our coffee conversations were highlights of my month – we learned a lot from each other’s experiences and Julie gave me the confidence to keep going in times when the state of the world was terrifying.
My life experiences up to 18 taught me that gender inequalities were prevalent in my home country, but branching out to the USA and realizing that similar inequalities exist even in the most developed societies was shocking. Julie and I often brainstormed ways to tackle the social problems facing women in our coffee conversations.
In one of these coffee conversations, Julie asked me how GlobalWE could be involved in Pakistan and the idea of an essay contest took birth. I imagined so many girls like the teen-me feeling trapped in their rooms and/or feeling frustrated with the state of women in their society. If we could help provide them with the same outlet of expression as I had when I was younger and that too with the Harvard GlobalWE name, it could be life-changing for them.
Since then, the essay contest has expanded to 21 different countries and asks a simple, yet powerful question “What is the biggest challenge facing women and girls in your country today?” and encourages writers (from any gender) to identify and brainstorm potential solutions to those problems.
I am now involved in various women’s rights, human rights, and refugee rights initiatives, and here is the thing – I seldom see the impact right away, and the work is not as hands-on as I had imagined it to be. After spending countless hours on admin, marketing, and grading, you begin to wonder – is what I am doing actually having an impact? I think this thought process and probably my imposter syndrome led me to scribble the note back in 2018. Since around that time, I have been involved in various initiatives where it has taken years to see the impact. Sometimes, I begin to feel impatient and ask for a sign to keep going.
In 2022, I finally got a sign to keep going. During my work with Afghan evacuation efforts, a bright and remarkable woman from Afghanistan connected with me via social media. She was a college student in an unnamed country on a scholarship like myself, desperately trying to help her family evacuate Afghanistan. I saw a part of me in her, so we instantly connected. She told me on the call that the essay contest helped change her life because the Harvard GlobalWE Essay Contest provided her with an outlet to express herself. She said that her participation in the Essay Contest looked so good on her college application that it helped her get a scholarship that enabled her to leave Afghanistan. I can not describe the feeling I felt after hearing her words and it's something I am still processing, but while I process it, I want you to know that an idea born in a coffee shop in Chicago and raised by an army of hardworking and dedicated volunteers like YOU across the globe helped change at least one life (and countless others) in a remarkable way.
Thank you for all your hard work with the essay contest and any other initiatives you are involved in that aim to positively contribute to the world. Your volunteer hours managing social media pages, designing certificates, or organizing monthly calls matter more than you realize on a day-to-day basis – my story and the story of my Afghan friend are a testament to that.
Thank you for all that you do.
I'd love to hear from you, please feel free to write to me at [email protected]
 I know women who had a lot more freedom than I did while we were growing up in the same city. The traditions facing women can often depend on the community, family, and sub-region. I hope my narrative will serve as an account of my personal life experiences/worldview and not lead to generalizations about the status of women in Pakistan and various other countries.