“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” — Kofi Annan
After doing a bit of research on the woman we’re profiling today, we couldn’t help but be inspired by Whitney Buchanan. After living in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Whitney grew her passion to make a difference in the world. She’s working towards justice and peace for women and the Middle East through her site Middle East Collective – exactly the type of woman we love to feature here on Femme & Fortune. With multiple degrees, and a knack for living abroad in extremely diverse cities, Whitney shares with us how she plans on empowering and advocating a part of the world we hear so much negativity about. Keep reading to learn more about Whitney and how she’s changing the world!
Femme & Fortune: Who is Whitney Buchanan? Where are you from and what do you currently do?
Whitney: I was born and raised in East Tennessee, where I began advocating for gender equality and religious tolerance at a young age. I have been living between Cairo and Berlin for the past 5 years, as I worked and finished my master’s degree in global affairs and international cooperation at the American University in Cairo. I just moved to Istanbul this month, where I am working as an editor/legal assistant at a Turkish law firm. I’m also the founder of Middle East Collective and do freelance analysis and writing in my spare time.
Femme & Fortune: Where did your interest in Islamic affairs and the MENA region come from? Did you have any negative reactions from close friends or family?
Whitney: I began to study Islam and Middle Eastern cultures during my undergraduate career at the University of Tennessee, where I majored in religious studies and anthropology. Some of my best friends were Pakistani, Kurdish, Iranian and Egyptian, and I naturally became even more interested in the region. In all honesty, my friends probably grew tired of me asking them so many questions about their traditions and heritage, but I blame my anthropological eye for that! I had the opportunity to visit Egypt for the first time in 2009 and I’ve been hooked on the MENA ever since.
Unfortunately, I have had some negative reactions, but they were not completely unexpected. Once a family member called me “anti-American” because of my objections to the U.S. military intervening in MENA affairs. I even had family members ask me not to marry a Muslim or date Egyptians while I was in Cairo. It’s been tough not always having full support of the ones closest to me, but I pride myself on being able to persevere and make things happen. When I believe in a cause I will stand up for it no matter how many times I’m knocked down.
Femme & Fortune: Tell us about the Middle East Collective! When did you get the idea to start this platform and what are your goals for the site/community?
Whitney: I began toying around with the idea in mid-2015 and I finally launched the site in February with the help of a good friend, Sebastian Schäffer of Authority Mentorship. Despite so many misinformed Islamophobic and xenophobic speeches from leaders in the West, a main MEC goal is to show that there is indeed true beauty, worth, and potential for development in the MENA. I hope MEC helps the Western world see that there is no reason to fear Islam or Muslim societies, any more than we fear Christianity or our own societies.
Another main goal is to provide a space where activists, scholars, young professionals, and experts can come together to learn and build dialogues regarding the tolerance of Islam, Muslim communities in the West, and the MENA region in general. I hope to showcase the photo essays, videos, graphic designs, art, poetry, spoken word, documentaries, scholarly articles, and personal narratives of those who share our mission and vision. Though changing the minds of those who are Islamophobic is not a main MEC goal, if by chance these works fall into the hands and touch the heart of someone who is generally opposed to Islam, or welcoming Syrian refugees into the West or allowing women to wear hijab, then I would consider that a great success.
“When I believe in a cause I will stand up for it no matter how many times I’m knocked down.” – Whitney Buchanan
Femme & Fortune: What do you want women from outside of the Middle East to understand about the culture and lifestyle of the women living in the Middle East? How can western women be more aware and open to the positive side of Islamic culture when current media is so anti-Islamic?
Whitney: Women in the Middle East have similar aspirations, fears, struggles, and emotions as women in the West. Women in both parts of the world want gender equality, access to education and healthcare, the space to worship freely without judgement of what we are wearing (i.e. short sleeve shirt, tattoos, hijab, niqab, skirt, shaved head, etc.). In both regions we all want our mothers, sisters, and daughters to walk on the street freely without experiencing sexual harassment or assault, which is unfortunately very severe in countries such as Egypt. Fear is the one element that holds so many people back from becoming more aware and open to the changing world around us. When someone is afraid they will do anything to feel empowered, safe and secure, which explains why some women get caught up in the false promises of Trump’s intolerant campaign. At the end of the day and in both parts of the world, we all want to make enough money to pay the bills, put food on the table and give our loved ones everything we can.
In order for Western women to experience the positive side of Islamic culture I think it’s beneficial to participate in multicultural events, to watch documentaries and movies from the MENA region, to take friends or children to visit a mosque just to see what it’s like, to enroll in an online or on-campus class about the religion and culture, to actively support local initiatives which promote coexistence, or to visit a museum with an exhibit on Islamic culture.
Femme & Fortune: You’ve been bouncing back and forth from Cairo to Berlin. Tell us about those two cities and what you love about them both!
Whitney: Cairo will always have my heart. I love that Cairo is truly the city that never sleeps and the people there are generally so generous and extremely outgoing. It often reminds me of my home in Tennessee because everyone knows everything about their neighbor; they will lend you a whole bag of sugar if you ask for a cup. Egyptians are able to make so much out of nothing – there are always new shops, jewelry stores, cafes, and fruit stalls appearing almost out of thin air.
Berlin has become a safety net for me, and for a long time it was a place to escape when I needed a break from Cairo. I love that in Berlin there is a melting pot of people. You can always hear at least five languages being spoken on the public transportation and anything you can dream of eating, you will find it. Berlin also has incredible parks filled with interesting people, music, food stands, and pop-up shops. It’s a fantastic city anyone would love to visit!
Femme & Fortune: What do you do in your free time? What are some of your hobbies?
Whitney: I love traveling as much as possible; even weekend trips are exciting for me! I also have a knack for baking, particularly “fancy” breads, so I like to do that as a stress reliever. Creative writing is also very meditative for me. I carry around a small book in case I need to write down my thoughts; creatively or professionally.
Femme & Fortune: Describe yourself in three words.
Whitney: Passionate. Innovative. Resilient.
Femme & Fortune: What’s a typical day in the life of Whitney like?
Whitney: My schedule has changed drastically since my move to Istanbul, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that I start reading the news as soon as I wake up, which gives me the extra motivation I need in the morning. I work at my law firm until 7:00 p.m. every evening, then I head home to start editing submissions I’ve received for the Middle East Collective during dinner. My best writing flows during the evening to late night hours, so I work on freelance projects and articles then. I also love to throw in a Ballet Beautiful routine a few times each week; a healthy mind, body, and spirit is something I strive for.
Femme & Fortune: What’s next for you and the Middle East Collective?
Whitney: There is so much planned for 2017! Lucie Goulet, founder of Women in Foreign Policy, and I are working on an exciting collaboration which will launch at the end of January. I plan to set up a few workshops on how to promote tolerance and advocacy next year in Berlin, with partners such as Globalo and the World Security Network, for interested activists and young professionals. Another exciting project concerns MEC products I’m working on with some wonderful artists. It will be incredible to see our message literally worn around the globe, so that’s another collaborative effort I’m looking forward to.
Femme & Fortune: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about yourself or your current endeavors!?
I’m in the process of writing a memoir about my time in Egypt, but I’ve only shared a few passages with a best friend or two. I hope to have that completed by the end of 2017. A few sneak peeks will be posted on the MEC website, so stay tuned!