At the beginning of March – significantly before most people in the UK started responding to the Covid-19 pandemic – Halaleh Taheri went into action. “I have experienced two revolutions in my private life,” she says, reflecting on her upbringing in Iran and Iraq, “and more than 18 years of war in the Middle East. I knew how to deal with the crisis situation.” Taheri is the founder and executive director of the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation (MEWSo), and going into action began with informing her team: “We must work from home, modernise our service online, and help our clients isolate themselves and know we are still here for them.”
Taheri’s story is both typical and not: she reacted with unusual speed to the news of the pandemic, but did so in common ways, including moving operations to Zoom and Microsoft Teams, contacting everyone in her organisation’s extended community through already existing WhatsApp groups and newly printed flyers, and creating online services – classes in cooking, Zumba, art, storytelling and mindfulness – to support women when lockdown began.
MEWSo’s clients are mostly displaced women, and are rendered particularly vulnerable, says Taheri, by their “lack of the language. They don’t know the government information, the NHS situation”, making them susceptible to “fake news among the community”. Taheri took responsibility for this too, ensuring that official communications relating to the pandemic were translated into the women’s own languages.
I spoke to Taheri because she’s one of the cohort of senior leaders who took part in Clore Social’s first leadership development programme specifically for the women and girls sector. This is the second report on that programme and is, of course, an unexpected turn for the series: it focuses on how its participants have led their teams since March, what kind of leadership tools have proven vital in responding to the unfolding crisis, and what their hopes are for their organisations, and for society in general, in the unknown future ahead.