“Mom, who are these people?” It was an innocent question from my young daughter Alia around the time when she was three. We were walking along with my husband in one of Abu Dhabi’s big fancy malls. Alia was peering at a huge poster standing tall in the middle of the mall. It featured the three rulers of the United Arab Emirates. As she tucked in my side, I bent down and explained that these were the rulers of the UAE who had worked hard to develop their nation and preserve its unity. She asked, “Mom, why is it that here where we live, and back in Lebanon, where grandma and grandpa live, we never see the pictures of powerful women on the walls? Is it because women are not important?”
This is probably the hardest question I’ve had to answer in my years as a parent and in my 16-plus years of professional life, for that matter. I had grown up in my hometown in Lebanon, the younger of two daughters to a very hard-working pilot and director of operations for the Lebanese Airlines and a super-supportive stay-at-home mom and grandma. My father had encouraged my sister and I to pursue our education even though our culture emphasized at the time that it was sons and not daughters who should be professionally motivated. I was one of very few girls of my generation who left home at 18 to study abroad. My father didn’t have a son, and so I, in a sense, became his.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I hope I didn’t do too badly in making my father proud of his would-be son. As I got my Bachelor’s and PhD in electrical engineering, did R&D in the UK, then consulting in the Middle East, I have always been in male-dominated environments. Truth be told, I have never found a role model I could truly identify with. My mother’s generation wasn’t into professional leadership. There were some encouraging men along the way, but none knew the demands and pressures I was facing, pressures that got particularly acute when I had my own two beautiful children. And although Western women love to give us poor, oppressed Arab women advice, they live different lives with different constraints.
So Arab women of my generation have had to become our own role models. We have had to juggle more than Arab men, and we have had to face more cultural rigidity than Western women. As a result, I would like to think that we poor, oppressed women actually have some useful, certainly hard-earned lessons to share, lessons that might turn out useful for anyone wishing to thrive in the modern world. Here are three of mine.
[“Convert their sh*t into your fuel.”]
There is this word that everybody is touting as the key to success: resilience. Well, what exactly is resilience, and how do you develop it? I believe resilience is simply the ability to transform shit into fuel. In my previous job, well before my current firm, I was working with a man we will call John. I had teamed up with John and was working hard, hoping he would notice how great I was and that he would come to support my case to make partner at the firm. I was, in addition to delivering on my consulting projects, writing passionately on the topic of women economic empowerment. One day, I got to present my research to a roomful of MBA students. John was part of the audience listening for the first time to the details of my study. As I proceeded with my presentation, I could see John in the corner of my eye. He had turned a dark shade of pink and had slid under his chair in apparent shame.
I finished my presentation to an applauding audience and we rushed out and jumped into the car. There he exploded. “What you did up there was unacceptable! You are a consultant, not an activist!” I said, “John, I don’t understand. I presented a couple of gender parity indices, and some conclusions about the Arab world. Yes, we do happen to be today at the bottom of the index, but what is it that I said or presented that was not factual?”
To which he replied, “The whole premise of your study is wrong. What you are doing is dangerous and will break the social fabric of our society.” He paused, then added, “When women have children, their place is in the home.” Time stood still for a long while, and all I could think and repeat in the chaos of my brain was: “You can forget about that partnership, Leila. It’s just never going to happen.” It took me a couple of days to fully absorb this incident and its implications, but once I did, I reached three conclusions. One, that these were his issues, his complexes. There may be many like him in our society, but I would never let their issues become mine. Two, that I needed another sponsor, and fast. I got one, by the way, and boy, was he great.
And three, that I would get to show John what women with children can do. I apply this lesson equally well to my personal life. As I have progressed in my career, I have received many words of encouragement, but I have also often been met by women, men and couples who have clearly had an issue with my husband and I having chosen the path of a dual-career couple.
So you get this well-meaning couple who tells you straight out at a family gathering or at a friends gathering, that, come on, you must know you’re not a great mom, given how much you’re investing in your career, right? I would lie if I said these words didn’t hurt. My children are the most precious thing to me, and the thought that I could be failing them in any way is intolerable. But just like I did with John, I quickly reminded myself that these were their issues, their complexes. So instead of replying, I gave back one of my largest smiles as I saw, in flashing light, the following sign in my mind’s eye.