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Ambassador Tahir-Kheli Serves as Role Model to Younger Generations

By Chiara Vercellone

On Oct. 25, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies hosted Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, who in 2011 was named by Newsweek as one of the “150 Women Who Shake the World.”

Tahir-Kheli specializes in issues related to South Asia, nuclear nonproliferation, U.S. foreign policy and the United Nations. But she has perhaps received the most attention as an advocate for women’s empowerment, a field she pioneered as a Muslim woman working under three Republican administrations.

Tahir-Kheli was appointed by then-Secretary Condoleezza Rice as senior advisor for women’s empowerment in April 2006 and subsequently established the first-ever office focused on integrating women’s empowerment into U.S. foreign policy. She set up a working group comprised of some 60 female heads of state, foreign ministers, political leaders, attorney generals and speakers of parliaments, focusing on political participation, education, economic empowerment and justice.

Tahir-Kheli also spearheaded a State Department initiative for women’s justice, which brought together judges from around the world in 2008 to work on measures to address violence against women and women’s lack of access to justice.

Today, Tahir-Kheli continues to serve as a role model for breaking the glass ceiling during what she describes as an “age of prejudice.”

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Shirin Tahir-Kheli’s book, “Before the Age of Prejudice: A Muslim Woman’s National Security Work with Three American Presidents,” offers an insider’s perspective of what it was like to be a Muslim woman working at the White House and State Department, starting in the 1980s.

In her new book, “Before the Age of Prejudice: A Muslim Woman’s National Security Work with Three American Presidents,” Tahir-Kheli offers an insider’s perspective of what it was like to be a Muslim woman working at the White House and State Department, starting in the 1980s. While she recalls the many obstacles she encountered along her career path, Tahir-Kheli says her story is emblematic of the “American dream” — a concept to which today’s younger generations should still aspire, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

Tahir-Kheli was born into a Muslim family in Hyderabad in pre-partition India, where the majority of the population was Hindu. This background, she said, expanded her horizons and led her to appreciate the diversity of religions, cultures and people around the world.

“I was aware of my religion from my earliest childhood and my parents’ circle of friends included all those different groups that we came in contact with. So, learning about tradition at the same time as learning about getting along with people of different beliefs was central to my upbringing,” Tahir-Kheli told students at the Johns Hopkins discussion.

This “wonderful early lesson” came in handy when her family moved to the newly created Pakistan and then, later in her life, when she moved to the United States for college.

It also served her well when she had to break down barriers to work in U.S. government, particularly when she joined the State Department Policy Planning Staff under President Ronald Reagan in 1982.

“There was a lot of huffing and puffing and saying, ‘Well, [I’ve] never seen anybody that looks like that [in the State Department]’ or, ‘She is just a woman, that’s not going to help,’” Tahir-Kheli recalled, noting that she also faced prejudice because her parents still lived in Pakistan, even though “this was the time where U.S.-Pakistan relations were quite OK.”

“Apparently, all of this went up the chain until it got to [then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs] Larry Eagleburger, who told these guys, ‘So? They’ve got to live somewhere.’ And it sounds trivial, but at the time it was a huge deal for somebody like him to take a stand like that for somebody like me,” said Tahir-Kheli.

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Shirin Tahir-Kheli

When Tahir-Kheli first entered the federal workforce, matters of religion weren’t “that big of a deal as it is today,” she said. In fact, being a Muslim in Tahir-Kheli’s time was sometimes even celebrated. The real issue back in the 1980s was that she was a woman in a man’s world.

Tahir-Kheli constantly faced criticism that she “didn’t belong” on the White House National Security Council, for example. Yet she persevered to become one of the pioneers who broke the mold for women entering the top echelons of U.S. government.

Today, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), nearly 900,000 women are employed by the federal government, accounting for 44 percent of the total workforce — a vast increase over the last decade.

Tahir-Kheli admitted that during her time at the White House, being the only woman and the only Muslim in the room could be difficult and tricky, but she rose past the biases and mistrust to become a respected foreign policy analyst.

“You would always get a hard time [if you were a woman], particularly if you were like me and didn’t agree with somebody’s viewpoint. That made it even more difficult,” she said.

But it didn’t stop her from climbing the professional ladder. Tahir-Kheli has served as the head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 2001; a member of the U.S. Presidential Commission on Public Service (1992-93); director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the White House National Security Council (1986-89); and director of political military affairs on the National Security Council (1984-86).

In addition, from 2004 to 2006, she served as the key American official guiding U.S. policy to reform the United Nations. And from 2003 to 2005, she served as senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations at the National Security Council, where she proposed and coordinated the building of a children’s hospital for cancer treatment in Basra, Iraq, from 2004 to 2009. The hospital, a public-private partnership that was the first of its kind in Iraq, opened in 2010 and was, in Tahir-Kheli’s words, “a chance to give a little bit of what I remember of the America of the past.”
 


Chiara Vercellone is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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