Sairah Zaidi ’05

When Pakistan held landmark general elections this May, Sairah Zaidi ’05 was watching closely. Zaidi, a Pakistani-American, spent several years in Pakistan as a child. But she enrolled at Gilmour in eighth grade after her father, a physician, established a private practice in Solon.
 
Now Zaidi is an assistant for Asia programs at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) in Washington, D.C. The 26-year-old works on democracy development programs in Asian countries, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recently, she spent much of her time assembling a team of international observers for Pakistan’s May elections.
 
“These elections are unprecedented, because it’s the first time a civilian government in Pakistan will complete its term and transfer power to another,” says Zaidi, who started at NDI last November. “Pakistan has basically had a cycle of military dictatorships interrupting democratic rule, and there’s a lot of talk about how this could be a turning point in the country’s history.”
 
Zaidi’s team sent over long-term observers to look not only at election preparations, but also at what’s being done to promote the political involvement of women in a country hardly renowned for gender equality.
 
“Women’s political participation is really near and dear to my heart,” says Zaidi. And she has her trailblazing grandmother to thank for that. Though her formal education runs only through seventh grade, in 1991 Zaidi’s grandmother founded a small school in the slums of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Today it has flourished to more than 500 students. “She is such an inspiration for me,” says Zaidi of her grandmother. “As is my father – like so many overseas Pakistanis, he maintains a remarkably deep connection to his home country.”
 
Zaidi first visited her grandmother’s school in the summer of 2011. At the time, Zaidi was a Georgetown University graduate student interning in Islamabad with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Children’s Global Network, an education NGO funded by USAID.
 
Though she was based in the city, Zaidi often traveled throughout the country to conduct field research and sometimes had to enter areas that were breeding grounds for extremist groups. “We had no armed guards, but I had an advantage – I could blend in and keep a low profile,” she says. “Although there are very real security threats, I also think Pakistan is misunderstood because of the disproportionate focus of the international media on militant violence. There is so much more to the country, and Pakistanis are incredibly resilient and hospitable people.”
 
During her UNDP internship, Zaidi researched the lack of equal opportunity in the country’s land ownership laws and practices, interviewing agricultural laborers in the process. “That was very difficult,” she recalls. “Some of them would reluctantly admit on condition of anonymity that the land they were working on belonged to them on paper, but had been stolen by powerful feudal landlords who took the lion’s share of what they produced every month.”
 
Zaidi received her master’s in foreign service from Georgetown last May and spent the summer after graduation studying the Bengali language in Bangladesh, a country that, like India, has clashed with its neighbor Pakistan. Despite the tense history –Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until a bloody war of independence in the 1970s - Zaidi found the Bangladeshi people to be open, hospitable and curious about her background.
 
When it came time for her to apply for jobs at summer’s end, she tried to narrow her prospects to different areas of work in Pakistan, where her family, and especially her father, still has deep charitable involvement with her grandmother’s school.
 
“I was interested in promoting democracy, but in a smart way,” Zaidi says of her career choice. “NDI has a record of success and a very broad reach in terms of Pakistan. We’re really doing exciting work, with the elections and beyond.”
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