FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Robin Holzhauer
Initial interview date: May 9, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Welcome. My name is Robin Holzhauer and this is an oral interview done on Monday, May 9, 2022, with Naureen Nalia. We’re speaking in the United States via Zoom, an online meeting platform that zoomed in popularity in 2020 with the onset of COVID, when many people began to work from home for the first time. The video will be in speakers view, which means you’ll generally see Naureen speaking. For those of you who cannot see us, I am a white female with brown shoulder length hair, and I’m wearing a red top. And Naureen, would you like to introduce yourself in that way?
NALIA: Absolutely. I’m a South Asian American female, with short ear-length, dark hair, and I’m wearing a brown top.
Q: This interview is part of the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide Oral History Project, underwritten by the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. The goal is to have a series of shorter, topic-focused oral interviews with current or former Foreign Service personnel, that feature a discussion and insights on a topic specific to Foreign Service life. This interview is going to discuss challenges unique to singles in the Foreign Service. By singles we mean people who are unmarried or do not have a long-term partner.
Before we begin, I have a few sort of framing remarks just for the benefit of future listeners and researchers. Unlike race, ethnicity, or gender, single is not an official federally protected category. Yet discrimination or treating people differently because they were single, happened often and still happens at the Department of State. In the early and mid-20th century, this was most acutely felt by women who were expected and encouraged to resign if they married, with only a few exceptions they did. As a career Foreign Service officer, Phyllis Oakley once said, “women in the Foreign Service knew that if they married, they would have to resign, and we accepted that discrimination without batting an eyelash.”
Though eyelashes have been batting recently. Through activism and changing norms and mores, that unofficial policy ended, but singles, both male and female, face barriers and different expectations than their married colleagues. These range from the inconvenient to the dangerous to career threatening. For example, always being expected to work overtime or holidays to cover for colleagues who were married or had children; when overseas, being assigned to housing that was isolated or not being given an assignment because the post was deemed family friendly, and thus not for people who were single or not married. People began to speak out on these issues, and with the advent of email and, later, social media that allowed people to communicate and share their experiences, employees organized and demanded more from the Foreign Service, and this included some work by the American Foreign Service Association.
While there were some ad hoc or post-by-post changes, the State Department did not holistically address the issue for many years. Then, after years of activism, in 2021, the department held a webinar series to learn more about challenges singles faced. It then convened an ad hoc working group that, in October 2021, gave the department recommendations on how to better serve the needs of single employees. Suggestions were sent to both domestic and overseas management to make things more equitable for singles and consider their personal circumstances. An employee affinity group titled “Singles at State” formed to help ensure policies and cultural norms are inclusive of single employees. Historians and other interested parties, you can find some of this information in cables 21 State 95338, from September of 2021, and 21 State 113784, which was released in October of 2021. So today’s interview is going to focus on one Foreign Service officer’s experience with being single in the Foreign Service and her work to bring about change. So welcome, Naureen.
NALIA: Thank you so much for having me.
Q: I’m so glad you agreed to be with us today. Before we dive specifically into your singles experience, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your Foreign Service career so far, such as when and why you joined? How old were you, where you’ve served, your specialty and if you were single when you joined?
NALIA: Absolutely. I’ve been interested in this career for a very long time. I grew up overseas, in Pakistan. And while I was growing up, the U.S. Consulate in Karachi was, really active in the community and really good at bringing U.S. citizens, regardless of their, you know, what their relationship to the Consulate was, it brought us into the fold. So even though I, myself, had no relationship with the Consulate, I think one of my aunts was a warden. My parents were both Pakistani citizens. But I remember from my childhood going to Halloween parties and Christmas parties and everything at the U.S. Consul general’s home. I think his wife organized a lot of those events. And I will say it was a very traditional, at that time, Foreign Service – that would be a male, you know, Officer with— male Consul General with his wife. But I can remember going with my parents to their visa interviews and meeting Foreign Service officers as a child. I remember going to events, as I mentioned, and I remember thinking, “Oh this is a cool job.”
But, you know, when I was in college, I heard more about it, there was a career fair. And I said, “No, you know what, I’m going to apply to this.” And the first time I applied, I was a senior in college in Berkeley, and I was not prepared. And I got into the Peace Corps the day before I went for my orals. And I remember I was like, “Okay, this makes way more sense, because I know I want to do grad school, I don’t want to enter into a career right now.” I still went to the orals to kind of understand how they worked. But I went in there not intending to join even if I passed, and not really working that hard on it.
And then I went to the Peace Corps. Loved the experience. But again, you know, Peace Corps volunteers often go to meet the Ambassador and get a bit of a feel for that career. And I said, “You know what, I do think I want to do this.” And I remember I went to — I decided to apply for dual masters and law degree programs. And I got into Georgetown, and coincidentally, the person who was DCM or chargé, at the time, and I think later Ambassador (David) Hale, actually, was also a Georgetown graduate who had done that program. And he recommended I do it. And I did it. And I interned at the State Department. So my first year was grad school. And then my second year was going to be law school. And in between them, I interned at the State Department. I remember talking to somebody and I said, “you know, should I do this right after I finish this four-year deal degree program?” She said, “No.” She said, “You need to practice law. I did that, I really recommend you do that. Because you need that fallback. You need to have something else that you can do. Because what if it doesn’t work out for you, and all of a sudden, you’ve got all these loans, and you don’t know what to do.”
I thought that was good advice. I still tried out again for the Foreign Service in my last year of law school. But I ended up taking a lot of extra credits and doing a clinic and I was just exhausted, I got really sick. I just wasn’t, you know, didn’t have that resilience we talked about. And I remember going into the orals and there’s this one point where you’re, doing a memo, and I remember staring at the computer screen. And I couldn’t understand a word in front of me. And I said, “you know what, this isn’t happening.” I still remember laughing out loud with that realization that my brain did not want me to go straight from this (school) to a career, like I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it. And I actually ended up going home and getting sick a couple of times.
It was not a— I really did need that time at home. And I ended up starting work at Legal Aid, but still keeping the Foreign Service in mind. So I applied to it. But— and I got in my third time applying. And I think it was because I really loved my Legal Aid job. And I went to the orals kind of with this attitude of, “Well, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” And oddly enough, that really worked well for me. I got in that third time. And I actually remember just staying on the register and delaying it because I wanted to experience doing trial, which I did, I actually represented victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in court and I lost a trial and I won a trial. And so, you know, most lawyers don’t actually get to be first chair on cases in their first couple of years of being a lawyer, but I did as part of Legal Aid. And I really loved my work, but it was high burnout. And it was dependent on grants that were starting to dry up. And so I got that email from the State Department saying, “Do you want to join? Because this is your last chance or you restart the entire process.” And I said, “You know what, I’ve done it three times. I’m gonna kick myself if I don’t give it a chance.”
So I joined, and that was 2013. I joined in the September class, and I think I told everyone in July or August, and I told them and I gave my notice. And I tried to be as good as possible because Legal Aid had been really, really good to me. They started me out as an intern and gave me a fellowship so I could pay my bills and continue there. And they continued the fellowship until I could get a job on board and I had to tell them, I said, “Look, you know, I love being here.” I made incredibly good friends and I’m still in regular contact with some of my closest friends that I think I’ll ever have in my life, I absolutely loved it. But I had to try this. And I can still remember after I told my boss and he made the formal announcement and he said— I’m also still in touch with him – and he tells me, he told me at that time, he’s like, “I really want you to stay. But I can’t say no to the dream you had for so long.”
And so— he was also – when I first got my job out of law school, he gave me some of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten in working. And I said, you know, “I’m doing this, I want to take this job with you. But I don’t know if I want to do this for the rest of my life” kind of thing. Because some people have been at Legal Aid, had been at Legal Aid for – not just dozens of years. I think one just finished 50 years and retired. Yeah. And so you know, I said, “I don’t know if I’m a long-timer,” and he said, “Naureen, whenever you’re starting any job, understand, we’ve gotten rid of indentured servitude. You are allowed to leave whenever you want.” And I appreciate that. Because I think it actually has given me a much healthier feeling about work and my relationship with work. I feel passionate about what I do. I feel very lucky, because I’ve been passionate about every job I’ve had. But I’ve also been able to have that passion and temper it with the realization that my own life is important. The second I feel like it’s no longer important is the second it took me rethinking what I’m doing.
I still remember going around telling everybody I’m doing this other job. And I went downstairs because we had an office on a couple of levels. And this guy that I didn’t really know very well tells me “Oh, you’re going to be single the rest of your life.” And I said “What?” he said, “Yeah, everyone’s told me that when you joined that job single, you’ll never meet anyone, and you’ll never get married. So you’d better be okay being single the rest of your life.” And my first thought was, “I don’t know you well enough for you to be telling me things.” But my second one was like, “Huh. I can see why that would be true.” And I can, I can. Because it is a difficult job, you know, with clearances with everything. It is difficult to date overseas. I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where it’s just not that easy as a woman to get out and meet people, or people get married, especially women get married a lot younger, because I started at the age of 32, in late 2013. And so,do the math, I’m 40 now, but I’m still single. But I will say, one of those things that I felt then, and I still feel now, is I’m actually single by choice. And there’s been a couple of times over the years when I could have chosen not to be and I very much, I like being single. I like the life and to give that up, I, you know, I want to make sure it’s the right— absolute right thing, just because I also grew up in Pakistan, in a culture where once women got married, a lot of options disappeared. And so for me, at least it was— it’s a difficult decision (to marry). And I just want to be sure, I personally believe the end goal in life is happiness. It’s not a specific version of happiness. If it’s happiness with a partner, that’s great, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. I just don’t believe in the one formula for happiness, that this is what your life has to be, or you’re not going to be happy when you get older. Because I know plenty of people who did the traditional getting married, had kids, and are completely unhappy. And I know single people that way. And so I’m saying, you know, happiness is my goal. Not marriage, not children, not anything. And I’m not saying you can’t be happy in those circumstances. I’m just saying you’re not necessarily happy in those circumstances.
Q: That sounds like we could do a whole interview just on that topic.
NALIA: Sorry, I tend to ramble a bit.
Q: No, that’s great. Let’s talk a little bit about your experiences being single in the Foreign Service. Since you had experienced life single before in a foreign country with your Peace Corps experience. Do you think some of that prepares you for being single in the Foreign Service? Or were there a lot of surprises yet? And if so, what were they when you joined the Foreign Service?
NALIA: One of the first things I was told when I joined the Peace Corps was one of the sort of unofficial taglines is “the loneliest you’ll ever be.” And there’s a certain truth to that. Because you go to a village, and you’re the only one sometimes who speaks English. I was in the Middle East, I was in Jordan and I had one neighbor, I had a neighbor who lived in the same house, and he spoke English. So I spent a lot of time with him and his wife. But they spent a lot of time outside as well. And they would allow me to go in and watch their TV when they were out because it was satellite TV. And this was great, you know, but otherwise, it was no one. A lot of times I just -I collected a huge DVD collection and would sit at home and watch it in my bedroom. And the one thing I did spend money on was a TV and I think I brought my DVD player from the US for whatever reason, and it was very strange. I don’t even remember this entire story and what happened. But those were — I had to have that, because as a woman, I couldn’t wander around my village at night. And so 5 pm, 6 pm, by the time it got dark I was in my house, alone, if I wasn’t at someone’s house, and I’m introverted enough, which I know sounds weird, because I’m a PD (Public Diplomacy) Officer, but I’m introverted enough that I — I can’t do it every day. I have to have my time to be alone and all that, but I don’t necessarily want to be alone (all the time). But it’s also exhausting to communicate constantly in a foreign language, it just is.
So, yes, it was great when I was with my neighbors, I would talk to them a bit in English and I would communicate and I would hang out with other neighbors who did — I did speak Arabic with. But there were a few days when all I wanted to do was just like, I don’t know, just watch an English (language) movie, and just not be speaking anything else. But it is called the toughest job you’ll — I mean, it’s not the toughest job, it’s “the loneliest you’ll ever be” for a reason. And there were — the good thing is I kind of learned how to be alone. And one of my friends, she’s a parent. And she often says what she tries to teach her kids is how to be bored. Because, you know, you don’t want to have to entertain your children. She said, “I don’t want to have children who need to be entertained all the time.” And I think that’s great advice. And sort of what that experience taught me is one, to be bored, but also to be alone and to be okay with it. And I think that’s invaluable. I meet other people who can’t do that. I’m just like, that’s got to be exhausting. And it’s gotta be depressing. And I think that was actually great preparation for the (COVID) pandemic (beginning in 2020). But no, I was prepared as a result of that.
Now, as a woman in the Middle East with all of those things, I will say that it was a lot harder than my Foreign Service career has been. You know, it’s just, you’re a young woman, I was taking public classes, I was younger, I did not dress like— I don’t wear hijab, I didn’t do a lot of things that a lot of the village women did. I think there was only one other girl over the age of 12 who didn’t, in my village or maybe 13. But that was still like, it still caught people’s eyes. But very quickly, on the flip side, you become a part of a community. They become used to seeing you. They know who you are. And there’s a comfort in that, too. Being a single woman in the Foreign Service, on the other hand, there’s more of us, often, and you’re not alone, you’re not in— you’re not the only English speaker in a village, you know, you’re connected to a larger mission. And so there’s things to do. But that said—
(Internet audio connection briefly drops) Sorry, I think I lost you for a second. I can’t hear you. I think you’re muted.
Q: Yeah, you cut out right, when you send that said, and you’re getting into the Foreign Service aspect.
NALIA: Yes. Now, okay. So that’s, the Foreign Service was less lonely. But on the other hand, I was 22 when I did the Peace Corps service. And you can do a lot at 22, that you can’t do at 32 and 35, and closer to 40 and older. So being lonely gets harder and starting over in a new place without any friends or family around you does get harder as you get older. There’s a part of me that wonders if I can do this for the rest of my life. Because, yeah, when you’re going home to a house and you’re in an area where you’re just like, “Okay, what happens if I collapse and fall on my kitchen floor? There’s really nobody there to check on me. And nobody who knows and loves me enough to have that relationship with me.” I mean, yeah, my boss might be like, “Why isn’t Naureen here? Why isn’t she answering her phone?”
But really, on a personal level, it’s just, it does get harder as you get older. And I think the other aspect of it that gets harder is leaving your family behind. Because I don’t have family at posts, but I do have family. And that’s one of the things as an EO (Employee Organization) we are constantly trying to combat, is when we hear the thing, or the common phrase, and it’s sadly way too common, that “oh, you know, there’s singles and then people with families.” And we’re like, “no, no, we have families” and ignoring that kind of ignores a big aspect of it for us: birthdays, holidays, all those things we celebrate alone. But we have a family we’d like to be celebrating with. And that’s why, you know, sometimes when we get leave, and people kind of say, “well, you know, you’re just taking every opportunity you can to get out and go home” and it’s like yes, but that’s because you have people to celebrate all these things with.
I would say the added aspect to that is being a non-Christian woman of color. There are holidays that I have, and I’ve been in countries where I haven’t known a single other person to celebrate with, that I know my colleagues, even if the other colleagues are Muslim, well they can still celebrate as a family. But I, if I’m not at a post with a Muslim family, and sometimes even when I am, they don’t really think to invite me. But most of the time I’ve been at post when I have been the only one and that gets hard. Especially when you’re at a post where it is celebrated in the community maybe. And they’re like— Yeah, nobody thinks to wish you (a happy holiday) or they call it a local holiday. And you’re like, “Well, you know, I’m an American, I do celebrate these things.” And it’s great that I get invited to eight Christmas parties near Christmas, but it would be nice if I had something to attend around my holidays. And I’ve definitely, I mean, to be honest, in the Foreign Service, and something that’s always kind of bothered me, it wasn’t until I came back to DC for— this is my fourth tour. But it wasn’t until I came back that I actually got Eid as a holiday. It’s actually been really hard to get it in previous tours. And that’s just the way it’s worked out.
Q: And have you— one of the things that you said was people saying, “Oh, you’re taking off all the time.” Have you had that as a single because you do have to travel to see your family, as opposed to it being there? Is that one of those sticking points or?
NALIA: Yeah, so I did— I was in my first post, it was in India. And at that time, I remember they would not give us leave in the summer, because there was too much of a student visa crush. And so they said nope, “you can’t get leave.” And thankfully, they changed that policy. Because everybody got really, like, up in arms, because especially a small section, they couldn’t have more than one of us out at a time. So then we only had six months to stagger all the leave we had. And I don’t take a lot of leave. But I do really want Christmas time off. And I usually can strike a deal when I’m in a section and say, “Hey, I will take either the days before Christmas, and come back on Christmas Day, or I will leave Christmas day and take the day after. And we can split it that way, whatever you want.” But you know, the other person with whom— and usually just one other person that I need to worry about. And I’m like, the other person can either take Christmas Day on or before Christmas to Christmas day. But I need to take some of these days because yeah, my family’s out in California, which is, in general, harder to get to from most Foreign Service posts. But also, my sister is actually a writer in Hollywood. And so studios close— she does contractual work. So during the work year, a lot of times it’s hard for us to coordinate. She might be able to, if I go home, she can come for a weekend. But she might not be able to come for an extended period of time. And the only time that we can do it is Christmas time because the studios shut down. So it’s really important that I get that time off. And I know other single women and men who have family who are teachers and for them too, then there, they need those same days off. But for a lot of people it’s like “well, you don’t know Christmas, you don’t have kids” or “you don’t, you know, you don’t need to worry about the school year.” Well, it just so happens that actually I do and it’s not because of my children, but it’s because of other family members that I do want to spend time with. And because I don’t have my family day-to-day at post, I only get to be with family for you know, however many days of the year or ten, fifteen, twenty days of the year, and I take those ten, fifteen, twenty days very seriously.
Q: I mentioned some of the discriminatory practice singles face in the Department. I’m wondering if you could give me some examples from your own life. You’ve been getting a few, if you have a few more about when you were treated differently or missed maybe an opportunity because of your marital status?
NALIA: I think we’ve gotten a lot better. But in— it has been an issue with leaves scheduling, and even comp time or overtime scheduling. I have been told straight out, “well, we’re not really even opening that opportunity for you to get comp time or overtime because we have somebody who needs to go on maternity leave, and she doesn’t have a lot of leave saved up. We want to give her all of those opportunities.” And you know what, I get that, and I would have absolutely supported my colleague and given up that opportunity. I just didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t asked for— to do that. If you’re taking an opportunity away from me, it should be my choice to give it. And I do want to help out. I do understand for my colleagues who’ve got children or who are pregnant, there is a lot of stress. And there’s a lot of us singles who do choose to have children at post, or to choose to have children on our own. And there’s so much difficulty for it.
And another one is fertility treatments, which a lot of people don’t realize, but for them to be covered, you have to have a partner. Which a lot of singles who want to freeze their eggs or do all those things, it’s because they don’t have a partner that they’re trying to do all those things now. And it’s a considerable expense if you don’t have— if it’s not covered (by insurance). One of the things we constantly— we are pushing for is for those kinds of rules to change.
And another one I would say is—and I know this is not a Foreign Service issue but a community at large issue—is the ridiculous rules around getting birth control. It’s that, you know, if I forget to take it on vacation, it is a huge fight to try and get someone to give it to me. And I will say I have served in other countries where it is incredibly easy and cheaper for me to get it than it is with my insurance. Now it’s free. But until we had the benefits of Obamacare, it wasn’t, and I was like, you know, “I think I will end up costing both my insurance company, and my employer a whole lot more if I get pregnant. So this should not be this difficult.” And one of the reasons I take it as I actually have hormonal issues that it controls, and I’m like, “Well, I also would cost my employer a lot more money if I didn’t take off two weeks for migraines every month.” And so it’s just a— to me like those kinds of things. And society in general, I think we have a singles tax, and it drives us insane.
Where, and I think I mentioned this earlier, too, but like the singles tax is this idea that it costs the same to do a lot of things as a single as it does as a couple. But a lot of times you’re talking about two incomes versus one income. Hotel rooms, for instance. Or, you know, I remember during Restaurant Week, I got really mad at this. But if you wanted to do takeout — and I was not comfortable — this was an Omicron (COVID) was at a, you know, major height. And restaurants were saying you could do takeout, but you could only do it if you paid for two meals. And I was like, well, as a person alone, who is trying to be really careful not to get COVID, I basically was priced out of doing Restaurant Week, unless I wanted to pay for two meals, which I was like, you know, I’m not doing that. It’s cheaper for me to just do in one meal during regular, non-restaurant week hours. And so those kinds of things that we get really annoyed by are those single taxes.
But as an employer, the Foreign Service— it’s hard to even explain. It’s like UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage), it costs— singles get about 250 pounds. But if you actually count the weight of the boxes, it’s about 190. And a couple will get 450 (pounds), I believe. And the thing is, though, that when you go, yes, a couple might have one extra person’s clothes or whatever, but the majority of what’s going out there’s things to set up a bedroom, and things to set up a kitchen. There’s not all that much weight difference between what it would be for a single versus a couple. I still have to go and set up a kitchen, I still need dishes, I still need to have bedsheets for my one bed and towels and things like that. It is not 200 pounds of difference. And we tried to push to get that extended to, you know, if a single person can get 350 pounds. And GTM was really great about working with us on this. But when we took that back to the Department, the response we got is well, “this will cost us” I think they said like “a couple million dollars more every year. And that was a non-starter.” And I was like, okay, but you know, how much are singles paying extra, like, extra bags, or whatever we’re having to do. It’s just difficult.
And so those are some of them. And then I think a lot of it is discriminatory, and its lack of accommodation. As a single, I’m expected to get to a country and go to work. And a lot of times it’s to get to the country and go to work the same day. I have arrived at 2:30 in my apartment and been at work by 7am which was— or 8 am, which was not great. And I think— I do credit GTM with pushing back on this and putting out cables saying managers should try not to do this. Unfortunately, out in the field that has not necessarily translated to practice. And, what people often don’t think is, there seems to be this continued assumption that somebody is going to take care of all the things that need to be taken care of at your house while you’re going to work. Well, singles with children, showing up at 2:30 am, you can’t necessarily arrange childcare by 8 am in the morning, and you have no one else at home. For singles without childcare, like me, I’ve shown up at places that had not had toilet paper or soap in my apartments when I arrived. And it’s like, okay, I can go all day very jet-lagged after many, many hours of traveling, go to work, and then I’m going to come back and I’m not really going to be conscious. I don’t really want to have to stop and pick up all of these things that I need just to be at home at night. It’s just, it’s unrealistic. And it’s kind of cruel, I think that assumption, that you can do all those things. And it’s really the worst feeling of no sleep, going to work, meeting everyone, so you’re kind of on in a way you aren’t normally on a day-to-day basis. But you’re like, you know, doing your smile, great formal self, in a suit and everything and then you’re going to, you know, whatever local grocery store to pick up all of these things, trying to understand what they are in another language and all those things. And then you’re gonna go home and you’re going to be too tired to sort anything out before you go back to bed and start—
Q: In some posts, the stores aren’t open much past five or six o’clock, so when you don’t have a partner who’s not working, or a partner who’s working from home, to do that flexibility.
Q: — You can’t do it all.
And then another issue is housing. I’ve been to a lot of posts — And I think something that housing forces you to think of a lot more – is looking at what singles need. And that’s usually— you know, they send out that (housing preference) form. But I have put (only) one thing on that form and had that one thing ignored, a lot of time. It’s almost like this form that they send you before you move, that’s supposed to determine where you’re going to be housed or your preferences, they kind of don’t— they make it pretty clear that they don’t have to take that into account. And I do understand, I just want to preface this with, it— being on a housing board looks like one of the most difficult jobs in the embassy, I can absolutely see how tough it is. But when you’re single, all three of my posts, I have been assigned to apartments on my own, without any other officer at the apartment complex.
My first post, and I do have an article coming out in the Foreign Service Journal about this (in Summer 2022), but my first post I was housed in, it took me 45 minutes in a car during rush hour to get to the closest entry-level officers, all of whom lived in the same apartment complex aside from me. And I was just so angry about that, because I was getting to a new country, I had actually lost my grandmother really shortly before I got there, which was you know, it sort of, she was my last surviving grandparent, so the last surviving tie you have to that generation. She had lived with us in a, you know, not lived with us, but in the same apartment complex. And we’ve lived with her for a short time, but also my entire childhood, we’ve been in the same apartment complex in Pakistan I…she was important to me and losing her right before starting my first tour, it was just difficult. And then to get there and to just feel so completely alone was tough. And so things like that were— then just about a month after I got there, a married couple came in, and they housed them with everybody else. And I’m sitting there thinking, “you know, when you’re a married couple, but you’re not on your own. You’re just not. You’re never, you know, you have someone who’s home at night. When you’re single, you don’t.” And then I lost my cat a few months later, which, you know, made things even harder. But, it was difficult.
And I do think those kinds of areas with housing, you know, I’ve heard a lot from people that if you’re a single parent, you are treated as— you know, if you have one child and you’re a single parent, you’re treated as a two-person household. But the way the State Department treats two person households is very much with this concept of a couple. And so they— but a single with a child should really be treated more akin to a couple with a child, because those are the kinds of needs you’re going to have, is it’s going to be the needs of an adult and a child, and the space needs of adults and children, and the childcare needs of adults and children, as opposed to a couple. When it comes to housing, if it’s a country which has quarters for nannies or something like that. And that’s the kind of housing you would want, if you— that’s the kind of housing you would give to a couple with a child, it should be the kind of housing you would give to a single with a child, as opposed to, you know, the small apartment that you might give a couple.
It’s things like that, that people— that the frame of reference has to change, and the rules have to change to understand that families just don’t look the way they traditionally did in the State Department. That they are all sorts of different right now. And it is difficult for women to get married and to stay married in this career, and the department…we do make sacrifices to be in the department, you know, we sacrifice time from our families, we are often quite lonely or alone at posts, especially during the pandemic. And it does feel as if the department needs to understand and to recognize a little more of that.
And then I’m just going to raise the one final one that actually really bothered us. And that is the pandemic. I’m not going to go into whom it hit harder. Because I know if you had kids, it was hard if you’re a single parent, it was hard if you were single without kids, it was hard. I remember having a discussion with a friend and she was like, “Oh my God, my children are all over me all the time.” And I said “it has been nine months since someone hugged me.” Like you don’t know how good that sounds right now. And she’s like, “No, I can’t imagine how hard it is for you. But you can’t imagine how hard it is for me to just not have any space from my kids.” And I was like “no, I really can’t.” I mean, I can see where— but it was hard. Like it was really, really difficult going those nine months. You know, I can still remember the first time somebody hugged me after that and being like, “Oh, this just feels weird.” But there was a real issue with touch starvation. And there were a lot of posts where there were systems in place to check on and to help parents. And there needed to be. But there — singles as a whole were told basically, you’re on your own. You’re an adult. You can manage. And it was like, okay, but what if I get COVID? What if I pass out and I’m lying on my bedroom floor? I’m not coming into the office these days, or somebody finally could be like, “Huh, we haven’t seen Naureen on (Microsoft) Teams today.” You know, what is going to happen and at what point— and then I raised the issue, I lived in a home with the bars on the door, and there’s actually, you know, one of the things somebody raised is “huh, you know, the emergency medical services here, don’t travel with something to break that down.” So you’d better be able to open your door or have someone who’s able to open your door if a medical emergency happens, and you know, you’re kind of sitting there thinking as a single “Well, there’ll be nobody,” if I were incapacitated, there’s nobody to open that door. And somebody was like, “well, you should need to make sure you give your keys to someone.” And I said, “Well, okay, but if I’m single, like, will you go around asking the entire embassy? Hey, who has Naureen’s keys? in a medical emergency? Or, you know, are you going to just know that, like, how are you going to just know that?”
I tried to create a system wherein, you know, somebody in the Med Unit or somebody in a secure RSO (Regional Security Officer) would either have emergency keys somewhere, or because, you know, for us, the GSO (General Service Officer) has them. But what if the closest person is an hour away? And all those things that we said, you know, you have Post One, and you have the Marines, like, is it possible for us to get like something that they’re keeping the keys in? Or even have Med or somebody just keep a buddy list of who has Naureen’s keys? And we’re like, you know, could we do something like that? And we’re basically told no, you’re an adult, you need to figure this out on your own. And you’re sitting there being like, “well, I’m an adult, but I’m in this situation for my job.” Yes, while I’m in DC, I absolutely have people that I trust that I know that have my key. And I’m not exactly— you know, like, it’s, I know, 911 will bang down the door if they need to. But when you’re overseas, you know, there’s a vulnerability there that needs to be thought about and the isolation needs to be taken into consideration, too.
Q: Yeah. And it seems like it’s frustrating because you had to think of it yourself, but then you’re told, even after you come up with a solution, no, we’re not going to (do that). Yeah, you find more with singles. And just for folks who aren’t familiar with the terminology, UAB stands for Unaccompanied Air Baggage, which is a small shipment you get when you go to post.
NALIA: And the good thing about UAB just to, for those who are not aware of it, is it comes, you know, it might come a few weeks after you get to post, but in those kinds of posts, your actual shipment, the entire thing, might not come for months after you get there. So this is everything that’s going to tide you over for sometimes three, four months, sometimes even longer.
Q: It’s taking months, sometimes six months to get to some posts.
Q: Yeah, and I was— my first post too, I was the only person from the Embassy in the building. So that’s interesting that you had the same situation years later.
NALIA: Yep. And all three of my posts. But the third one I was actually very grateful for because I was the only apartment housing that had pets allowed or approved for it. So they were like, “well, you might be on your own.” I was like, “if you can live with cats in there, I will live anywhere.” But the other two posts were difficult, because it was months before I had other people with me.
Q: Yeah. Well, these all sound like things that probably helped lead you to take action, to change some of the culture. But could you go into, was there anything more specific or any other things that led you to join up with others to say, we need to form Singles at State, and get this on the agenda more?
NALIA: I think that’s a great point. And there was, you know, there was a lot that went on over the last few years that I think heightened a lot of issues. As I mentioned the pandemic but it’s also MeToo, and then, you know, a lot of what happened in 2020 with the understanding all of a sudden— I think it became a stronger understanding, especially after the pandemic and the very, very horrific murders and like, you know, everything you saw where people started suddenly questioning, whether just because something is the way it’s been for so long, you know, am I, do I have to continue being the good employee and just being like, “Okay, this is how it works. So I’m just gonna, I’m just going to accept it.” And I hate saying it, but there was also a historic lack of support from women, because they’re— women, I think, especially of a certain time period, it was a lot of “I managed and I survived this, so you could do it too.” And if you’re like, you know, you’re a good officer, you’re not going to make waves about being a woman, single, all of these things, you’re going to show them that you can do the job just as well as they can, despite all these challenges.
But I think a lot of what happened in 2020, a lot of what happened, you know, even before that with the MeToo movement, and all of those things and it suddenly just raised this feeling for all of us that, actually, I should not— it should not be that much harder for me. It should not be all these extra obstacles. And I still remember sitting down talking about this with someone them saying, “Oh, well, life isn’t fair.” And I was like, “well, life’s a little fairer for you than it is for me. And that is not okay.” And life isn’t fair. It’s absolutely true. And I do think, you know, there’s a certain level of you have to understand that and see that. But that doesn’t, shouldn’t stop you from acting to try and make it more fair. And it definitely shouldn’t allow you to be like, “Well, life isn’t fair. I’m going to continue taking my privilege and not acknowledging the fact that I have it.” I do think all of those attitudes helped kind of reach a crisis point for all of us where it became like, “Okay, we have seen that there are multiple groups for this issue and that issue, and there’s a lot of advocacy.”
And a lot of times, still, when you see people talk about the Foreign Service life, like the new act (law) that just came out, that made it easier for us to cut leases, and all those other things. They’re called the Foreign Service Families Act, and there’s all this discussion about what our families go through. But when they talk about families, they’re not talking about my parents. They’re not talking about my siblings. They’re not talking about all those other people who are our family, and who are making incredible sacrifices and who don’t get to spend time with us. And also, quite frankly, don’t get our assistance, when things go wrong. My father got very sick during my last post right before COVID, he had to have quadruple bypass surgery. And I could go home for a few days, and then I went home a month and a half later for the holidays. But I was trying to be, you know, that good employee and not take too much time off. But I was also planning to come back and help and you know, be there every few months. And then COVID hit and I was in a country with closed borders, and I couldn’t go home for a year. And it was, but it was this moment of like, “okay, I have responsibilities. And even though I’m single, I do have responsibilities. And I do have a family” that you know, was tough on my mom, because she didn’t have me there. And she, you know, my sister also was – there were some times when she couldn’t come home because she was in Hollywood and Hollywood had a lot of COVID cases. She was nervous about taking that home to my parents, especially my dad who was so high risk. But she could still go home and she could help, but her career was taking off as well, which made it harder. And I just couldn’t come home for a year.
I do feel, looking back, like you know, that time also just it’s like there’s no acknowledgement of that, you know. There’s no acknowledgement that we have families, and we have familial responsibilities. All of that just reached that fever pitch. And I will say I was not part of the working group that created it from the beginning. I became part of that during the pandemic, when people started bringing me on because they said, the original few people who, key people who are working on it, one of them was Erica Marrero, who is the Vice Chair of Singles at State and she said, you know, “I’m currently in DC, so I can be the chair. I can do all these things as we’re creating this working group, and we’re becoming established. But I’m going to be heading out to post and pretty much the only real rule for boards, board members is that your chair has to be based in DC.” So we did, we decided that I would be the one to take over after her and we thought the EO would be created by then, but it wasn’t. We had quite a long time because we got stuck in the transition from SOCR (Office of Civil Rights) to ODI (Office of Diversity and Inclusion).
So initially, we sent our petition into SOCR. And it was about— I think we had some issues with it, so we had to redo it. We submitted first in December. And then finally in February, and about that time was when the President announced the creation of ODI—or the Secretary but I think it was—anyway, it was that was when—
Q: —the acronyms for—?
NALIA: I’m sorry, yes. The Office of Civil Rights was the one that handled the approval of what were then called Employee Advocacy Groups or EAGs. And they’re now called Employee Organizations or EOs. But it was the Office of Civil Rights. And then in February of 2021, which was right, basically a couple of weeks after we submitted our final petition to be established, you know, the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility—which I think the accessibility isn’t part of the official name, but I don’t know. But that office, ODI was created, and they— but they weren’t actually established. It was the, you know, they have to eventually get approved by Congress. And so this was a multi-month process. But because they were announced by then, the Office of Civil Rights or SOCR did not feel like they had the authority to approve us. We had to wait. I think we were finally approved in October or November. Because once ODI were established, they kind of had to catch up, but they had a lot of things that were not, you know, approving our petition wasn’t first on their list, which we did understand, but we kept pushing it.
And by that time Erica had transitioned to her overseas post and I had come back to DC, so it made sense for that switch to happen. And so we recruit— we came into being and we worked with — we had a lot of meetings with GTM. Because this was while they were with — the Global Talent Management, because that was when they were handling that singles working group that you mentioned at the onset of our discussion. And so, you know, we kind of talked back and forth about what they were pushing for, what they found was important. And we compared that— we had been doing surveys for years, actually, as we were trying to become an employee organization. We’d been doing surveys of singles for years, and we had several hundred people answer our surveys, and it was a really strong discussion of what is most important to you. One of the most common refrains, we’ve had pre-COVID—and it’ll be interesting to see what the next time we do a survey, whether that will come back to the top—but that was, you know, the expectation that there’ll be somebody at home to handle repairs, and to handle all those issues that come up. And that has been a constant refrain.
I will say, I’ve had that too, where if somebody came to my house to do repairs, and this was in a post where the facilities people would go out, but I had set my (home security) alarm. And I was being told you shouldn’t be giving your alarm code to people, but I’m like, “well, they’re at my house, I have to give them my alarm code, because you’re not letting me go home.” What am I supposed to be doing? They were like, “Well, if they come out, then you could have to pay a certain amount of money.” No, no, this is just insane. They were like, “well, you shouldn’t put your alarm on today.” And I’m sitting there like, “this is just difficult. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.” And I remember I had a single boss who said, “You go home right now, like just leave it all go home.” But that’s the only boss who has ever said that to me and has— I think she’s the only single boss I’ve had, except for a very brief time with someone else. But she was the only boss who had looked at me and said, “You know what, there’s nobody else to do this. And you know, your home is important to you, your belongings are important to you, you should go home.” But in general, that was key, one of the biggest things that people overseas were complaining about. We worked, we talked to them about that.
But when COVID started, and people were home that went way down the list. The other big issue we recognized was allowances when you come to DC, that basically if you’re single, you — and everybody gets CONUS (pay), but I think you get more (different allowances) depending on the size of your household. So one of the concerns we had is people go to places that aren’t DC and the daily allowed rate is I think something like— one of our board members is in, like, Minnesota or something. And I think his rate is $60 a day. He’s paying out of pocket every day for those additional (costs), the transition allowance you get for two months when you come back to do a domestic tour. And he’s getting $60 a day. And he said, “even at the really terrible hotel by the airport, I’m still paying out of pocket.” And I see my colleagues who are married and who are not paying out of pocket and getting a much nicer place than me, and it just doesn’t seem fair. And that’s another one of those singles tax, where it’s not like hotel rooms are actually cheaper for one person versus two people. But that’s kind of like what happens when you’re single and you’re going, I can’t get somebody to come with me to stay-share for those months. And I shouldn’t have to and so, you know, we talked a bit about those kinds of issues. And those are ongoing issues, because DC is an expensive tour and we had a lot of single parents who get second jobs delivering pizza or working on Uber at night, just to make ends meet for childcare and for all those things. Which is just— that shouldn’t be the way diplomats are living, our own diplomats.
Q: And when did Singles at State officially become an employee affinity group?
NALIA: Yeah, employee affinity group, now their EOs, but we became a group I believe was October of last year (2021). September, September, October, it was right around then. It was just a great moment where it’s like, we got the email and like “you’re officially a group!” It was like, oh my God, it’s been so long because we’ve only been working on the petition for so long before we submitted it because there was a charter, we had to come up with bylaws, all those things. It’s a multi-year effort. And you just kind of get that email, it almost feels anticlimactic. Like where’s the ceremony? Where’s, you know, several years of work should just not be completed in an email, but at the same time, you really know the work starts once you’re created, because then you have so many concerns and so many issues and people will contact us about all sorts of things. I got a call one evening and someone had been sexually harassed by her boss and I’m helping connect her to resources. I talked to my board, really quickly, saying, “Hey, is it okay if I use my resources to help this person?” and everybody obviously agreed immediately, but terrible things are still happening, and we try to be a resource. I try to be a resource for anyone who reaches out to me with an issue that we can help with.
Q: Well, that kind of leads into my next two questions, actually. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the goals of Singles at State, as well as the makeup of its membership? Is it, you know, mostly singles without kids? Is it mostly male or female? Or, you know, are there trends that you see there?
NALIA: That’s a great question. Even though we’ve only been in existence for about seven, eight months, we already have over, almost 500 members. And yeah, it’s a lot. I would say, judging from people filling out a survey, are singles, without children, and Foreign Service officers, and mostly women. But we do know there’s other members out there, I think they’re just a little less vocal and not as good about filling out surveys.
We are open as an employee organization, our membership is open to everyone, right. We try to be open. We’ve got locally employed staff who are interested, we have civil service, obviously, we have people from other agencies who joined in a non-voting capacity, because they are also, like foreign affairs, from USDA, etc., because they’re also single at post sometimes. The rules and regulations for Singles at State, do impact them. But also, because we’re trying to get them to create their sister organizations so that we can collaborate a bit more, because there’s certain things that cannot be changed on a State Department level, they have to be changed at a larger federal government level. If we have sister organizations and other agencies pushing for this change simultaneously, it’s much easier. For that reason, we have members from everywhere, and we do say, you know, anyone who wants to, regardless of marital status, is welcome to join, you just should be interested in advocating for singles. And so that’s what we are. And that’s what we do.
And we’re — for our goals, our primary one is to redefine how the State Department looks and talks about families. And just to understand that we have them too, that we are just, you know, we’re not married, and we may have been married, or we may get married in the future, but at this time, at least, we’re not and that needs to be taken into account. We may have families at post, we may not. People don’t only come with children, they sometimes do come with elderly parents or other members of household. We try just to advocate and to look — and that’s why we do the surveys, as we look at the issues that are, at this moment, the most pressing for our members. And currently, as I mentioned, if they’re domestic, it’s mostly allowances. That’s the big one – the financial aspect.
Then when it comes to things like people who are domestic for a short amount of time, like language training, a big issue for singles is often the lack of ability to take leave, and how that may impact you. Because you know, somebody gets sick, your child gets sick, etc., you don’t have a lot of options for backup childcare. It’s all of those things to take into account.
But also, when you’re overseas, the big ones we get are housing issues, repairs issues, and then the allowances for travel and things like that, that also come up. A lot of our members are concerned about pet allowances. Because it’s becoming more and more difficult to transport your pets, but especially a lot of times when you’re single, but also people who aren’t. But especially when you’re single with your pets, I don’t think I would have gotten through my last posts to the pandemic without my cats, to be honest. It was — it was very isolating and difficult.
I was in a country that had set up like check — police checkpoints, and they really didn’t even allow you to go far from somebody’s house, they had rules about how many people could gather at someone’s house. I was alone a lot of the time and had I not had my cats wreaking havoc, I think I would have, I would have probably gone on authorized departure and come home. But the reason I was able to not do it is because I did have living beings who were happy to see me at the end of the day. And that’s not something that I think I require as much outside of COVID. But it is important for me to have that when I go from post to post, it’s that feeling of you know, people have certain things that make them— make it easier. And for me, it’s definitely the cats. And I couldn’t just abandon them. They’re (pets) important to me, and I think they’re important to a lot of singles. And so we want to be able to take them to post.
Someone once said, you know, the best kind of Foreign Service officer, or something like that, is someone who doesn’t have, you know, kids or children— I mean our kids or children—or children or pets or you know, a spouse or something. That they’re totally free to do exactly what the service needs. And I think a response to that that I really appreciated was, when you tell me that for XYZ reasons I’m not a good Foreign Service officer, which is basically what that’s saying, then you make me want to leave, and you’re going to be left with a very small group of people. We’re all important and valuable no matter what we, what our family looks like. I think that’s very important, that to be a good employer, and to be a good agency, we have to be willing to accept that families look very different. And yet all of them add value to our community.
Q: I know you, you haven’t officially been together for too long, so I don’t know, if you have a specific thing you’d like to highlight that the group has helped change or— either culturally or regulation wise. And if there is-
NALIA: We haven’t really been able to change regulation yet. That’s a very multi-year, difficult piece to the department. For the last seven months, we haven’t quite done that. But what I think we’ve been good at is the individual advocacy.
We had an incident where someone who had just joined the Foreign Service and just finished A100, I happened to meet her at a common acquaintance’s house at a party, I think, right around Halloween or something. And the two of us were talking, and she mentioned “well I just joined the Foreign Service, and I’m single,” and she said, you know, “during our orientation, the mentor came to that group and said, “Do not request the first day off when you get to post or your boss—” basically, he suggested it would tank their careers for life. Because that boss would make sure that they never got a good job after that. And I said, “well, first of all, the boss can actually say no, so that would be ridiculous to me in any case. Like, you know, if you really need someone to be there, rather than tank their career, you could just say no. But second, I said, “that’s not what these cables said.” I was able to provide that person with the cable references that were strongly encouraging managers to give their employees that day off. And they passed it to the rest of their A100. And somebody who had been wanting that time, really was able to use it.
And one of the things she told me that her colleague had said is, that post he went to, he said, “You know what, this transition is impossible unless you have a spouse at home. And I don’t think this career is meant for us.” And I thought that was really sad that that would be the first thing you would say, with what, two months or three months in a new job. Like that not meant for us. And I hope that just that advocacy helped them change their mind. That yes, a lot of the State Department is not carved out for us, but there is a space. And we need to sometimes fight for our rights in that space. And we shouldn’t (have to fight). But bit by bit, at least as an EO we were able to provide people with those resources.
And I mentioned with the case of sexual harassment. That person got back to me and told me afterward, “with the resources you provided me, as difficult as this experience has been” – because there was no way I could not make that experience (less) difficult for her. It was a very traumatic experience – But she said, “with the resources you provided me, it was clear to me, my path, and it made it easier for me to get the assistance I needed.” It should not be difficult for anyone to get that assistance. What that employee went through is, to me, incredibly embarrassing and shameful as an organization I belong to, that (sexual harassment) should happen. And that should still happen in 2022. But at the same time, we hope constantly that we are helpful to our members, as well as our nonmembers who hear about us and sometimes join us after we help them. But we do want to be that resource.
Now we are pushing issues. And one of the ones that — an event we held recently was pretty cool. And if you join our Teams group, you can watch it at any time. But we held an estate planning for singles session that was specifically looking at what singles need to do to prepare, you know, singles with children as well as without, should be doing to prepare for, you know, later in life, retirement. Not so much the financial planning, because this was a lawyer, but more like the estate planning part that, you know, how do you make sure your rights are respected, what should you be thinking about, what kind of arrangements should you be making legally and all those things. It’s a really valuable session. And a lot of our — I think our members appreciated that too. So that’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing. We still have a long way to go. But it is — It’s slow going. But it’s going.
Q: It’s interesting you said that about the first day of work, because I had something similar told to me and that was, like, 20 years ago. You can see that there wasn’t much change in the last few decades.
NALIA: I think a lot of times the mentor was probably someone who was in the room with you, you know, who’s been told that at the same time, but they haven’t lost that. They haven’t forgotten that. That’s sadly probably been their experience. But I do think as we go further in the career and we provide mentorship to people, it should be our obligation to not just pass on the laws, but to say, “hey, this was my experience. But these are your rights and this is what you’re entitled to, and don’t do what I did, which was I didn’t fight certain things, I didn’t think I could fight certain things. Tt is now that I know that I can, that I kind of am like, ‘Oh, I could have taken you know, there was actually no rule that said, you couldn’t request a day off, and you got to post since the beginning of time,’ but we just never thought of doing it. Because we were kind of told we couldn’t,’ right? We weren’t given that expectation.” And now I think it’s kind of our duty to tell the new generation that “hey, you actually are allowed to and here’s this cable reference if your boss is a jerk, and doesn’t let you.”
Q: We’ve covered this a little bit. But I’m curious, you know, while single, of course covers both male and female, I think some of the issues are more acutely felt by women. And I’m wondering what are some of those issues that you think affect single women more so than single men?
NALIA: I think that’s a great question. And I do want to say that there are some issues that do hit us both the same. I do find that there are a lot more gender rules in countries we go to. It is much harder, I found, and much more like— it’s a much harder and more isolating experience being single in some countries where you just can’t get up and go to a bar or restaurant in the evening, on your own. Like in the States, if I just decide, “hey, I want to go eat on my own in a restaurant,” I can do that without anyone bothering me. I can walk down the street and decide to just go do whatever on my own, and it’s fine. I— well, most of the time.
The U.S. does have a lot of security and safety issues that we also need taking care of. But for the most part, I can do a lot of things. I can go out running, I can do a lot of things here that I cannot necessarily do in a lot of countries, but my male, single coworkers can. They can go out and run, they can do all these things that I just can’t. There are countries where, as a woman, you just can’t go even grocery shopping on your own without a guy with you. And men obviously don’t have those considerations. And for a lot of people it’s like, “well, you know, just get a male officer to go with you” well, it’s not always that easy, not to — you know, and I don’t blame my male coworkers, they don’t always want to be escorts. They, you know, it’s also difficult to keep asking. You feel bad consistently — at least I feel bad always asking people to do things for me or to take me places.
I can still remember (when) my first cat died in my bedroom in India, about five months after I got there — and it was two in the morning. And I was just sitting there being like, “Okay, what do I do?” and I luckily found a coworker who was awake, whom I could give Uber updates as I was taking my Uber to the vet, because it was a good 30 minutes away. And it was 2 am. The Uber driver was lovely, by the way, he stopped outside because I was sobbing the entire time because my cat had already died and I didn’t know what to do with the dead cat, in another country. And I still remember my Uber driver being really sweet and checking in, not leaving me. But I was banging at the door because the veterinarians, even though they had an all-night service, they kind of were sleeping. It was just a really difficult, bad time. But I did have to think that I needed to give somebody all the details about where I am because there could have been some pretty prominent assaults in Ubers of women. It was like something that I had to think about that my male coworkers didn’t. And it just adds this extra layer of struggle to everything. And I remember a coworker also telling me that what she hated about it was just not being able to just get up and walk out and walk around your neighborhood in the evenings, not being able to do something so simple that the men just don’t think about. And it’s things like that that are difficult, and people often underestimate until they go through it. They underestimate just how difficult that is. But that is stressful, and it is exhausting, all of those issues.
The other one I would say is working late at night. A lot of times it’s easier for your male counterparts than it is for you, even in DC, being here. It’s not like you know, I’ve sometimes when I’ve been— when I was living in Arlington (VA) and working in DC. And if I was working late and the Metro had stopped or whatever, which is doing very early because of COVID and I was walking across Key Bridge at night, there were a few incidents where a car would come up alongside me and they would stop and they would yell something rude through the window. And there’s this moment of just fear you get off like, “okay, this car is stopping. There’s not a lot of other people on the road. What happens if they grab me?” Those kinds of things that I sometimes don’t think— I mean I have worked with very good male colleagues who understand that but they don’t really understand it. Like they don’t have the experience of it. And I think people really do underestimate just how exhausting that is in your daily life.
But there’s other things. I’m also very short. A lot of times women are shorter than men and I find a lot of office furniture not really made for us or our company. And it’s a stupid thing to complain about. But also overseas, physical fitness is really important to me. Overseas gyms are difficult. You’re in a country where, as it is, you can’t want to walk outside, whatever, whatever. But you have to go at specific times to gyms that are women only to not be harassed, and not be stopped from exercising. That doesn’t always work with work, and all of those things.
So there’s just a lot of frustrations, and then a lot of events that are held with the embassy, you know, (for) the women in the community, are held during working hours, and I can’t really get out of work to attend them. I remember like the American Women’s Clubs and at every place, inevitably, those meetings are at times that I can’t attend them without taking off work, which my bosses won’t let me. There’s just a weird thing where they seem to think that women don’t work. And they just don’t make accommodations for that. I found in a lot of countries, it’s also very difficult to become part of the community unless you have children. And because the only way people really break into that is schools, and PTA and WhatsApp groups with schools. And that’s how they all meet each other. There are some countries where I’ve just found it almost impossible to become friends with people in the local community, without kids.
Q: Yeah, that’s a good, good point. I had a colleague who said she couldn’t ever go to fast food restaurants in the country she lived in because they had an entrance for men, and they had an entrance for families, and the family entrance, you couldn’t order. Only the man line, the man’s line could you order, so she could never go to any of those restaurants as a single.
NALIA: And it sounds stupid to say, “Oh, I really need those McDonald’s fries.” But there’s some things about just the fact that you can’t get them, that drives you insane.
Q: On the flip side of that coin, has there been any issues that the male members have said they think affect men more by being single?
NALIA: It’s a good question. I have not heard that in this job. I have heard that in the Peace Corps, and I don’t know if that is also a problem for men that just hasn’t been verbalized. But I was once told by a male colleague— a male, single colleague, that not being able to be part of the women’s groups is really difficult. That the men’s groups, if you’re not into a sport or whatever, it’s very difficult to make friends and to be allowed into more conservative cultures, in the family environment. Because a family environment includes women, and you don’t have a woman with you. I have heard some male colleagues say that, you know, they just find it harder. But for the most part, that was the Peace Corps only. And I feel that that’s less of an issue in the Foreign Service. I do think, you know, men can be in spaces for the most part that men with children can. And women can be in space with women with children. But I do find it is sometimes it’s harder for both of us to be in spaces when we don’t have kids.
Q: Haven’t there been instances where you thought there was an advantage because you were single? We’ve talked a lot about the many disadvantages, but have you ever any of your colleagues talked about where that was actually a benefit or a help?
NALIA: A lot of things that I think about come down to parenting and— there are singles with children. I will say that I do think it is harder being a single parent than it is being, you know, having a partner with you raising children. I do think single parents especially go through a lot of difficulties of not having that second childcare, you know, just during the pandemic, especially having that person around and not having any buffer. Not having childcare even now, because even though people think the pandemic is over, it’s obviously not and one of the things that really hasn’t come back from it is childcare. That, I think, has been especially hard for single parents. I don’t think there’s any real group in the Foreign Service that has had it more difficult during the pandemic. Other— I mean, I think there’s been a special layer of isolation that those of us who don’t have kids have had that they haven’t, but at the same time, especially now is it’s possible to get out and do more things, I do think our single parents are still drowning and need assistance. Just the other weekend I took the daughter of a friend of mine, who wasn’t feeling well, out for ice cream and a book sale or whatever, just because I felt okay, she’s just not getting a break. Whereas I can now you know, I can do these book sales or do all these things. And it’s a little easier. But I do think that is definitely one group that’s had it harder.
But in terms of advantages. I do think sometimes when it comes to bidding, there’s a little more freedom, because you know, you have less people to take into account though. Again, that singles without children that I’m talking about here, but I do think there’s been some advantages with that. That said, sometimes that turns into a disadvantage, because there’s sometimes an expectation that you’ll take certain posts, especially an entry level. For the most part, I do think, I do think the Department is still so created with this model of a stay-at-home parent and a spouse who works, that tandems are also often, you know, disadvantaged because there are two working people. So there are definitely cases where it’s not necessarily worse being single. But I would say it still probably is, as a Foreign Service career, it is probably easiest for somebody who’s married to a stay-at-home spouse.
Q: You’ve been in the Foreign Service almost 10 years now. And I was wondering if there’s anything that you noticed, when you first joined, that kind of seems so long ago, like you can’t believe that it was ever a policy or something normal, because of the work that people have done to make a change?
NALIA: I will say, I think the mentality has changed a lot since I started. I look back at what was expected of us our first few years, and I think— I, like, look at that today, and I’m like, that would just not pass muster today at all. But I do remember a lot of what was said, a lot of things that were done, and a lot of changes happened. I think some of our gender bias workshops have been so incredibly helpful, that I started seeing around 2016/17. And I look back sometimes at my early evaluations, and some of the meetings I had, some of the conversations we had, and they outrage me now, and I accepted them back then. I think people have become much more careful about microaggressions. Being South Asian and working in a South Asian post for my first post, it was very painful at times. I heard things and people said things that were — I just was sitting there thinking, “Oh my God, is this career right for me, am I gonna have to sit listen to this for the rest of my life in this job?” And now, I don’t think— I think the people who made those comments know they’re unacceptable now, which is the biggest change I’ve seen. And I feel much more comfortable.
I will say, I don’t know, sometimes if this is the environment, or this is also getting older, because I think you stopped caring as much as you get older. But I do think now I will sit down and say, “You know what, you can’t say this. And this is the impact it has on me.” Whereas I would not have said that as an entry-level officer. And I think part of that is me being more comfortable and being you know, a mid-level officer now. But part of it is also it is now more acceptable for me to say those things. Because eight years ago, I think there was still a lot of pressure not to stir the pot. And today, there’s a bigger understanding that the person who’s saying something which may be racist, bigoted, sexist, whatever; the person saying those things is more at fault, and they’re the one stirring the pot. I do think things have changed. I think it’s an environmental change. But I think there’s— I mean, there’s still a long way to go. I mentioned that we get complaints and we hear things from members, unfortunately on a pretty regular basis. I’d say there’s still such a long way to go. But there seems to be a growing understanding that it’s not just about not making waves because we’re representing our country overseas. In fact, the way we handle these incidents says more about us as a country, than the fact that even these incidents happened at all.
Q: That kind of leads into my next question, which is what is something happening today that you hope and 10 years from now, you have that same reaction? Like I can’t believe that that was the way it was, and that was normal? What do you hope is that 10 years from now?
NALIA: I think that’s a great question. One thing I did hear, and it was disappointing, was from someone who – and I’m trying to be vague here because I do want to protect people’s privacy – but someone had told me they’d been a victim of domestic violence while overseas. And this was not very long ago. They were basically made to leave and to come back to the U.S. and part of the understanding— the feeling at least that they got was, it was because they had called the police, and because the police were being called into a diplomat’s home, it would become an incident. And as a result, they had to be PNG’d and return back (to the United States). To me, there is an aspect of victim blaming in there that I really hope goes away in the future.
I’ve worked in this area in the U.S., I’ve worked at it, I’ve seen it and worked with people who’ve worked in this area in India and in Mexico, in Trinidad and Tobago. Because it’s such an important part of my pre-Foreign Service life, and it’s still something that’s so important to me, I work with advocates, wherever we go, and I—wherever I go—and I just know how big of an issue it is. And I also know there’s a certain level to which we can never eliminate it or, if we can, that is centuries in the future and it will not happen during my lifetime. That we will not eliminate it. But I do think we have to, as an organization, understand (sexual assault). And there needs to be also a greater understanding of what else goes into that.
Just because we advocate for singles, I do want to make it really clear, we continue our advocacy also for people who may want to become single and are in the process of becoming single. We hear a lot of stories, and they’re pretty horrific stories, of what happens when sometimes people bring spouses from overseas back to the U.S. and what happens when some people go overseas and think the rules no longer apply. As an organization, I still think we have a long way to go in how we handle that. I hope 10 years from now, I will not be saying that. I really do. Because I’ve just heard some really terrible incidents from people in posts all over the world, and you know, staff all over the world. And they just still seem to be an ongoing feeling that if you’re— if attention is brought to it, public attention, then something’s wrong with you, if you’re the one bringing attention to it, even if you’re the victim. And I do think – I hope that attitude changes.
Q: Yeah, I think that’s definitely something singles have faced over the years, too.
NALIA: Absolutely. And that’s something we advocate for, because I do think there’s a vulnerability there that people don’t talk a lot about. I mean, we date on the local scene when we go overseas. There’s the potential for obviously, for something to happen, which could happen here too. But when you’re overseas, you have less of a support system.
One of the things we have been pushing for, and I’m glad to see the department has moved forward on this, but one of the things I’ve been really pushing for is to add sexual assault resources to your welcome kit. You know, where do I go if I need to get— if I get sexually assaulted. People say, “Oh, well, you can call Med, whatever.” But you may not want to call your employer as soon as something happens. But also, you may need to get a sex kit done, like a sexual assault kit done, your rape kit, whatever you want to call it. But you may need to get all those things done. There are often specific providers who have those things, or sadly, in one of my posts, we worked on the issue— and we always couch it as an American citizen issue and not an issue that could impact us, but of course it could. But that was a country where I think they did not have— they had run out of swabs to do rape kits. And you’re like sitting there (thinking) that seems like such a no brainer. But it is a big issue. I also brought it up to, I think it was Med or someone at some point. And I was like, what if we have a teenager, EFM child of an employee, who doesn’t want to go to daddy’s office to report something? What are our options then?
These are cross-cutting issues that every employee should be concerned about. But I do know singles, especially, because, you know, we – like I said we go overseas. And you, especially if you’re new at post, you may not have a whole bunch of people you trust to talk to you about this. So straight off the bat, why are we not providing these resources to people?
Q: Well, we’re going to wrap up this interview. This portion of it anyway. But before we do, Naureen, I’m just wondering if there’s any sort of final examples, thoughts, or maybe even words of wisdom for current or future singles at State that you’d like to end things with today.
One of the things I want to always encourage people is join our EO. We have a Team’s group, and we’re happy to take members, and you can just email SinglesatState@state.gov to just be joined— to be given the link to join.
But one of the things is that you want to be part of the community, because in a lot of cases we’re advocating for you and there may not be a whole lot of other people advocating for singles. We are one of the newest EOs because people— and one of the responses we got when we applied for our petition was “Why do you need this?” And it’s, a lot of people don’t see a need for it. And so – we do! – we know it exists. So do please join our EO, I think our elections are open until May 15. You can still vote for the board. Too late to run for the board, but there’s always next year.
And we encourage people to look at what the resources are. Knowing your resources are basically the most important thing you can do because you will need something or another at all times. I mentioned I’m an introvert. I’m a PD officer, I can do work events. But I really like having that time to myself. When somebody once told me, “Oh, you were made for the pandemic, weren’t you?” or something like that. And I said, “No, I was incredibly depressed when the pandemic started.” I realized I wouldn’t be able to go home. And the borders were closing, and it was panicky, and I just freaking out, at the beginning. And it took me a couple of weeks to at least figure things out and come to terms with where I was. It’s not easy for any of us. And at some point or another, everybody’s going to need those resources. Knowing what they are and knowing who to talk to, if something happens, who can help connect you with those resources. It’s invaluable. So do it.
And one of the things I mentioned a Foreign Service Journal article I’m writing comes out in the July-August edition (2022). And one of the things we have in there is a top 10 tips we wish— we have for people who are not single, and how they can be more inclusive towards singles. I really do encourage people to read that. And maybe when we continue this, I can give a few of them. But I really do recommend people seriously consider how they can be more inclusive, because it is— it’s difficult when you don’t have family at post and there are so many things you can do to make sure people still feel at home, still feel like they’re part of your community. And maybe even, you know, open your house to them at the holidays and make them feel a part of something. A part of your family just because they don’t have theirs with them. But yeah.
Q: So that’ll be the July-August 2022 issue, just in case someone 20 years from now is reading the transcript or watching our video.
NALIA: Absolutely. July-August 2022.
Q: Great and what was the post you were at during the pandemic?
NALIA: I was in Trinidad and Tobago, at the embassy there. It was— it’s— I want to go back there because I loved it. And despite the pandemic, I still loved it. I have phenomenal friends from there. And I will say their measures were probably some of the strictest pandemic measures in the world. But they did keep it down to I think just about 100 deaths for the entirety of 2020. So, they did work. They were just difficult to deal with, but they did work. They were effective.
Q: Okay, once again, thank you, Naureen. So, just to remind people, this is May 9, 2022. And we’re coming to the end of this interview with Naureen talking about being single at the State Department as part of our oral history series. Thanks so much.
NALIA: Thank you so much, and I hope people tune in for more of these oral histories. It’s such a great idea.
End of Transcript
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