‘You can be the first one’ – Celebrating International Women’s Day with Diana Sayed

SAARI Collective invites you to join our International Women's Day series - every day, women of colour are blazing trails in their fields and leading their communities, but their achievements aren’t always recognised. Valuing their contributions and achievements is vital to advancing gender and racial equality and to showcasing the voices of women of colour all around. We invite you to join us in recognising and celebrating their efforts, achievements and immense contributions - follow along as we profile some resilient and inspiring women of colour over the coming days.

Today, we celebrate the high-powered changemaker Diana Sayed. 

“There is no stereotypical mould that anyone needs to fill. Everyone has their own mould. Remember, you don't always need to see it to be it - you can be the first one to do something. ”

 

Diana Sayed is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights. She joined the organisation in October 2019 as an international human rights lawyer with experience working in both Australia and the United States. Diana worked as a lawyer, advocate, and campaigner for over a decade, and has the lived experience of being a visible Muslim woman of colour in Australia, as a former refugee from Afghanistan.  

No stranger to the media, she is also a regular panelist on The Drum, ABC The World, SBS, Al Jazeera, MSNBC and ABC Q&A. With a Master’s in International Human Rights Law, she is an expert on issues pertaining to gender equality, social justice, and human rights. Diana was the former Campaigns Manager at Fair Agenda and Senior Crisis Response Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia, where she led the global #ToxicTwitter campaign to hold the social media giant accountable for online abuse which was silencing women.

Reflecting back on her childhood, Diana says she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She was interested in social justice in the world, whether that be from a women’s or refugee perspective, for as long as she can remember. “I've always just wanted us to learn from history to feel informed about it. So, if we can try and traverse it to make changes. And sure, it feels really futile at times but working in community and grassroots organisations really inspire me. There is something very real about my experience of conversing with others who work at grassroots organisations, in that the impact you can see is so much more tangible than if you were working at a bigger board or a bigger company.”

When it comes to leadership, Diana believes it is imperative people find what style works for their unique space and states we must unlearn the traditionally "hierarchical and authoritarian ideas" surrounding the concept of leadership. She further says it is essential for everyone to be accountable and aware of their own privilege and recognise what’s true or given for them may not be the case for others.

“For me, leadership is about listening a lot. I surround myself with people that hold me accountable and actively avoid ‘yes’ people. I don't really need that. I need people who will real and honest and yes, sometimes it is hard. But I think vulnerability and honestly in leadership are really empowering.

“You also must be accountable for your own privilege – check if you assume too much or want someone with a specific formal qualification for a role, which discredits those with incredible qualifications that don't translate on paper. It is about having that awareness that [your] lived experience can still be limiting.”

 

She encourages other women of colour to steer away from the “you need to see it to be it” mentality and invites them to break the moulds and create new ones in a way they want. “You have to believe you can be it and have inherent faith in your work and your vision. You can be the first in spaces so don’t wait for someone to come before you to see that you can do it.”

This International Women’s Day, Diana would like to applaud the efforts and works of Afghan women. “For me, the last year has really been informed by the Afghanistan crisis. Just seeing Afghan women organising and protesting on the streets in Afghanistan in the face of so much adversity – be it the consequences on their livelihoods, the violence and the intimidation that they face on the streets by the Taliban –and that it hasn't dissuaded their courage has been monumental. It has been incredible to witness and watch.”

Over the coming year, Diana wants to break the bias towards Muslim women, “in that we somehow don't have the agency to self-determine our own lives”. “We've been culturally submissive, oppressed, and have always given deference to the patriarchy because that's how we've been conditioned. But that's just not true. Muslim women have been at the forefront of change in history - we're the drivers of change in our families, the advisors, the leaders, the political dissidents, the organisers, and I think that sort of bias against us, and that those negative assumptions need to be corrected on the record because it informs a lot of the way people interact, the way they talk down to the way they perceive us.”

Diana says women of colour are not afforded the same level of complexity, expression, morality or diversity as others and voices the need for increased conversations on this. “If you are not the biggest critiques of our own culture, then no one else is going to do it and there won’t be any change. We need more dialogue on this, up until we can inform more people and change the perspective imposed on us.”


You can connect with Diana via Linkedin and learn more about the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights here


Pranjali Sehgal is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne. She is a member of SAARI's Editorial Team and can be contacted via email. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Instagram.