Meet the Doctor Turned Social Entrepreneur Empowering Indian Muslim Women in Becoming the Next Leaders

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Ammara Kaisar, 20, from Kashmir, a disputed region beset by militarised violence, says through LedBy she found out that “there were so many amazing Muslim women out there doing such diverse, amazing things.” She says: “I made friends, I developed connections, and I felt that to be a part of this fellowship, at my age, was a privilege, and completing it, an achievement.”

Half of India’s 200 million Muslim population are women and at least 2 million of them possess graduate degrees. But despite an incandescent desire and ability to lead and bring a change as demonstrated in the Shaheen Bagh sit-in of 2019-20 against the discriminatory Citizenship Act, there are only a few Muslim women leaders.

Leave aside politics, the dearth of Muslim women leaders is evident in the economic realm. The indicators of progress put this group in the lowest value across cultural and religious communities.

“There is certainly a lot of talent in them but what they lack is they lack 3 A’s: agency, access, avenues,” says Dr Ruha Shadab, 30, who has embarked on a journey to make a change. She believes Indian Muslim women are an engine of growth, with a lot potential to contribute to India’s narrative.

Dr Shadab, a trained medico, went to Harvard in 2018 to learn the know-how of how to create this support system. She was selected for a two-year master’s program in public policy on a full tuition scholarship and worked hard to make her dream come true.

In March 2019, she pitched an idea to the Social Innovation and Change Initiative (SICI) of Harvard Kennedy School. The idea was to start an initiative that will help train Indian Muslim women for professional leadership. It clicked; she was offered a rigorous co-curricular entrepreneurship fellowship at Harvard along with her second year of master’s.

“It’s a very competitive pool. I was short-listed, interviewed, and got selected,” she says, explaining that she had to work hard for a few months to translate the idea into reality. Thus, the LedBy Foundation came into being.

Dr Shadab grew up in Noida, a satellite town near India’s capital New Delhi. She graduated in medicine and worked in the public health sector at Clinton Health Access Initiative. Her last job before she moved to Harvard was at the Niti Aayog, the top most policy think tank of the Indian government.

Switching professions comes with its own issues anywhere, but in South Asia the difficulties are further compounded by advice from families against experimenting with careers. But Dr Shadab says she was lucky enough to have a supportive family who let her move from clinical medicine, to public health, to public policy, to now social entrepreneurship.

While she is focused on her foundation, she is equally passionate about healthcare – she says she takes out some time from her schedule to work on healthcare. Even at Harvard, she was associated with healthcare as an employee of Yale University’s Global Health Institute.

Unfortunately, however, the majority of Muslim women in India are not as lucky as Dr Shadab. For reasons rooted in tradition and governance, political and socio-economic set up, the representation of Muslim women in India across sectors is negligible.

For instance, in the corporate world, Muslim women are underrepresented by a factor of 30 amongst women in India’s top 500 companies board, and underrepresented by a factor of 100 across the board.

“The data shows you that this is a community that requires an ecosystem that understands its unique obstacles and needs, and its struggle,” Dr Shadab says, explaining that she wanted to create a support system that works just for them.

LedBy Foundation aims to support a story of India that is socially inclusive, and equitable: “The fellowship will help raise the visibility of Indian Muslim woman”, Dr Shadab explains.

The foundation offers a fellowship to “high potential” college-going Indian Muslim women to be trained by experts into leaders. “We make sure that the momentum of education that they’re carrying gets transformed into being empowered professionals, and entrepreneurs,” Shadab says.

It is a summer program of four months in which 24 women are selected on merit.

The fellowship has three arms. The first one is fortnight workshops by Harvard faculty, focusing on negotiation, mindfulness, and storytelling.

The second arm is a ‘360 mentoring degree framework’ which forms the core of the fellowship. Under this, a fellow is first mentored by, on average, six industry experts, who are also Indian Muslim women. This is supplemented by one-on-one peer mentoring with co-fellows. Lastly, the fellow needs to go back to her middle school or high school and find a Muslim girl to mentor to pay it forward and also to get up-mentored.

The third arm is a series of activities assisting the fellows with skills such as community building, building rapport, asking for advice, giving advice, and being more productive as a professional.

The fellows come from varied backgrounds. As Dr Shadab says, in the first year they had people majoring in fields of museums, conservation, heritage, law, and medicine. “This enriched their outlook and their ability to communicate.”

Shaheena Attarwala, an activist and designer, was one of the mentors this year. For her, mentoring at the LedBy meant a step towards attaining “the dream of plugging Muslim women in the mainstream society and contributing to the economic development of the nation”.

The foundation held its first graduation ceremony on September 13. The day was marked by the presence of two distinguished speakers; veteran Bollywood actor Shabana Azmi, and Dr. Sherin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize.

When LedBy decided to open for applications, what it lacked was a profile to appeal to potential fellows. The fellows first applied because someone prodded them. But what worked in the foundation’s favour was the profile of Dr Shadab. She was a success story that convinced many fellows to be part of the initiative. And they all now feel privileged and grateful for what they have gained from the fellowship.

“This was such a beautiful movement for me,” Ibtesam Fatima, 22, one of the LedBy fellows for the year 2020 says, of seeing Ebadi and Azmi and being able to interact with them. She comes from Patna, a city in one of India’s largest and poorest states, and wants to be a data scientist.

The best take away from fellowship, she says, was being able to engage with people who she had only seen on TV or dreamed about.

Fatima says LedBy taught her the difference between being educated and being empowered. She learnt the art of “how to elevate yourself to a leadership position within the institution.” She says after the fellowship she is more confident of dreaming about becoming a data scientist.

She also cherishes the fact that the fellowship brought her in contact with women from varied backgrounds who shared their experience which taught her “how to drive out my way for success”.

Ammara Kaisar, 20, from Kashmir, a disputed region beset by militarised violence, says through LedBy she found out that “there were so many amazing Muslim women out there doing such diverse, amazing things.” She says: “I made friends, I developed connections, and I felt that to be a part of this fellowship, at my age, was a privilege, and completing it, an achievement.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by Hamda Siddiqui, an Alumni of Aligarh Muslim University. She says: “I connected with incredible mentors who are the successful leaders in their industry, and fellows, who share a similar potential to become future leaders, and a passion to uplift other women of our community.”

For Dr Shadab on whether LedBy has panned out the way she had envisioned, she says: “For me, the problem is more important. And I’m completely open to the idea that the solution might be different than what I have in mind.”

So far, the funding to run the foundation has come from Harvard but she says they are open to investment from investors.

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