Gender, Inequality, Interviews

9 questions with Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, a lifechanging physician standing for the rights of those in need

"'No' is not an option for our community, especially now, when we don't have options to be represented."

I have been lucky enough to have known Dr. Laila Al-Marayati for quite a while now. And I’m pretty sure she can do anything.

The daughter of a Palestinian immigrant father and an Anglo-American mother, her day job is as a physician, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. She explains that her calling in life as a Muslim physician is to work with the under-served population.

Additionally, she has expertise in treating women who have experienced female genital mutilation or female circumcision and has testified on their behalf to help them gain asylum in the United States.

She has served as a presidential appointee on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. In 1995, she was asked to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China as a member of the US delegation. Dr. Al-Marayati serves as the chairwoman of the Board of Directors for KinderUSA, an organization dedicated to the health and well-being of Palestinian children. She’s also a mom and a wife, committed to maintaining a balance between her work and home lives.

Many of these opportunities arrived when she was pregnant and had young children. She decided to take on these challenging roles at that time in her life because, “‘No’ is not an option for our community especially at that time, and even now when we don’t have options to be represented. So if someone asks us, we have to ‘yes.’ We’ve never had the luxury of saying ‘no.'”

Fortunately for us, the incomparable Dr. Al-Marayati sat down with The Tempest about her work, life, and motivations.

The Tempest: Can you remember the first time you realized you had a different racial/religious identity than what was the norm?

Dr. Al-Marayati: The first time it occurred to me, I remember being in fifth grade, and some boy insulted me by calling me an Egyptian… I had no idea what he was talking about, I had no clue because I had no awareness of being different at that age. Later when I was around 12 or 13, one my relatives on my Mom’s side was trying to get me to convert to Christianity – which I don’t think I even knew what I was to convert from… we went to the mosque, but it wasn’t a really big part of our conversations at home.

It was only during that process at that age of 12 or 13 that when I was at the mosque one day, I decided that this was the identity I wanted, which was to be Muslim.

But, as far as ethnically, as an Arab American, because I look white and I sound white, and I think people treat me that way, it’s been a different experience for me. I have to say that I benefit from white privilege in some ways.

People don’t realize until you say something that you’re different.

In one sentence, can you describe the impact of your work?

I like to think that the effort that I’ve made on behalf of other people has made a difference in the lives of individuals I have touched that I know about, and even those that I don’t.

In one sentence, can you describe the necessity of your work?

People who live on the fringe, who are marginalized, who don’t have resources, need people like us to support and represent them, and to offer services that they otherwise can’t get.

Do you have a favorite song at the moment?

September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire.

What about yourself are you most proud of?

That I feel that I have really done the best that I ever could at the things that matter to me, in terms of my work and my family.

Where do you get your news?

The Financial Times, The LA Times – online and in print – and the Guardian.

What was the last thing to make you laugh?

Well, just now we were at my in-laws, watching my husband dance to Arab music – that was pretty hilarious.

What is one book that has been particularly transformative in your life?

At the risk of sounding cliche, I think “The Alchemist” was something that moved me a lot. And also, this could be interpreted the wrong way, but “The Fountainhead” when I was younger. I appreciated what it was about but I didn’t understand the politics of Ayn Rand at the time, but as someone just going in naively and reading the book, it resonated with me at the time.

Where are you going next?

That’s a really good question because I feel like I’m in a moment where I need to think about that, but I haven’t really figured it out yet… part of what I would like to do might be international medicine but because of my closeness to my family it might be hard – but I think about it a lot. I haven’t made any actual plans, but whatever I do in the next chapter will still be related to service. Doing something internationally where I could train others to make a difference in other countries or even our own country.

I can’t envision my life or my work if it’s not service oriented.

This piece has been edited for length and clarity.