Interview with Tahani Helmy, member of NAYA (a URI Cooperation Circle in Amman, Jordan), and Sally Mahé (Senior Consultant, URI).
Sally: Thank you, Tahani, for giving your time for this interview. I really enjoyed reading about your dedicated leadership in the areas of civil rights, women’s issues, children’s issues, and interfaith cooperation. In this interview, we aim to go deeper and ask: where does your leadership come from and how do you understand it? How have you experienced your leadership showing up?
Tahani: Thank you for these deeply, profound questions. They gave me the opportunity to self-reflect from a newer, different angle. To continue, I am a passionate and dedicated journalist, lecturer, trainer, and human rights defender. Furthermore, I am quite passionate about the role of social media in transforming a positive change. The flame that is enkindled within me is truly the desire to yearn for a change in the current adverse climate and the societal conditions around me. Moreover, I chose the path of being a journalist because I believe that the power of the word can have a massive impact.
A turning point for me came early on when I was a young journalist. I was dying to go to Paris to cover fashion for a glossy women’s magazine. During the Fashion Week, I realized that I wanted to go backstage and speak to the models in order to learn about their stories. Whilst speaking with them, I felt so sad since many were utterly miserable. I didn’t like this distorted perception and image of beauty that this kind of fashion magazine was providing for these teenage girls, and causing them to think that their bodies should look a certain way, etc. My boss was infuriated that I did not cover fashion as I was expected to do. However, then I decided that I was determined to devote my journalistic talents towards ways that empower people and serve society.
Another turning point came about when my husband and I were stationed in Nigeria. I wanted to immerse myself deep beneath the surface of society and their reality also to be in closer connection with the people. Thus, I volunteered in the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program (JYSEP) that animates the energies and inner potentialities of 12–15-year-olds on how to use the media in a better, elevated way and to raise consciousness about how media can have a detrimental effect on people’s lives.
"I wanted to listen to the young people and to learn from them. I wanted to help them stand on solid ground and gain confidence to shape their own life."
Thirteen years later, I met a woman that I taught back in Nigeria when she was a teenager. She became a journalist herself and told me that I had been her role model and that she studied journalism to be like me. Her words struck me deeply and meant a lot to me.
Sally: Without being too modest, what would you say are the special qualities that make you a good leader?
Tahani: Due to my husband’s occupation, I had the good fortune to live overseas in the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Algeria, Mumbai, and Kazakhstan. I was an Expat with the keen perspective of an investigative journalist.
"I never wanted to stay in my comfort zone."
I wanted to expand my horizon and life and to understand the needs of the people in places where we live and think about my social roles and what I could do to selflessly serve and help. These experiences broadened my mental scope and capacities for transformative change.
Sally: What are the values that have stayed with you, that continue to guide and inspire your work?
Tahani: Returning to Jordan, I wanted to lead practical, strategic initiatives to make grassroots changes in society. Therefore, I started several media campaigns that focused on gender equality and civil rights for women as mothers and as wives. In addition, I was also involved in a pioneer project called Human Dignity that taught youth in remote villages about social justice and to stand up to ingrained cultural norms that were unfair.
"I realized that most people tend to stay in their own cocoons and not learn about the diversity of the people in their surroundings."
As a representative of the Baha’i community in Jordan, I wanted the Baha’i’s in my country to become more proactively visible and to be better understood. I deeply value Jordan’s “mosaic culture.” We have a vast array of diversity here. Thereby, we are bound together as Jordanians!
I value pioneering! I think a leader sees that society can be different and longs to start new initiatives to bring about positive change. It takes courage and also a thorough reading of social reality using a sharp analytical eye and a keen spiritual perception to view concealed, inward potentials, ideas, and visions for the future.
Sally: Were there experiences in your upbringing that helped you become who you are today?
Tahani: I was raised in a loving Baha’i family. My mom and dad assisted me to discover life in my own way. They imbued in me an investigative eye in opposition to blindly imitating certain outmoded traditions; dogmas, and so forth. Also, I saw that I had empathy especially for vulnerable people which supported my lifestyle of activities in being of service to people. My beliefs as a Baha’i are fundamental to who I am. I live with a dual purpose: to strive to be a better person and to strive to help society. These are intertwined. By improving society, one improves oneself in a dual coherent process of the aforementioned dual moral purpose. Moreover, living with a clear purpose can be a long and struggling path, but there is a vision at the end of the day.
"I believe that the impacts we make during our life stay with us into the afterlife."
Especially because social media puts undue stress on self and magnifies one’s ego, I believe we need to stand up and create our own lofty standards for how we are to live. I am determined to change things for the better and I want to be an icon of change.
Sally: Can you tell me more about the spark that ignites your purpose in life?
Tahani: The spark comes from the founder of the Baha’i faith, Baha’u’llah, who proclaimed that humanity’s destiny is for the entire planet to be united as one family in peace. When I get tired, I go back to this inner sense of purpose which is the hallmark of the Baha’i faith.
Covid is bringing humanity an opportunity to learn a lot. We are all in the same boat. We are realizing that we are truly interconnected and interdependent with one another by linking the three protagonists: the individuals, institutions, and communities. Therefore, we cannot be well if our brothers and sisters in other countries are not. Covid restrictions are making us ask fundamental questions and awakening a deeper sense of social responsibility deep within ourselves and in context towards our collective consciousness as a humanity. Also, we are in dire need of cooperation, reciprocity, and collaboration of the highest degree if we are being given the chance to take up responsibility not only for ourselves but for all humanity.
In October 2020, my father passed away from Covid. Even though I felt very sad, I knew that I needed to share my story on TV to give hope and to encourage people to think about what we can do to help one another. Especially with Covid, society is rendered helpless. People need to be shaken to the core and awakened to think about reevaluating their priorities.
Sally: When you feel off-track or overwhelmed, do you have a practice to recharge yourself?
Tahani: I like to read Baha’i scripture about the advancement of civilization. I see myself as a small contributor. I watch movies and read books about inspiring people. I also like connecting with like-minded people and speaking with people always recharges me!
Sally: What gives you deep joy and satisfaction?
Tahani: After my dad passed away, several people spoke about him as a man whose life was filled with service. His legacy and the mark he left helped me see that my dedication to give service comes from my dad. I love providing service with a modest approach without seeking recognition.
"Furthermore, service brings the greatest joy."
Sally: Do you have anything you want to add?
Tahani: Thank you for your consecrated effort in seeking the inner voices in people throughout the globe. Your initiative gave me an idea to highlight in my next article.
Read the full "Inner Voice of Leadership" series.