World of Difference: Razia Ismail

“Americans are very far away from other people’s lives.”

Razia Ismail, 1971 WPI Fellow from India, Deputy director for programs, UNICEF India, New Delhi

by Frank Jossi

On a lonely Mississippi highway in 1971, the journalist Razia Ismail of India had her first encounter with American racism, Southern style. The state patrol pulled over a car driven by a Macalester student and full of WPI journalists representing a rainbow of colors from around the globe. The police had no reason to stop the group. They just looked different.

“There was a Ghanaian, a Thai, a Japanese and a very terrified American student who was our driver,” she recalls. “And one me, from India. I remember being scared and wondering what would become of us. The more we insisted on being allowed to go, the more they said, ‘Sit in the car.’ Finally they said we could go. When we asked, ‘Why did you do this?’, they said, ‘Go.’ They were not very communicative. We sensed they did not feel obliged to explain. Later, we discovered they had been informed we were going to visit [well-known activist] Mayor Charles Evers of Fayetteville. Obviously, we were bad eggs.”

Despite that memorable incident, and another unpleasant encounter with two policemen in Washington, D.C., when she and three other journalists drove the wrong way on a one-way street, most of her memories of the WPI program do not involve the authorities, she says with a laugh. “I did happen to choose ‘police reform’ as my study topic, and met policemen everywhere, but they did not determine my picture-frame of the country.” Rather, she recalls how an Iowa family took her and four colleagues in during a blizzard and how the children of the family exchanged letters with her for years afterward. She remembers how America was really not much like the Time and Newsweek articles and novels she had read, the songs she knew, or the movies she had seen. There was so much more to it, and much of it was nicer. The America she experienced was vast, often beautiful, mostly comfortable, a country where people often tried to reach out to foreigners despite provincial attitudes, and an intriguing level of ignorance about anyone else.

“As a journalist, what I noticed was the enormous isolation of the average American from the rest of the world. It was a very tilted kind of thinking that people seemed to have,” says Ismail, who has worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund in New Delhi for more than two decades. “I wasn’t familiar with the kind of localized press and television you have in the States, and therefore whatever information you’re getting about anywhere else — unless it’s a disaster — is very small.”

Ismail arrived at WPI and Macalester in 1970 as a 31-year-old journalist–the first Asian woman and only the second woman ever on the program. Though initially concerned that she was going to travel and live with a “bunch of gorillas,” she found that her male colleagues were “perfect gentlemen” who treated her as an equal. Offered residence at a women’s dorm at Mac, she declined, announcing she wanted to live with the rest of the group at their house near campus. She got a single room, the only one with a lock on the door. She didn’t need the protection.
“I think this little pocket United Nations that we were changed me because it was my first experience of coed living. It was good. I came out of it more relaxed with people I had never seen before, all of them of the opposite sex. I worked in a male-dominated newspaper here [in New Delhi], and when I got back I was much more at ease — also more assertive!”

Ismail says the program exposed her to the American political process and gave her an opportunity to follow the presidential campaign of George McGovern. She met Green Berets and saw a nuclear bomb shelter for government officials in Colorado, both “chilling” experiences. She remembers a magical night listening to the writer Alex Haley recount the story of Roots before it arrived in bookstores.
After the program ended, she returned to India and resumed working for the Indian Express and also wrote for the Christian Science Monitor until 1976, when she decided she wanted to do something more direct and hands-on about the problems her country faced. In addition to working for UNICEF, she was elected president of the World YWCA from 1991 to 1995–the first Asian to hold the office. She has earned a reputation as an advocate for the girl child and as a lobbyist for “internationalism” versus “globalism” in world affairs. “Internationalism means coexistence of different streams,” she says. “Globalism implies everyone gets ‘mainstreamed.’ ”

Ismail has a different perspective not only as an Indian but from her marriage, in 1993, to Mohamed Bashir Abbasi, an Iraqi army officer she first met in New York while on a U.N. assignment in 1983. The two saw each other often in Europe, where Bashir was posted for several years, and were married in post-war Baghdad, where he still lives. They maintain their long-distance marriage through visits, “an impressive number of phone calls, regular arguments, and a lot of mutual respect,” she says.

Today, the 60-year-old Ismail says she knows that her values–“somewhat socialist to this day”- are the product of her own culture and experience. “The values I encountered [in the U.S.], expressed all the way from stuffy conservative to U.S.-variety liberal, were clearly the products of another experience. I was impressed by many things–and shocked by a few. I could see both freedoms and injustices in the U.S., just as I could at home. I felt few Americans understood that the ‘American way of life’–even at its best–is still not the magic formula for everybody everywhere. I realized that neither the chance encounters nor the longer relationships of that year could bring about total understanding on either side. I was struck by the goodness of ordinary people.

“I must confess,” she added, “that I became impatient at the oversimplified way some people seemed to perceive other nations and societies as less civilized than the U.S. It seemed to me that ‘capitalist’ Americans and ‘socialist’ Indians could coexist in one world without imposing or being imposed upon. I still believe in that possibility, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Maybe one incident will illustrate what made me think that Americans are really very far away from other people’s lives–across the ocean, across many filters of media and cultural distance. One of the people whom I remember with great affection asked me, ‘Razia, when do you think Indians will progress enough to attain our way of life?’ I remember retorting: ‘Why do you think it would be progress to do that? Maybe we will seek and find a different path.’ ”