Pressure and Expectation: An Interview with Layla Abi-Falah

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Layla Abi-Falah. Layla is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary, where she is studying International Relations with a concentration in human rights in the Middle East and Africa. Layla works in several research projects on campus, and has spent most of her time recently studying for the LSAT. Her goal is to become a human rights lawyer; basically, she wants to be the next Amal Clooney!

RV: What is your family’s background?

LA: My dad moved here during the Lebanese Civil War, which was a war that lasted about twenty years. They fled and my dad had a plan to come here and go to school here. My mom followed later on when he got settled. They moved here in the 70s and my dad went to VCU, so they’ve been in Richmond for a really long time. It’s where my sister was born and it’s where I was born. My sister and I are Lebanese-American, we’re Arab-Americans, so that’s important to a lot of our upbringing and our views on the world. It’s been a blessing to have those two identities.

RV: What has affected your personal view of gender roles?

LA: Being Arab and being American I have these definite different views. A lot of people think that Arab women are very much second-class citizens. In a lot of countries, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, they are very much second-class citizens. They’ve had a lot of their rights taken away, but something that I’ve been able to see in Lebanon is that the women—I’ve never met a weak Arab woman. There’s no such thing. They’re very strong, they’re very willed. Arab mothers are terrifying; they have reigns of terror. They’re very strong and empowered, but at the same time there are definitely things that, even though they’re strong and empowered, they’re definitely strong and empowered within the household. They take on the gender role of being mothers and being caretakers and doing the housework, doing the cleaning, doing the cooking. That’s definitely what I’ve seen with my aunts and my grandmother, how the older generation they’ve taken on those gender roles, but I’ve seen how the new generation [is different]. For example I have a cousin who works for the UN and she went to college, she speaks three languages, she’s amazing and I love her very much. She works for the UN now, and she definitely rejects that gender role. What we see here, where are there these gender roles that the new generation is rejecting, the same thing is happening in Lebanon. I think gender roles still exist and there are still spheres that women are confined to, or expected to be in. Even my cousin, I’m sure as soon as she finds a guy and gets married she’s going to have to be the one who takes off from her job at the UN and stays at home and takes care of the kids. Even though she’s a strong and empowered person, there’s definitely still a societal expectation that goes along with the fact that she is the woman and she’s having the baby, and she has to go home and take care of the baby that she had. I don’t think there would ever be a situation, especially in Lebanon, where a man would stay at home, whereas here it can be more common. I definitely see a lot of the juxtaposing; this is how some people are, this is how some people are breaking it, but it’s not been a completely broken role of women, so it’s still very prevalent in a lot of different ways.

I’ve definitely seen it and thought; well I cannot have that happen to me. I will not conform to that.

RV: How do you see yourself in these gender roles? What are your expectations for yourself?

LA: I don’t want to get too much like “this is what I want to be when I grow up,” but that’s what it kind of is. The way I see the next ten, twenty years playing out is that I want to go to law school, and my eventual goal is to be a human rights lawyer for the UN. I would love to have a family and I always joke with my friends that I just want one little perfect girl. I definitely want that, but I wouldn’t see myself getting married unless I knew it was somebody who was catching up to the 21st century. We’re going to share responsibilities, because by the time I would want to have a kid I would want to have a name for myself. I don’t want to give all that up. For me, fighting the gender role is to find somebody who would fight it with me. I don’t think women can do it by themselves; we have to have men who are in it with [us].

RV: Do you feel support for that from your family?

LA: Yes. My mom—as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized more of what she’s done. I’ve realized how amazing she is and how strong she is. Even though she does fit kind of perfectly into gender norms; she followed my dad and was at home taking care of my sister and me, and now works part time to take care of us and come home and clean. While my dad can kind of fit the role of the Arab dad; he goes to work, come home and sits on the couch not doing anything, and tells my sister and me to go help our mom. At the same time, even though there are times when I get really annoyed with him and say, “No I don’t want to go help mom do the dishes, you go help her, I’m actually studying for this exam I have tomorrow, you’re just watching TV, why can’t you do it?” and there’s that tension there, I know my parents are really proud of me and really excited about the things I do. All the things my mom does, for all of us, it’s really inspiring and I respect her for it. She wakes up at 5 am every day and just goes at it. I would never do that, it’s crazy, but I respect her for doing it. She definitely wants more for me; she wants me to be able to wake up at 5 am because I have to finish a brief or a case. They’re both really supportive.

RV: How were you raised to view education, and what is you family’s view and expectation of your education?

LA: I don’t know if you’ve heard of tiger moms or tiger dads, but those are my parents. Arab parents are really strict, so education is the most important thing in the entire world. It was always A or nothing. If we didn’t get an A we were in big trouble. Education was super important in our house. I remember coming home from preschool and my mom saying, “Okay, you’re not going to play right now, we’re going to sit and read this book.” Whenever my friends would come over to my house, she’d still make me do it. She’d force them to read, too.

Kind of how I was referring to my dad saying to go help my mom with the dishes, he didn’t know that I had [homework]. But if they knew, my mom would [refuse help] and tell me she needed me to go study. Both of them would say, “We’ll do everything, we need you to go study.” Here’s an example of something that happened recently. I got my credit card stolen, and I was freaking out. My parents were like, “Calm down, we’ll take care of it, now go study.” I had a final the next morning. They never want anything to come in the way of [my education].

RV: Do you think that your parents being immigrants, and possibly being in search of that “American Dream” concept has affected their expectation of you? Do you feel pushed or do you feel that education holds such a value because it’s a key to something more?

LA: I think so; I think if we hadn’t moved here and we’d been living in Lebanon, I feel like I would still have those expectations, but it would also be a different cultural setting. For instance, I think that I would probably put my educational responsibilities on the back burner for family obligations, because that’s how it is over there; family first. It’s a different situation here than it would be in Lebanon.

But they moved here to get a better life for themselves and their kids. Now there’s this expectation that we’ll fulfill that. They always say, “We want you to do better than we did ourselves.” My mom was valedictorian of her high school: very smart. But there was nowhere to go from there. So she said [I] needed to so what she did, but then go somewhere with it. There’s this expectation that because they didn’t get to do it, we have to.

RV: How do their expectations affect your views and expectations of yourself?

LA: I don’t think that my expectations have been tied to that. Maybe at the beginning when I was in elementary school, I felt that I had to get an A because my mom said that I had to get an A. But I think by the time I got into middle school, and then high school and now in college, it became something that I wanted and expected for myself. Doing well and getting a good education: I have my own expectations for myself, like becoming a human rights lawyer. I think that when I was little they had me on the right path; concentrating and doing well from the get-go; but I don’t think now I sit here and think that I need to do well because my parents did this for me.

RV: How do you think that your goals for yourself might have been different had you been in Lebanon instead of the US?

LA: I don’t know if I would be the same person with the same goals; I might be. There are a lot of [women], like my cousins. I would hope that seeing examples set by my cousins, I would be influenced to be great like them. I might not be as motivated, because I would have the expectation of getting married, and getting married to a Druze guy, and we’d have to have little Druze babies, and that would have to be a part of the goal, too. I think that it would have been more family and community-centered goals than my individual goals. My work would have been more likely a 9-5 job instead of my main purpose.

RV: What are some challenges you’ve personally faced within your educational career?

LA: In elementary school, just the pressure that if I didn’t get an A then I’d be in trouble. That pressure turned into my own pressure that I was setting for myself. That’s been a huge struggle I’ve had: the expectations and perfection. I’ll think that if I don’t do something perfectly then nothing else will go according to plan.

Even now, for example, I had a test for International Political Economy. This has been the hardest class ever; I don’t think I’ve taken a harder class at William & Mary. I worked so hard on it, but I still don’t think I did really well on the final, so maybe I’ll have a B at the end of the semester. So that pressure makes me think that now I have to study 10x harder on the LSAT because my GPA is going to go down. Then I won’t go to the law school I want, and I won’t get the job I want, and my expectations and stress become this domino effect. It started from my parents in elementary school and became my own stress from there.

RV: What else motivates you within education? Not necessarily academic achievement, but what motivates you to continue your education?

LA: My goal to be a human rights lawyer all started in 9th grade when I was in this history club at my high school. I thought “History club? I love history! Are we going to debate Napoleon or something? Napoleon: good guy or bad guy?” I walk in and it was more of a human rights club. We walk in and the first thing that we see is this video The Lost Boys of Sudan. And it just made me sob. I thought, “Why was this happening?” At that point I’d only heard bad things from my parents, like Palestinian flights. I was actually seeing it, and it inspired me. It got me on this path that I have to do something about what’s happening in the Middle East, in Africa. I have to do something that matters, especially [for] women and especially [for] children. That’s what got me going, and then I knew I wanted to work for the UN because my parents took me to New York the next year and we took a tour of the UN. I thought it would be boring but we toured this one section about UNICEF. If there had to be one section of the UN I wanted to work for it would be UNICEF. It had all of this information about what they were doing for kids and education, and I thought it was amazing.

Those two factors that happened within a year really changed my life. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn’t know what kind. Then this happened and I knew I had to be a human rights lawyer. I want to give these people a voice. That’s what drives me everyday.

RV: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in university?

LA: The most important thing I’ve learned…aside from the West sucks? That’s basically the International Relations major, that the West sucks. I guess it’s how to be wrong. Especially last semester, it’s how to be wrong. Not that I always thought I was right, but how to be wrong and learn what the right thing is.

[Also], I was in a class with my research professor, called Politics in Africa. We were discussing humanitarian aid and human rights, and we were discussing agency. Agency in itself is a huge thing I’ve learned as well. The professor said, “When you think you’re going to go save Africa, or whatever place you think needs your saving, that takes away their agency. They’re very capable of saving themselves, so let’s talk about new ways of lending a helping hand, but not saving.” It was a huge thing that I learned, because it affected the way I saw myself in this whole scene. I wasn’t coming in as a savior. This is my goal, but now I need to know I need to talk about it differently and frame it differently, because I want to give these people a voice, I don’t want to be their voice.

RV: How has your worldview changed since coming to college?

LA: I’ve definitely become very aware. And of course you become aware, that’s the point of college. But I think that the level of awareness that I’ve gotten about the world around me, even from little tiny Williamsburg, is crazy. I’ve learned so many things about agency, what has gone wrong in the world, and why it’s still not better. We always think that we’re in the West, and so we’re going to help everyone else. But then, like I said with the whole agency talk, it changed my view to not trust everything, and really understanding and going deeper. It’s made me super aware of everything that I hear and see, and taking the veil off to really uncover something.

RV: What interests you the most about working with other countries and cultures?

LA: I think there’s a lot to learn from other people. I take Arabic and French, and I’m obsessed with learning languages. They’re the key to entering another culture. Since I want to work in the Middle East and Africa, those are the two main languages. It’s been really exciting for me to  open up with these different cultures and whole different way of think and way of life.

Since becoming a French major, we’ve learned about laïcité [French secularism], and I think that when you learn about French culture and language, you start being able to look at them and understand the way they act. That’s really important, because a lot of people go into international relations thinking, “I’m going to fix this, but I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak Arabic, but I do speak English and everyone is going to speak English with me.” But then I think, okay, but you can’t understand their culture. You have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, you just think that it’s wrong and you’re going to tell them it’s wrong without trying to understand. People tell the French that they’re being racist because of laïcité all the time, but is that really what it is? Is it racist? Or is it their system? So how do we fix something that’s leading to racist issues without understanding what the system is and what the rules are. I think laïcité is a really great example.

RV: You site Amal Clooney as your inspiration and your goal. What about her specifically do you admire and hope to emulate?

LA: I think that she’s done exactly what I envision myself doing. Right now, for instance, she’s doing a case on the Maldives, for this leader who was trying to great things for the Maldives, but then there was a coup and he became a prisoner. I think those kinds of cases are so important, but nobody knows about them. Being the person who cares about what no one else cares about, and being the person who will stand up for what no one else will stand up for, is really important. I think she does a really good job of being this badass, empowered woman. She went to Oxford, NYU, and took this great education and used it to change the world. It sucks though, even me, I didn’t know about her until George Clooney married her. I wish I’d known who she was before then. She’s a great example of a Lebanese, Druze women who really just broke free of the constraints of her culture and decided she was going to do X, Y and Z. Even since her celebrity stardom, she hasn’t slowed down from any of it. She knows people are watching, so she can tell them more [about her causes].

RV: What do you think of education in the US?

LA: I think if we’re going to start from the bottom, like elementary school going up to high school, I was really fortunate. Richmond has great schools; the issue is that some areas have really great schools and others don’t. I’m an Arab-American girl who got to go to great schools in Richmond with specialty centers; does another Arab-American girl living in another area have the same opportunity? It’s always the richer the area, the better the school, the poorer the area the worse the school. I think that America, being the richest country in the world basically, that’s inexcusable.

I don’t know why our lower level education system is so screwed up and based on tests. I got to break free from the system and go to these specialty schools, and [didn’t prioritize standardized testing]. Whereas other schools will heavily prioritize [standardized testing]. I think it’s really unfair that some people don’t get what I’ve gotten or what you’ve gotten. They may not even have the chance to go to college, because after such a crappy education and without the money, how is college ever going to be a reality for them? We always say “American Dream,” but how come our own Americans can’t always live the American Dream?

RV: What about girls’ education in the US?

LA: I think the US does a good job of empowering women. There’s this great speech by Obama that he gave at the commencement of Barnard. It’s an all-girls school in New York. It’s female empowerment that’ll just punch you in the face; it’s great! He said how he wanted the success of the women at Barnard to exist for minority girls in minority areas as well. Especially with minorities, say some other Arab-American girls who didn’t have the schools of Richmond or really supportive parents, they may slide through the cracks of the American system.

But I think the school system does a good job of empowering girls. In the past, girls weren’t being encouraged to enter math and science fields, but now there’s this big movement and encouragement of women in STEM. Even when you say it, it sounds empowering! We still have a long way to get there. There are still issues that exist, but I think we’re doing well relatively. At the same time, as this top leader country, we should be doing better. I think the progress is there.

Thank you to Layla for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Layla Abi-Falah

Layla Abi-Falah