There are certain women whose scope of work is so broad and commitment to higher goals so focused, you are constantly in awe of and inspired by them. Maryam Montague is that kind of woman. When you have a years-long career in humanitarian work paired with great taste and an entrepreneurial spirit this is what you can end up with—a boutique hotel, Peacock Pavilions, in Marrakesh, Morocco, an online souk of Moroccan treasures and a book, Marrakesh by Design, a girl’s group, Project Soar, which Michelle Obama featured in her documentary We Will Rise and to date has worked with hundreds of Moroccan girls, and coming on March 8th (International Women’s Day—and my bday), Agent Girl Power, a feminist apparel line meant to bridge both Arabic and English-speaking worlds. Because as Maryam says, “Arab girls and women want rights as much as anyone else.” (Sign up for launch info on the site.) Here, Maryam talks about how this American ended up in Morocco, the hardest challenge to standing up for women’s rights (sometimes it’s other women), and her olive grove splurge.
What do you do and how do you view who you are? I see myself as a social entrepreneur and a nonprofit leader. Giving back is at the heart of everything I do; that’s the “social” in social entrepreneur. My background is in humanitarian aid, that’s been my career. I have a masters in international affairs with a focus on international development. The large part of my career, which is not so obvious to others that look at what I do from the outside, has really been focused on the area known as democracy and governance. That involves a lot of human rights work, training women to run for office, training women once they’re in office and a range of things from running a prisoner rights program to organizing youth rights programs. I’ve also spanned a lot of different countries, in terms of my work and have worked in 45 or 50 countries until now.
You now have a hotel in Morocco, but you definitely sound like you’re American: I’m American, but I was born in Egypt, to a mother from Iran, and a father from New York. So, I’m very much as they say in French, a bouillon de culture. My dad is an Africanist and Arabist by training. He met my mom when he was doing a Fulbright scholarship to Iran. So we were brought up in this very dynamic, multicultural environment. That prepped me to look at the world as a big, intriguing place to explore.
One of the areas that I’m also passionate about is access to justice. This is very important in the human rights world, serving people whose rights are being denied to them by providing them access to justice. Over the last 18 months, I’ve done a fair amount of work with a group in Geneva, called International Bridges to Justice. I traveled with them to Burma last year and helped them with a Zimbabwe project.
People don’t realize that. They think, “Oh, I have a hotel, and I have a shop.” But actually, those are my side hustles, my fun projects.
What made you decide to open a hotel in Morocco? I was working in Namibia, running a nation-wide women’s advocacy campaign. My husband and I were looking for an opportunity to move. Because as much as we loved Namibia, there’s a lot of issues around racism. We had our son in Namibia, and wanted to live in a place that was more equitable for raising a family. When we had an offer to move to Morocco, we literally hopped on the plane, moved, sight unseen and loved it. When the end of our posting there came up, we weren’t ready to move. I transitioned to working for a management consulting firm which gave me more flexibility. Because my husband’s an architect, we thought that it would be really fun to build, for the first time, our own place. We actually did a House Hunter’s episode back then about our search.
We built our place, which we called Peacock Pavilions because of our pet peacocks. But the City of Marrakech told us that we were not allowed to just build a home, we had to have an investment project. That’s how our project turned into a boutique hotel.
We decided to kind of create a boutique hotel that was geared towards all the things that we had been missing when we traveled. A place that would be very culture forward, where you’d be getting much more curated support and advice, itinerary planning, and you would learn a lot about the culture. I wanted to create a space where people could learn the richness of this beautiful country, and walk away from their experience in Morocco feeling fuller.
Then I wrote a book, called Marrakesh by Design, for a New York publisher because of my passion for Moroccan design.
What made you create Project Soar? We knew that if we were going to do a business, we wanted to do a social business. Because that’s very much a part of our respective ethos, “How are we contributing to this planet? What is our legacy? How are we giving back?”
Because of my background in women’s rights, I was very interested in our supporting girls’ rights. We had a daughter who was an adolescent at the time, so she was our muse for the project. We really wanted to bring her into our life of service. I was a girl activist from the age of 12. So it was perfect timing.
We started small. We identified what we felt were challenges that girls were facing, primarily in coming from a social class that didn’t offer them all the opportunities. We thought creating a girls’ empowerment organization could be our space for giving back.
I’m really passionate about adolescent girls, teenage girls, that’s my jam.
Why? Worldwide there’s a crisis of self esteem in adolescent girls. The Dove Foundation research shows that even in the US, seven out of ten girls face serious problems with self esteem and believe that there’s something profoundly wrong with them. This is a global phenomenon and problem
Adolescent girls face cultural and financial constraints. There are also a lot of child brides in Morocco, in the Arab world and throughout Africa. So there is a very limited window to work with girls, to potentially open their minds to the possibility of other futures, besides the classic getting married at 16 or 17, having your first baby by 18, you know? Your next baby by 20, and just entering into that whole cycle.
That’s why I wanted to focus on teenage girls. If you invest in a teenage girl, she would have at least 40 productive years contributing to a more modern economy.
We launched Project Soar five years ago. It’s the beating heart of this place. All the projects that I do give back to Project Soar.
What do you think has been the most challenging part about launching Project Soar? And what has been the most rewarding? I think girls’ empowerment is, unfortunately, controversial as a concept to some. I was having a conversation with a US government official who will go unnamed and she was saying that she wasn’t sure that she felt comfortable with the idea of equal rights between girls and boys.
What??! You’re kidding.
No, I’m not. And this is not unusual. Just think about how many women in the US do not define themselves as feminists.
A lot of women I know.
Exactly. But what does feminism mean? It just means gender equality. So, I have a girls’ empowerment organization that makes some people feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. I’m okay with being controversial if that’s controversial. I want to push the envelope. I don’t want to water and dumb things down so I don’t offend anyone. So I think it’s a constraint, but it’s also a strength.
There are definitely parents that won’t put their girls inn Project Soar. But then we had the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State come out and spend two hours with us, and he said, “You know, I think this is a sea change. You’re helping create a sea change.” That’s just so exciting and makes me feel alive.
What do you have coming up next? I’m launching a new social brand, called Agent GirlPower, which is a feminist apparel brand, with messaging both in Arabic and English. It’s a way to help Arab girls and women take up space in the women’s movement.
Of course, Arab girls and women want rights as much as anyone else. They have their hopes and dreams as much as anyone else. Like all girls and women, they don’t deserve sexual harassment and they deserve equal pay for equal work,. Agent GirlPower is also a solidarity brand in the sense that it’s an opportunity for all of us to embrace our values. For example, when you look at the outcry around DACCA, you don’t need to be an immigrant to know that that’s wrong. You don’t need to be a Mexican to know that there’s something profoundly wrong with building a wall. You don’t need to be a lesbian to stand up for LGBT rights.
This is a space for feminist apparel that embraces, perhaps, a larger subsection of women. Since I’m in the girls’ empowerment space in the Arab world, it makes perfect sense for it to be bilingual. Not to mention I think Arabic writing is gorgeous and adds so much beautiful design to the feminist thesis.
Are you making it in Morocco? I don’t think of this brand as being Morocco specific at all–the women’s movement is a global movement. The challenge is also that in Morocco there’s no cotton production. The clothing is being made in India. It’s all organic cotton, all certified fair trade. And it’s primarily made by women. And the jewelry is being made in Kenya, by women in the slums. It’s all recycled brass so it’s a zero waste product.
That’s really what this brand is about, it’s a conversation starter. “What does it mean to be a feminist?” When people say, “This is a brand where you wear your values”, with AGP you wear them not only in the way the product is made, but also in the message that you’re sending out to the rest of the world. We launch on KickStarter on March 8, International Women’s Day.
My hope is 2018 is going to be a big year for women. The momentum is building,
For those of us who’ve been working in the women’s movement for years, this is the dream. It’s the dream to be on so many peoples’ agendas. And I love blending all my lives—creative, lifestyle-oriented and humanitarian aid focused.
Three words that describe you: Social justice warrior + beauty maker (oops that’s more than three).
Three words that describe your work: Feminist, global-chic, heart-centered.
Life goals: Leave a legacy in the girls’ and women’s empowerment space. Raise children who are global citizens.
Daily goals: 1) Work on being a better human. 2) Get shit done.
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero.
Favorite fashion designer/brand: Figue by Stephanie Von Watzdorf (the majority of my wardrobe is from her line).
Daily rituals: 1) Meditating. I have been meditating for 25 years and have a tent at Peacock Pavilion with meditation bolsters set in a rose garden. According to the Insight Timer app (which I highly recommend), I have done a meditation 200 days in the last year. These days I’m obsessed with Sarah Blondin—her meditations have made me weep they cut so deep. 2) Using the Pomodoro System: I use the Pomodoro Time Management System to make sure that I am focused. It has literally doubled by productivity. 3) Taking potions/elixirs. The Four Sigmatic Elixirs are the best. My daily intake includes Cordyceps mushroom elixir before I work out, Lion’s Mane mushroom elixir for focus and Chaga mushroom elixir for protect my immune system. I also take Great Lakes Collagen for my skin and joints, drink Moringa tea to balance hormones and blood sugar levels and take Tian Wang Bu Xin pills for improved heart function. I also take numerous other supplements but will sound like a crazy person if I tell you all of them. 4) Listening to Brain FM. Try “Focus”. You will thank me.
How do you unplug? I am not so good at this. I love my work so it doesn’t seem like work. I also love to kickbox and have a coach who literally kicks my ass.
Hidden talent/hobby: I am fascinated by all things related to magic, miracles and superstition. I have been to many fortune tellers, witch doctors and healers the world over.
Do you collect anything? Peacock Pavilions is like one large cabinet of curiosities. I collect so many things including all forms of talismans (hands of Fatima, evil eyes, abjads, crosses), as well as many bones and skulls. I also love antique hand embroideries, tribal rugs and vintage Islamic jewelry.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: A life coach. She helps me step into a more ideal version of myself. And buying an olive grove in Marrakech.