Rumana Ahmed knows what it’s like to stand out. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, she’s all too familiar with the curious glances and the occasional offensive remarks that people hurl her way.
When she returned to school following 9/11, a fellow student tried to push her down the stairs. But Ahmed pushed back—both literally and figuratively. She not only directly confronted that classmate (who, fortunately, never bothered her again), but she also decided to run for class vice president—and won.
Ahmed says it was at that moment that she recognized the importance of nudging herself out of her comfort zone. “Because that’s how you discover a strength that you have or you discover a weakness that you can now focus on improving. Challenges are what make life interesting.” She even used her platform to start the first Muslim Student Association at her school.
It’s clear that Ahmed carried this lesson with her all the way to the White House, where she became the only head-covering Muslim woman working in the West Wing at the time under President Barack Obama.
“When Obama won, of course, it resonated with me,” Ahmed explains, “It made me think, ‘I want to do more.’ I didn’t know exactly what that was, but I knew that I wanted to be playing a bigger role in my community here in the U.S.”
That desire led her to an internship in the Office of Presidential Correspondence—the office responsible for responding to letters, emails, calls, and other requests sent to the president and first lady—during her junior year of college in 2010. It was the second (not first!) time she applied for it, which Ahmed says was a solid reminder to never give up on yourself.
Her supervisor then offered her an opportunity to return in a full-time role upon graduating from George Washington University with a degree in international affairs. Ahmed continued to climb the ranks—landing a position as an assistant and then a liaison to Muslim American, Arab American, and Iranian American communities with the Office of Public Engagement, which also marked her move to the West Wing.
And in 2014, she was offered a position with the National Security Council, where she was able to help organize President Obama’s first roundtable with a group of Muslim Americans, coordinate his first official visit to a mosque in the U.S., and work on numerous other projects to combat Islamophobia. Throughout her years in government, Ahmed's work also focused on healthcare, gun violence prevention, hate crimes, global entrepreneurship, and relations with Cuba and Laos.
Ahmed’s move to the West Wing was a big career moment—but, it also meant leaving the comfort and security she’d established in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, which is housed in a separate building.
“Day one in the West Wing, I was waiting to be escorted to my new desk,” Ahmed says. “I remember people walking by and they’re all looking at me. Not in a bad way, but my presence was noticed as I was sitting in the lobby.”
The confidence she’d built was shaken a bit. She remembers that it was like “suddenly going back to my post-9/11 moments where I felt like the world was looking at me and I just kind of wanted to sink into my sofa and disappear,” she says.
However, it didn’t take Ahmed long to realize that, while she wouldn’t slip by unnoticed, that didn’t have to be a bad thing.
There was that moment when both she and her boss forgot their badges and Ahmed was quickly admitted into the building because a Secret Service member remembered her, while her boss (who had been there far longer) had more trouble gaining access.
There was the time at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Morocco when a young, Palestinian girl was shocked and inspired that Ahmed was actually allowed to work in the White House.
And there was also the day when Adam Scott, who starred in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, visited the White House and spoke with her at length about her background and experiences. Ahmed recalls him saying, “You know, I have a daughter and I hope that she can grow up to be like you in terms of being so proud and confident in your identity.”
Ahmed left the White House in 2017, just eight days after Donald Trump took office, and now does speaking and writing work. She’s also a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and a master’s candidate at Harvard University. She’s had numerous opportunities to share her story, including contributing to an upcoming book called West Wingers: Stories From the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House.
Ahmed isn’t one to gloss over the fact that standing out as the only head-covering Muslim woman in the West Wing came with challenges and frustrations. But, she also likes to think of it as a lesson in authenticity and owning who you are.
“Being unique in your identity and perspectives sometimes forces you to have to work harder,” she concludes, “But, most importantly, it really challenges you to discover and share what your greatest strengths are.”
The First Actionable Step She Took
I’d say it was to go directly to my boss and say, “Here’s what I’ve been doing and here’s what I can do more to strengthen and grow what we’re doing.” You are your best advocate. It’s really important to be proactive.
The Biggest Challenge She Faced
I actually always say that I faced more of a challenge being a woman. I would say that the biggest challenge that I did face being a woman is that politics is still very much dominated by men, and getting to have an equal voice on issues or being treated with that level of respect was a challenge many times.
Advice She’d Give Another First or Only
Any kind of hesitancy or fear you’re feeling may actually just be the result of a barrier that you’re creating within your own mind. You should push yourself to do the things that you feel like you’re not capable of or that you feel like you won’t be allowed to do. Just challenge yourself to do it.
What She Wishes People Around Her Did
I do wish that the whole idea, the implementation, and the actual characteristics around being inclusive and being diverse was more than just a checkbox and more something that was institutionalized to be sustainable and to be constant.
Photo of Rumana Ahmed courtesy of Tamanna Azim.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author