Rehana Tanwir (NC 1956)

1933–2019 (Bye-Fellow, 1994–5)

A major scholarship announced this year is dedicated to Rehana Tanwir, who led numerous UN missions around the world in a career spanning more than 30 years at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)/World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations in Rome.

Growing up in a well-educated Pathan family in Peshawar, Pakistan, Rehana was always determined to break new ground. A prize-winning scholar in her undergraduate and Master’s degrees in economics at Peshawar University, she passed the examination for the Civil Services of Pakistan in 1955. She was the only woman selected on merit in that year’s recruitment round. Shortly afterwards, she resigned from that prestigious job to come to Newnham and take another Master’s degree in economics. Subsequently, she obtained a Diploma in Comprehensive Planning at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Holland.

In 1961, she joined the UN and quickly worked her way up the ranks to lead missions, often meeting with world leaders. Her colleagues in the FAO/WFP called her a ‘Pathfinder’ for women. She took early retirement in 1993 to pursue her other interests in life and returned to Cambridge in 1994 as a Bye-Fellow of Newnham College and an Official Visitor in the Faculty of Economics & Politics.

She was a tremendous source of inspiration for her family and countless others whose life she touched. She was always full of compassion and was a very generous philanthropist who helped the needy and made donations to the educational and humanitarian institutions – sometimes anonymously. Towards the end of her life she had started to learn Chinese (her ninth language) and was working on a couple of books until her health declined.

She wrote in her poem ‘My Way’: ‘My way was the search of new experiences. … / Material reward had nothing to do with my choices, / Decisions based on impulses, / Always willing to take up a challenge, / Never the easy choice, / Willing to try the new, / Find out the unknown.’

This curiosity about the world, her drive and determination, inspired her brother Dr Arif Ajaz (Wolfson, 1968) and his family to set up the Rehana Tanwir Scholarship at Newnham in 2020. They are keen to ensure her legacy will live on by continuing to help other compassionate women transform their lives by studying at Newnham.