Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women from various sectors.
BEIRUT: Paula Yacoubian’s celebrated composure brusquely vanishes when the discussion veers toward the situation of women in Lebanon. Lebanon’s top female talk show host is uncompromising when it comes to women’s rights.“Women in Lebanon are not even second class or third or fourth class citizens,” she bitterly told The Daily Star. “Discrimination against women has reached unprecedented levels here [in Lebanon]; I find this alarming and outrageous, to say the least.”
Speaking a few weeks ahead of International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8, and against a backdrop of harrowing accounts of domestic violence that have emerged in the media recently, the young journalist was pessimistic.
But Yacoubian argues that women were partly to blame for their ever-worsening state, saying that Lebanese women were not “intelligently” making use of their education.
“Instead of making use of education to improve their condition, the majority of Lebanese women get a degree to improve their marriage prospects or become a socialite,” Yacoubian retorts. “I am very sad to be saying this but this is the ugly truth, unfortunately.”
But she is also perfectly aware that her upbringing and daring choices – Yacoubian is an orphan who married outside her religion – are not necessarily applicable to all contexts.
“Many Lebanese women are helpless most of the time,” she admits. “Let’s face it.”
Having lost her father at a very young age, Yacoubian, 37, was brought up by her late mother Rachelle, with whom she shared a singular relationship.
“When you ask me about the women I admire or the ideal woman, as unoriginal as it may sound, I can’t think of anyone else but my mother,” she says, fighting back tears. “In all fairness, my mother is a role model, she was my driving force.”
“Throughout my career, my mother was my biggest critic and one of the few people who pushed me and forced me to enhance my skills,” Yacoubian adds.
With subtle emotion, the TV host recalls that the only time her mother had positive comments about her work was after her 2013 interview with President Michel Sleiman.
“It wasn’t long before she passed away,” Yacoubian recalls. “She said it was perfect.”
Slowly but surely, Yacoubian climbed the professional ladder. At only 17 she started off as a news anchor at what was known as ICN TV and later held positions at prestigious media outlets including LBCI, ART and Al-Hurra TV.
Now, Yacoubian hosts a weekly talk show on Future TV, “Interviews,” where she hosts politicians from Lebanon and the region. In recent years, Yacoubian and her husband, media mogul Mouafac Harb, founded Integrated Communications, a media services establishment.
But the journey to the top has certainly not been easy, and Yacoubian is comfortable detailing the hurdles she has had to overcome.
“I come from a very modest family that lacks connections,” she confides. “And we all know that without connections or wasta, you can’t get anywhere in Lebanon.”
She likes to recall that during her debut at ICN, she would prefer reading the 8 o’clock news bulletin to an outing at the trendiest nightclub in the city. “You know bizarrely enough I used to have a lot more fun at the job than during an outing, for example,” she notes. “Now, reflecting back, it is fair to say that I did not have a wild youth.”
She also adds that dedication and passion are the key ingredients for success. “I wish Lebanese women would abide by that rule,” she adds.
As for passion, Yacoubian is known to have plenty. At Integrated Communications, Yacoubian trained Lebanese politicians from both camps and she is proud of the results, she says.
“The training we provide is tailored and customized to the trainee’s personality,” she says. “We’re keen to preserve the trainee’s character and we work on fine-tuning several aspects including eye contact, hand gesture and charisma.”
In fact, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s public appearances are said to have improved thanks to training he received from Yacoubian.
But Yacoubian is quick to brush off as “rumors” that she trained Hariri.
“I did not train Prime Minister Hariri,” she says in a categorical tone. “I might have given him some tips here and there but that does not mean I trained him per say.”
About her long-term associate and husband, Yacoubian says Harb played an integral role in advancing her career. “Mouafac is not only a husband, he’s a friend and a partner,” she adds. “I always like to pay tribute to Mouafac because, after my [late] mother of course, he is among the few I trust and he is among the few who are very supportive of me.”
In fact, the couple strives to incorporate their ideas about secularism, openness and equality into the education of their 9-year-old son Paul.
“Paul has been raised not to differentiate between genders,” Yacoubian says.
She maintains that parents should serve as an example to their children.
“I mean when a kid sees his mother playing football with him and his father being supportive of his mother’s career he won’t grow up to become a sexist or misogynist.”
“Also,” she adds, “to the Lebanese women I honestly advise them to go out and fight for their rights because we all know the men in this country will not grant them anything easily.”