AlumnaeMay 1, 2020

Maryam Laly ’11 is a Berlin-based social justice advocate

From Pakistan to Iran and back to Afghanistan, her parents found a way to make education a priority.

Today’s inspiring MHS woman, the third in our Global Changemakers mini-series is Berlin-based social justice advocate Maryam Laly ’11.

A refugee from a young age, Maryam spent her childhood fleeing conflict in her native Kabul. From Pakistan to Iran and back to Afghanistan, her parents found a way to make education a priority, and, at age 14, Maryam took it upon herself to apply to the Youth Exchange and Study program supported by the U.S. Department of State. Thriving in this environment, Maryam was encouraged by her host family and mentors to seek Miss Hall’s as a place to develop her voice.

During her time as a student at St. Lawrence University, an internship with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand exposed Maryam to the underpinnings of change-making. At the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University and, later, the Aspen Institute, she learned the backend of program administration.

Today, as a Master's candidate in public policy, Maryam uses her knowledge and experience to advocate for minorities and women and girls in war-torn Afghanistan. She works with grassroots organizations to provide scholarships to at-risk youth, to prevent the street harassment of women, to create a library that serves 2,000 students, and to give Afghan women writers the power of the pen.

“MHS changed my life. Mr. Rutledge’s intro to law was the first time I realized there was such a thing as constitutional rights. Studying women leaders with Ms. Chandler, I learned of a world very different from the one I’d seen -- I saw that the world can be different. I came to understood what is possible.” - Maryam Laly ’11

Q&A with Maryam Laly

What impact did your education have on the advocacy work you’re involved in today? 
I was very young when I came to the United States. I was 15, and my first year was informative because when you grow up in very difficult circumstances, as I did, you grow up with survival instincts. I was aware only of my own surroundings. I didn't know what the world was about. I didn't know anything about what human rights meant. All this was informed when I came to the U.S. and had the time to reflect.
Miss Hall’s was life-changing for me. It was at MHS where I found out about feminism and women's rights. I took an Intro to Law class with Mr. Rutledge, and it was the first time I realized there are such things as legal rights and constitutional rights. I remember one day very clearly, because we were all laughing in class about how some students had driving permits or driver's licenses, and they talked about when a police officer stops you and what your rights are. That, for me, was the first time I realized there is actually meaning behind what a text like a legal amendment or a constitution says, and that it translates into the daily life of people.

What made you interested in public policy?
Growing up in a traditional household, at least in the context in which I grew up, if you wanted to be a person of influence, usually that meant you would be a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer. I had never thought that policy or politics or any of these other leadership positions could be a possibility or an option for me.
It was at Miss Hall’s when I realized there are many other fields that are influential in creating societal change. It was at MHS that I thought I might want to become a lawyer. That happened in Mr. Rutledge’s Intro to Law class, which I loved.

But, then, when I got to college, I realized that there are other ways I could be involved and become part of the dialogue and have an even greater influence on policy and people’s lives. Through a class on politics in South Asia, I realized there’s just so much more to what governments consist of. Because I grew up the way I did, I had seen so many difficult sides of politics. I realized I wanted to study more and learn why people did such things, how people make decisions for themselves or for others — in a brutal manner in some cases — but also how societies can become more open and more equal. 
I have chosen to focus on the policy aspect of things because I feel that there is power in mobilizing and advocating for people and for equality, but that if you do not understand how policy is made, you may not be as influential in your advocacy.

And, ultimately, in my work, I want to help. I want the ability to advocate for minority groups in Afghanistan, for women's rights, in general, but specifically in Afghanistan. And, to do that, I also need to know how policies are formulated. I really don’t want to be a politician — I want to be part of grassroots organizations, making the grassroots as strong as possible to ensure that the policies that are made are effective and equal and everyone's voices are heard.

So you don’t want to be a politician? 
I interned for Senator Kristin Gillibrand from New York on Capitol Hill when I was an undergrad, and, while I learned so much, it wasn’t for me. The biggest thing I learned is that I function better in smaller organizations where I feel like I have a say and that my voice is heard just as much as everybody else's. And, the Hill can be a place where the hierarchy is quite strong. There were bills being formulated that couldn't go forward because a certain number of people didn't agree with them or because a very specific group of people had a lot more power than others or had the funding to support a specific bill so that one went forward, but what probably could have saved people's lives did not, because it didn't have support. That, to me, was off-putting. I realized through that internship I would not thrive in places where there is too much power and influence in the hands of a very limited number of individuals and a lack of equality of voices.

What messages would you like to send to the young women of today? 
Something you should never take for granted is that no matter what happens, you have your education. That is something no one can take away from us, and this is something we sometimes forget because of what powerful people can do. My whole life has changed as a result of my education and all the amazing things I learned at MHS. It taught me to be critical of the things I was taught and of the decisions I saw being made.

It’s always easy to lose hope; it’s always easy to lose sight of what’s possible. But, if we keep that hope alive — even if just for our own selves — we are able to change how the rest of the world functions.

You have power over your own life, and you can use it. This is something I have to remind myself of every day.