On This International Women's Day, I'm Celebrating Me!

Today is International Women’s Day, and I’m sure all the men are muttering under their breaths that every day is her day, isn’t it?! Well, to be fair, this world would not go round without the contribution of both women and men, so any day dedicated to honoring either is utterly fantastic in my book.

I was lucky to be raised in a household that doesn’t discriminate between male and female, even though our Lebanese culture is historically steeped in patriarchy. My parents treated my two brothers and me equally. My mom accustomed us to chores around the house – traditionally marked as the woman’s realm – and my dad made sure we learned how to write a check, examine the transmission fluid, shop for groceries, and wash the car.

Tasks were never segregated based on gender, nor was our expected level of achievement in school, which is perhaps why the three of us ranked at the top of our classes, snatching up full-merit scholarships in college and completing at least one graduate degree.

I wasn’t always this tier of strong, or self-confident, or independent. When I reflect on the sort of woman I am today, I wouldn’t credit a “born with it” character. At home, our parents may have been passionately supportive and encouraging, but they cocooned us protectively from the harsher realities of this world.

I am the woman I am today on account of the following.

That's me at the opulent Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, in 2010, on a business trip

Traveling. Ever since I can remember, my parents have been shuttling us to Lebanon for whole summers at a time so that we can be attuned to our heritage. Traveling from a young age exposed me to a myriad of cultures, and I learned how to weave them together like a tapestry rather than let one cast a shadow over the other.

When I casually mentioned a summer abroad program to my parents at the age of 19, a sophomore at the University of California, my father insisted I apply, even as my mother grimaced at the thought of parting with me for two months. So in 2005, I departed for Brighton, England. I have lucid memories of hauling my own ponderous suitcases from the rail station to the van that swept us to the university campus.

That summer was one of the most formative of my entire life. I learned how to be entirely self-sufficient with limited funds – nope, my parents didn’t hand me a credit card to go hog wild. I did my own laundry. I prepared my own food. I wandered into the city on my own. I spent every free minute reading The Financial Times, watching movies in the library, and attending all the social activities the university organized.

I came home that summer visibly matured and autonomous, and I learned never again to take any of my mother’s cooking for granted!

Working in foreign countries. What’s tougher than living in a foreign country where you’re not fluent in the language and nine time zones removed from everything comfortable and familiar? Reporting to a tough boss in a cutthroat corporation in said foreign country!

While in Paris, I worked as a junior consultant at AREVA, a French multinational group specializing in nuclear power and renewable energy. My supervisor was archetypically French and insisted I speak and conduct my meetings in French. Quelle horreur! Don’t get me wrong – when in Rome, right? I didn’t mind speaking conversational French with coworkers and friends. That’s really one of the best and fastest ways to apprehend a language. But leading technical discussions in a tongue I’d only mastered at high school proficiency? It was excruciatingly difficult.

After about three months thus – breaking down in tears the day before a bimonthly presentation, as I worked furiously to translate my work into French and subsequently memorize it – I leveled up with the stern Monsieur Kaplan. “If I have to deliver and perform at an outstanding caliber, let me operate in my mother tongue,” I declared. “All other discourse I’ll happily conduct in French.”

In the quiet of anticipation, just as I was ready to embrace backlash, my boss broke into a smile and relented. In fact, he even ceded that it would be a mutualistic relationship where he would be able to acquire English from me. From then on, it was an ideal set-up, and everything changed for me. To this day, Mr. Kaplan – or Pierre as he insists I address him – and I remain in touch. His ritual is to send me warm greetings on November 1, my birthday. We reunited on my last trip to Paris over lunch at Au Printemps inside Les Galeries Lafayette, just as we had years ago to commemorate the completion of my project thesis.

Having an unshakeable set of values. I moved 3,000 miles away from home at the tender age of 21. In grad school, I was exposed to students and acquaintances who didn’t always celebrate my values, my faith, my way of thinking, or my lifestyle. 

In fact, one guy dismissed me as excessively virtuous and warned I’d have difficulty finding real love if I limited any relationship with my conditions. Another guy confessed that he had deep feelings for me but was entertaining a long-distance relationship and wasn’t ready to sever it until he secured my reciprocal affection. 

Looking back, the only acceptable reaction to either scenario – a calculated slap on the face – should have readily come to me. I was young and inexperienced, constantly afraid to injure feelings or engage in aggressive confrontation. I of course recoiled and fended off their advances. But had I been weaker, I would have succumbed to their coaxing words and condoned their harassment.

My parents imbued in us a core set of beliefs, values and principles. With age, one is able to truly wrestle with those tenets and make them her own. What I’m most proud of is the armor I wear, the moral compass I wield, and the gauge against which I measure real or fake, good or evil, genuine or disingenuous. Sure, I might be fooled on occasion, but my mistakes render me stronger.

It’s not easy being a woman in today’s world. Though we’ve certainly come leaps and bounds from our predecessors just 30 years ago, we have a long way to go to attain “liberté, egalité, et fraternité,” or liberty, equality and fraternity – the national motto of France and the driving force behind the French Revolution.

Let us work toward those ideals with poise, grace, intellect, and kindness.


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