A passionate voice in paradise

Safaath Ahmed Zahir thought her future lay in banking, but now the young activist is being recognised for her advocacy of women’s rights.

BY KATE STANTON

Safaath Ahmed Zahir is from the Maldives, a small South Asian nation renowned as an international tourist destination. But the 26-yearold women’s rights activist says there’s plenty of work to do to improve the lives of the people who live there. 

“I think a lot of people are not aware of the issues affecting our country,” she says. “We’re a young democracy. And I want to be an active voice that speaks out against corruption, dictatorship and extremism.” 

Zahir’s outspoken advocacy work has garnered international recognition, but she never set out to become an activist. She thought she would work in the financial services industry, completing a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance at Monash University’s Malaysian campus, and a master’s degree in finance at the University of Nottingham. 

When Zahir returned to the Maldives in 2015, she had been out of the country for seven years, and was struck by some of the gender discrimination she encountered on her job search. “I started hunting for a job and it took me a lot of time,” she says. “People used to ask me in job interviews when I was getting married.” 

She finally landed work with the Capital Market Development Authority of the Maldives, where she was asked to take part in creating an NGO called Women on Boards – the first Maldivian organisation to advocate specifically for women on boards and in leadership positions. 

Zahir says Women on Boards successfully brought more attention to the importance of women’s empowerment in the Maldives, particularly through an outpouring of support from young Maldivians on social media. “It became a very unique thing,” she says. “A movement.” 

She recently founded her own organisation, Women and Democracy, which aims to advocate more specifically for women in political leadership. In the Maldives, only about 6 per cent of local government councillors are women. 

Women and Democracy is working on a project called Gender Manifesto, in association with the British High Commission – an agenda and action plan on the issues facing women in the Maldives. But Zahir has plans to run for office, too. 

A passionate “I might not be ready this year or next year,” she says. “But I definitely see it in my future.” 

Last year, Zahir became one of 17 young people around the world to be recognised by the UN for community leadership. In 2017, she was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Asia, and met Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, where she became the first – and, to date, only – Maldivian to receive the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. 

“It was a very special moment in my life. But I don’t do this work for any recognition. I do it for the good of our community. I’m so happy to be making a positive impact and hopefully bringing change to my country.”