PCJ students, activists Maryam and Nivaal Rehman talk digital activism at an upcoming conference

February 22, 2021
By Liliana Bechtold

Twin sisters Maryam and Nivaal Rehman can barely remember a time when they weren’t involved in activism. Now second-year students both double majoring in International Relations and Peace, Conflict, and Justice (PCJ), with a minor in Women and Gender Studies, their activism journey began in Pakistan at just eight years old. Visiting a girl’s school built on their grandmother’s land, they learned that many of the students were planning to end their studies in the fifth grade to begin working to support their families. Maryam and Nivaal were inspired to visit the school whenever they returned to Pakistan, holding workshops with the students and speaking to families about the importance of education. Since then, the Rehman twins have pursued several ambitious projects centred around gender equality and girl’s education. In 2019, they formalized this work by founding their non-profit, the World With MNR. “We want to bridge the gap between the problems that exist in the world and what people can do to help solve them,” says Maryam.

This problem-solving drive is what led the Rehman twins to choose their degrees, they say. “We wanted to choose a program that would have real-world application to our lives,” says Nivaal. “The Munk School’s PCJ program has given us the opportunity to look beyond simply examining world issues and to start analyzing them more deeply and thinking about answers. It’s opening up our way of thinking, and the ways that we approach problems and look for solutions.” The best part of the program, they say, is that so much of what they’re learning [GM1] has translated to activism and the projects that they’re working on outside of the classroom. “It’s amazing to be able to turn around and immediately apply the things we learn,” Maryam says.

For Maryam and Nivaal, activism is something of a family tradition. They describe both of their grandmothers as “feminists before their time,” involved in supporting girl’s education through setting up schools and helping women start businesses through vocational schooling. The Rehman twins have been involved in a number of impressive projects: a collaboration with Disney, a documentary film about girl’s education, and speaking at events like the G7 Finance and Development Ministers Meetings. In the wake of COVID-19, they’ve moved their activism online, speaking at virtual conferences, holding digital events, and developing online activism tools.

They’ll be speaking about this work, and how digital activism can be used to support gender equality, at the annual Peace, Conflict, and Justice Student Conference on February 26. The Rehman twins will be speaking at the Policy Change and Management in a Globalized World forum, alongside Abdullah Fadil of UNICEF Sudan, Dr. Peter Singer from the Institute of Medical Science, and Dr. Fiona Miller from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. They’ll share their story, talk about the impacts of COVID-19 on girls’ education, and discuss how public policy can support gender equality.

In the future, the Rehman twins are planning to expand the focus of their non-profit to address poverty, another one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Another major aim is investigating how their platform might be used to aid systemic change. What they’ve been learning and working on inside the classroom, they say, has become a major guiding point for their activism, showing them new ways to think about the problems they’re confronting. “I think that what we’ve been learning is really helping us understand how we might be able to start addressing issues like gender equality directly at the root,” Maryam says. “We’ve really found that our learning can take us exactly where we want to go.”