DENVER AND TORONTO VIA EMAIL—Maryam and Nivaal Rehman, 15-year-old Pakistani-born Canadian twins, are your normal teens— with one exception. At the tender age of eight, when many young girls are still playing with dolls, the sisters began a career in global activism for girls’ education. “Our own parents told us to wait until we were older to start working for girls’ education,” the twins wrote in an email interview. “[And] we knew that we would probably have more influence when we were older. But what about the girls [our age]? By the time we finished our own education, they would have missed their chance to get an education.” Since then the sisters have made a name for themselves as activists, earning the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in 2015 and picking up a few more causes to champion along the way like the environment.
They created their own YouTube channel, The World With MNR, to amplify their activism and encourage others. Recently, their hard work paid off when they got to interview Malala Yousafzai–a Pakistani-born teen and activist for girls’ rights who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014–and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, two people the twins have dubbed their “gender equality dream team.” Despite their work towards helping change the world, the sisters are also typical teens too; they like to go out for frozen yogurt, travel, take long drives with their parents and they have an irreverent sense of fashion that often includes matching outfits. They recently emailed with she-files about their activism, why education for girls matters and what it was like interviewing Ms. Yousafzai and Prime Minister Trudeau. EXCERPTS:
KIRSCH FELDKAMP: How did you start out in activism?
REHMAN TWINS: We began getting involved in activism when we were eight years old. Our grandmother donated some of her land to have a girls’ government school built in her village in Pakistan. There was already a boys’ school, and she wanted to have a girls’ school built as well. When we visited the school for the first time, we learned that many of the girls would quit school in Grade 5, because they had to work to support their families. We decided to make sure that the girls went to high school. We held workshops, talked to them about their futures, their goals, read books and spoke to their parents. In our school in Canada, we have always gotten involved in as many school clubs as we can–writing, photography, social justice, and environmental sustainability. We also recently started programming and completed coding an app that we will be releasing more information about soon. Essentially, we want to inspire other young people to change the world too.
Tell me about your parents and how do they feel about your activism?
Our parents are social workers. My mom has worked with UNICEF on the Girl Child Project across Pakistan and my dad was an assistant director in the Ministry of Social Welfare in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Moving to Canada was difficult for them–they were not able to pursue the same careers they had before. However, they both worked really hard to support us. In Pakistan, we had been surrounded by family and [in Canada] we eventually began to feel lonely when both our parents worked. So our mother decided to stay at home with us. Both of our parents are extremely supportive of our activism and that instinct inside of us comes from them. Their beliefs come from their own parents, and so we like to call ourselves “third-generation activists.” They even drove us all the way to New York City when we got accepted into the Digital Media Lounge for the Social Good Summit during UN Week.
You’ve grown up in Canada but you still have strong ties to Pakistan. How do you think your life would be different if you had stayed in Pakistan?
Our life would be different if we were growing up in Pakistan rather than Canada. In Pakistan, we would have grown up with the support and love of our relatives and grandparents. Our parents would have still sent us to the best schools, but the education over here is more enriching. Any career that we wanted to pursue would have been open to us, because our parents would have the same mindset they have now. We’re sure that they would have still wanted the best for us, and we would have grown up with the same values. But, in terms of opportunities in education and extra-curricular involvement, they probably would have been very different from what we have access to here in Canada.
Why do you believe educating girls globally is so important?
Locally, we have held screenings of He Named Me Malala (2015 documentary of Ms. Yousafzai) and an International Women’s Day Conference, to educate girls that have access to education here, about the inequalities girls still face in other parts of the world. Globally, we have encouraged girls in the school our grandmother donated the land to build, to continue their education. After volunteering there for five years, many of the girls went on to high school. For us, that was the best reward of all. We believe that education is a solution to global problems. People need to be given the tools and access to that source of power so that they can make their community a better place. Learning is a basic human right. When you keep someone from going to school, you deprive them of that right and that is a human rights’ violation. If we educate girls globally, they will be able to find and implement solutions to problems in their community and the world.
What was it like interviewing Malala Yousafzai and the Canadian Prime Minister?
[It] was surreal, inspiring and incredible. We were so honored that the Malala Fund gave us the opportunity to do the interview and it is still unbelievable that we could interview them for the Malala Fund’s first Facebook Live, and then post a vlog of the day for our YouTube channel. Malala and Prime Minister Trudeau did not make us feel like we were in the presence of two world leaders or that they were any different from ourselves because they were really kind and approachable. This encouraged us to believe that citizens like ourselves can change the world too.
Do you have any advice for young girls looking to make a difference in the world?
The advice that we have for young girls looking to make a difference in the world is to know that change needs to begin locally and there are many problems right in our [own] backyards that go overlooked. We recommend that you follow a three-step pattern when you begin your journey. First, if you don’t know where to start, we recommend that you research issues and find a cause you care about. Second, volunteer. Finding a local cause is best, as you can see a problem firsthand, and then find a solution through your unique perspective during these experiences. Third, stick to that cause. We recommend that instead of spreading yourself too thin, you should put your best efforts into that cause, and if you think you can manage more, you should.
Images courtesy of Maryam and Nivaal Rehman. Featured Image L to R: Maryam Rehman, Nivaal Rehman, Malala Yousafzai, Prime Minister Trudeau.