Sabah Fakhoury: Turning Pain Into Power

Sabah Fakhoury is a Dearborn, Michigan native, CEO and Founder at Sabah Communications. She is an observer, writer,  reporter and a communicator of trends, ideas and issues in business, education, and religion that crosses geographical boundaries.

It took me 35+ years of struggling to overcome what I saw as abuses within my own family, in relationships and in the workplace. As the oldest of five children in a traditional Arab Muslim household, I was the trailblazer. As the aunt to 16 nieces and nephews, I observed for the past 25 years the various methods used by my four siblings to raise their children. I witnessed the psychological damage they and other friends inflicted on their children. I also realized my own abuses with each failed relationship due to deep mistrust issues. Psychological scars are worse than physical ones. As other women’s stories have revealed, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. When someone is beaten down into submission or ruled with an iron fist because they want you to behave, they lose their will to fight and sometimes to live. This is still going on today.

Being strict causes many children to rebel against parents or authoritarian figures because they get tired of being told “no.” That is perhaps the most damaging thing you can tell a child, especially if it’s not accompanied with an explanation. Simply saying “because I said so” or because I’m your mother/father/husband” is not an acceptable answer to someone who is trying to make sense of their world. Once a child realizes they have their own mind (ages 3 through 7), they begin to think for themselves. While a child might not be able to reason everything that happens to them, they know to trust their instincts. They rely on and listen to their senses. But as a child grows, they are taught by parents and in school to use reason, thus moving away from gut feelings and trusting what their body tells them.

Our body knows when something is wrong. If we listen to what it tells us, we can never go wrong. In hindsight, as I look back on my life, trusting my gut instinct worked every time. Twice in my career, once when I was 18 and again when I was 39, I worked for men who made sexual advances. Both times I was cornered against a wall or in an office. Before anything could happen, I dropped to the floor to escape their grip and walked away. I didn’t fight back. I left. I could have sued but I didn’t want to waste my time and energy or allow them to have power over me. I chose to move on instead. Too often women get stuck when bad things happen to them. Rape is another event that devastates a woman’s psyche. I’ve endured being fondled as a child by a male servant at a neighbor’s house as well as other sexual encounters that were not pleasant with abusive partners. Unwanted sex is a way for a man to gain power over a woman.

Often these men are weak and gain power by trying to control you. They have narcissistic behaviors that the world revolves around them. They are often victims of abuse during childhood. Whatever the reason for another person’s misbehavior, you need to take your power back. You always have the choice to leave an abusive relationship. For many, you may agonize in silence for years because you have children, but ultimately, you have to put yourself first. This has nothing to do with the children. It’s between you and the person mistreating you, whom you entrusted your life to. Take back control of your life. Make the hard decisions and push through adversity.

Gender violence is often coupled with mistreatment of children within a family. It could also include favoritism among the children. In my home, the boys were favored over the girls, as is customary in Middle Eastern culture. While many parents believe the boys will take care of them in their old age, the girls might not be valued as much as the boys. I call this practice “Village Mentality or VM.” Other cultures in China, India and elsewhere also favor males. Whether you live in the old world or in the modern world, favoring one child over the other, regardless of gender, is damaging to the other children. People sense when they are not liked.

Inheritance is another area where women are not always treated fairly. Advances in family inheritance are paramount to gender equality. Too often women are cheated when parents don’t divide their estate equally among the children. Furthermore, if wealth is misappropriated among the male members of the family, females need to take legal action in district court in their area to gain what’s rightfully theirs. If you suspect one of your siblings has usurped power over the family finances, you should file petitions to have a guardian and/or an executor appointed for each or both parents. This is crucial as parents advance in age and may be deemed unfit to make financial and/or health decisions on their own behalf. It is best to appoint an impartial party, usually an attorney who specializes in elder law. This is a sensitive topic and should not be debated outside of the courts because it can lead to heated arguments and ongoing family struggles that could turn deadly. My life has been a nightmare since my early 20s due to my mother’s mental illness and my father’s aloofness to family affairs. We haven’t killed each other but our relations are so strained that we are barely on speaking terms due to power struggles over money.

The accumulation of wealth is a goal every woman should strive for. By gaining financial freedom a woman of means has the power to help other women and children. While education is one way a woman could advance within a society, you should also consider becoming an entrepreneur. You will never become rich when you trade your time for money. Most companies are at-will employers that will not pay you what you’re worth. As you enter the workforce, there are key questions you should ask yourself anytime you feel dissatisfied with your job. Are your skills being underutilized or are you in the wrong field? While some people know what they want to do from a young age, others are blocked from pursuing their passions and dreams so they stumble from job to job with no clear direction. But most likely, you were the one who gave up on yourself, feeling you weren’t good enough, not smart enough, or worried about what others might think. Your negative thoughts are your worst enemy, because if you don’t believe in yourself and your dream no one else will either. I gave up on my dream and it took me 25 years to get back on track. The whispers kept getting louder until I couldn’t ignore them.
Think back to your earliest dreams. What did you want to do? Who did you want to be? I remember when I was 11 years old, after giving a book report in the Sixth Grade I had a thought that it would be wonderful to be an author of children’s books. It was a fleeing thought. It wasn’t until several years later when I took up journalism in high school that my love of writing ignited. Pursuing a career in journalism presented many challenges. Not only was it one of the most competitive fields, especially broadcast journalism, I had no family connections in the field, no plan, and no actionable steps to reach my goal. When I graduated from high school, I had no plans to attend a Top 10 College because I didn’t think my grades were good enough and because my parents had no college fund for me. I was an average student and let my grades define who I was. Instead, I enrolled in a local community college near my home. However, I quickly became bored with school after a few semesters.  I decided to get a job and join the real world, figuring school would always be there if I wanted to return.  I chose a career over marriage.

My instincts were right again for that time in my life. I gained valuable experience by working in advertising for seven years as a media buyer, planner and then TV account executive. The business skills I learned would shape how I made decisions throughout my next two careers in journalism and in law. I was a number cruncher who analyzed how to spend the client’s money based on the targeted demographic reach. I negotiated time and space. I built relationships and I bloomed into an analytical thinker. Although I was working with the media and on the media, I wasn’t in the media. My desire to be a broadcast journalist persisted. So, I gave up a promising career and returned to school at age 27 to complete my B.A. at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I would later return to complete my M.A. as well.

When I left advertising I still didn’t have a life plan. I had an instinct that I should complete what I had started. Seven years earlier, I had set my sights on attending UofM. The thought came into my head one day, so I blurted it out to my friends. And I told other friends that I was going to Michigan one day. They all laughed at me. They thought it was a pipe dream. It wasn’t their dream. It was my dream. I dumped those friends and didn’t listen to anyone else, including my parents. When I had made the decision to return to school my father tried to dissuade me from moving away to attend college, which was a mere 28 miles from our home. Instead, he wanted me to attend nearby Wayne State University so I could live at home and commute 12 miles to that school. But when he told me not to study Political Science because it was too dangerous, I went full speed ahead against his wishes. What could be so dangerous about learning your history, I thought. Little did I know I had grown up in a family that never spoke about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which began nearly 100 years ago. I didn’t even know there was a problem when in 1966 I had visited my father’s hometown village in Irtah (near Tulkarem in the West Bank). I had no idea until I attended college 20 years later that my father’s Palestinian homeland became the state of Israel in 1948. This issue has plagued more than six generations with no peaceful and just resolution in sight.

Today, there are numerous world issues that must be resolved. These issues include gender inequality, poverty, hunger, political repression, slavery, xenophobia, and gun control. If you want to resolve issues in your world you need to be mindful of both the language and the tone that you use when telling your story. That is why I help marginalized groups get organized with targeted multi-media campaigns by teaching the language of impact so your message stands out in our crowded world.

There are so many stories I wish to share with you about my life experiences.  Almost daily I meet people who believe they are defined by their story. An individual’s story is about what happened to you based on your geographic, socio-economic and religious environment and/or a life-changing event like a health scare or being at death’s door. Your story does not define who you are. You are the creator of your story. You have the power to write your story. You can attain all your dreams by listening to your intuition.

Regardless of the pain you endure — whether abused sexually, mistreated within your family or on the job, discarded by a spouse, a close friend, within a community or told you have cancer — your experiences make you stronger. They gave you a unique outlook on the world. Someone is waiting to hear your story. But they don’t need to hear about the darkest hour. They need to know how you found the light; the cognitive process of how you change your mindset, the defining moment when you draw a line in the sand and say: “enough is enough.” There are many stories of people who have written about beating cancer. When their body was broken, their mind broke open. It is possible to turn your life around no matter what has happened. If people with stage four Cancer can cheat death then you can beat your life story. When you reframe your story, you will see that what you thought was your worst nightmare is actually your greatest gift from God. You have the power to decide when it’s time to turn your pain into power so you could help lift others from their darkness.

This narrative is part of MALA’s #16Days of Activism and #OrangeTheWorld Campaign against gender-based violence. Use the hashtags and submit your story to join the movement.

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