“Time for Women to Emerge from the Shadows”
Q: If you could describe yourself in 150 words, what would you say?
A: An active and dynamic citizen of the world with a strong sense of belonging to humanity that extends beyond visible and invisible boundaries, beyond geographical territories and cultural differences. An author and journalist who writes to prompt reflections, question the world, and to change mentalities and attitudes for a more just, human, and gender equal society.
A university instructor who helps her students develop their critical thinking skills and open up to the world in all its diversity. A mentor who does her best to support, value and accompany the youth. A supportive woman committed to empower other women and to combat gender discriminations and injustices all over the world. A researcher who wishes to contribute to the growth of scientific knowledge on gender and to the development of new approaches for achieving gender equality in Lebanon.
Q: Your work in journalism and fighting for social justice are inspiring. Could you tell us more about your story and how you arrived at your current work?
A: When I was a young girl, during the civil war in Lebanon, my childhood was marked by the rumble of explosions, the whistles of shells crushing, and the sirens of ambulances and hearses. My dearest dream back then was to grow up and become a doctor. But at 21 years old and after completing three years of pre-med undergraduate study, I had to flee Lebanon with my parents to a safer country; the fighting had become increasingly more intense and closer. Leaving behind me my childhood dreams, I packed in my suitcase some precious memories, photo albums, my diary and a dozen books I was attached to. Accompanied by my family, we took a rowboat, then a ship heading to Cyprus from where we travelled to Canada. The first months in the country of maple trees were tough even for the young plurilingual graduate in biology that I was back then. Suddenly, I found myself torn apart, shredded between my desire to integrate the country that welcomed me so generously and a sense of deep mourning not devoid of guilt, towards my native land… However, little by little, life continued and the present replaced the reminiscences of the past. What marked me the most in Quebec was the silence, the silence of the snow covering the city in the winter but also that of the people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, sharing public places and facilities, all lost in their thoughts. Strangely enough, it was there that I realized that what unites us all is far more important than our differences, that we are all equal and that any injustice to one of us is a threat to all of us. When I came back to my home country ten years later with a Masters in education and a diploma in creative writing, inequality between men and women hit me in the face. Unlike men, Lebanese women cannot transmit their nationality to their children; they cannot open a joint bank account with their underage children without the signature of the husband; they are almost completely absent from politics. At that moment, to fight against these inequalities, I chose to use the only weapon I know how to manipulate: writing.
"To improve the standing of women and girls in society, we have to invest more in education, to combat discrimination everywhere"
Q: What were the main challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
A: Even though I wasn’t aware of this at the time, one of the first difficulties that I faced in my life was, during the war that lasted 15 years, to live «normally» in abnormal circumstances, to believe in life, to have projects, dreams and to want to move forward, when death was waiting to happen at every street corner, in our classrooms, in the tranquillity of our homes. Years later, in Canada and despite my excellent integration into the Canadian society and being accepted by most of the people I have studied, worked and collaborated with, I was subjected, sometimes, to racist remarks.
At the professional level, I decided many times during the course of my life to either change completely my field of work or expand substantially my career horizons. I got out of my comfort zone and dared to take risks, especially when, after receiving a bachelor in biology and spending years teaching science, I did not hesitate to replace the microscope with a pen and launch myself into creative writing studies followed by the publication of my first book, a real story denouncing domestic violence. Two years later, I completed a Masters in Journalism which allowed me to practice journalism and teach within the only state faculty of journalism in Lebanon. Last October, I started a doctoral thesis in human sciences, a project very dear to my heart that I am carrying on very passionately and diligently despite my busy schedule and my many professional responsibilities.
Q: Please tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
A: Each one of the activities I pursue, every function I hold, gives a meaning to my life. As a journalist in charge of a page dedicated to academic news, the beautiful team that I lead and myself, write to inform but also to encourage, support, and bring to light talented young men and women engaged in social, scientific, academic and cultural activities. We also write to provide visibility to women researchers, female faculty deans, department heads, authors, teachers, who have an impact in the Lebanese academic world.
The publication of my first book in 2007 entitled "Chez nous, c'était le silence" (When silence reigned) translated into Arabic the year after, allowed to break a taboo in Lebanon: domestic violence. This book relates the true story of a woman that I have known in Beirut a few years ago. At the time, there were no laws in Lebanon that protected women from domestic abuse and speaking about it in public was unacceptable.
Teaching media writing allows me to train my students to become ethical journalists while breathing into them some of the passion that drives me and my determination to make a change in the world. Another responsibility that is particularly significant to me is being the mentor of a feminist student club in Beirut. It is very important for me to increase the community’s awareness on women's rights and to make young women recognize their self-worth and all the potential they withhold.
Q: How does your experience in higher education, as both a teacher and a student, impact your professional work and vice versa? How might academia and higher education have an impact on the world more generally?
A: As a teacher, the ties and bonds I establish with my students allow me to get hold of a small fraction of their dreams, to measure their frustrations, to witness their deceptions and supply my writings with their experiences and make their voices heard. On the other hand, I share with my students the values I believe in and I promote the causes I always defend. As a PhD candidate, I consider the research path I am pursuing as a mean to contribute to a more gender-equal world. Higher education and research are the fundamental components of cultural, social and economic development of individuals but also societies and nations.
Q: Can you share with us a couple of stories that have either inspired you or transformed the way you think/act?
A: Many people, moments and situations transformed me and allowed me to grow and become the person I am today. When everyone fled to underground shelters to hide from falling shells, my father used to roam the streets making sure that the elderly and the sick had something to eat. When the Lebanese people were gunning down each other because they were born Muslim or Christian, my parents taught me about love, peace, human solidarity and humanity.
The sobs of a neighbour devastated by the loss of her son that have long haunted my nights, the faces of young fighters plastered on walls and the images of bodies burned or cut to pieces shown over and over again on television generated in me a fierce rejection of any form of violence. The cruel injustice of the Lebanese society that considers a woman beaten by her husband as a saint if she stays with him and a prostitute if she leaves him revolts me at the highest point. Becoming a mother has also changed me. The great love I have for my sons transformed into an immutable strength that makes me feel I can move mountains and into a fierce determination to leave the world a little better than the one we live in.
Q: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
A: Three or four women, each in a unique way, had a profound impact on me. Some inspired me because of their strength of character, their courage, their determination and their success despite obstacles. Others for having survived the injustices they have been subjected to encouraged me to raise my voice, to fight and never quit. All of them taught me many things and/or affected the way I viewed the world.
Q: What have been the most important lessons you have learned in leadership, entrepreneurship and mentoring others?
A: Trust, honesty and respect are essential for both leadership and mentorship success. Showing concern, listening to the mentee, giving him or her honest feedbacks are important steps for a strong mentorship. A leader and a mentor, not only inspire trust, they should also help the people they are guiding to believe in their own abilities, strengths and powers. Just as a good leader, a good mentor must allow his/her mentee to develop his/her talents, to become autonomous and to grow.
Q: What advice might you give young people, especially women, on how to achieve ‘success’ or make positive change in the world? Can you give reference from your field?
A: The first advice I give them is to stop the negative self-talk. To know that they don't have to be perfect. To trust themselves. Then to find out what they are passionate about and to turn those interests into fulfilling careers. To stay positive and to remember that well-planned hard work always pays off.
Q: How would you qualify the progress made for women’s empowerment, and what could we be doing to improve the standing of women and girls in society?
A: Progress achieved in women empowerment varies greatly from one society to another. Nevertheless, everywhere in the world women are increasingly raising their voices against discrimination, injustice, sexism, sexual harassment… More and more women are reaching out to other women. The number of women in leading positions is increasing. Even though much remains to be done, the picture is not completely dark. In my opinion, to improve the standing of women and girls in society, we have to invest more in education, to combat discrimination everywhere, to celebrate women achievers and most important to fight gender bias in the media.
Q: Do you believe it is the era of women and why?
A: Women had been held back throughout the centuries, silenced, and left out of history books. It is time for us to emerge from the shadows, to take our place as leaders and to make the world a more livable place for all.
Roula A. Douglas
Journalist & Author
Roula A. Douglas is a journalist, author, human rights activist, university instructor and a speaker on women's rights, youth issues and media ethics. She is a feminist advocating for women’s human rights in Lebanon.
She serves as a mentor for the women’s rights and gender equality club at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut. She is also a member of UN Women Civil Society Advisory Group for the Arab States (CSAG). In 2010, she was nominated for the Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the press (funded by the European Union).
Through her writings, lectures, activism, Roula works on empowering Lebanese women and youth and on promoting democracy and the Rule of the Law.