Full Potential 

Meet Rana Dajani: Jordanian-Palestinian molecular biologist, professor & social entrepreneur

By Mayss Alami

The Western world often perceives the hijab (head-scarf) as a limitation of female autonomy in the SWANA region. Dr. Rana Dajani, today’s SWANA Womxn feature, is a testament to how flawed this idea is. Dr. Dajani tells us that she wears not one but five scarves, each distinguishing a role she identifies with. Her highest regarded scarf is her identity as a mother of four, followed by being a teacher, a scientist, a social entrepreneur and finally, an Islamic feminist.

To get ready for this week’s feature I passed the mic to Full Potential’s newest team member, Mayss! Mayss is Palestinian-Jordanian and since she grew up in Jordan, I figured she’d be a great person to conduct the interview with Dr. Dajani —and I was right. As a disclaimer: this was one of our longest, richest, most inspiring interviews yet.

Part I. Identity

Mayss: Let's start with the basics. Tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up, and how you identify.

Rana: I identify as half Palestinian- my father is from Jerusalem -and half Syrian- my mother's from Aleppo - with a Jordanian citizenship, because that's where I grew up and where I live today. And to me that's a reflection of many peoples… we were never divided into these countries, this is all part of colonization. You know, drawing lines: this is Syria, this is Jordan, this is Palestine. It was all one [before colonization], we're all relatives and it's a bigger family. And in the end, I say I'm a human being because as a biologist, we're all 99.99% identical with the 0.1% that's different, which is wonderful, so we need to celebrate both our unity and our diversity.

Rana: At the same time, ... when I introduce myself, I say that I play five roles in life, which in English the metaphor is "you wear five hats." I say, "I don't wear a hat, I wear a scarf," so my five scarves.

And I always start with the most important role I play: I am a parent, a mother. Being a parent is the most important thing a person can do for society and for humanity— they help bring up the next generation to do what's right and so on. My second scarf is an educator. I was a school teacher for ten years and even now I'm an educator at the university. It’s my second most important role because when children aren't at home, they're at school. So, teachers have a huge influence on the next generation, to inspire, to guide the future. And then the third one is I'm a scientist. I'm a molecular cell biologist and I work on the epigenetics of trauma and genetics of ethnic populations. The fourth one, I'm a social entrepreneur. I founded We Love Reading: changing mindsets, through reading to create change-makers, which started in Jordan and now is almost in 60 countries around the world - so it's been called a social movement. And lastly, so this relates to this identity, so lastly,... I have been named one of the twenty most influential scientists, and they gave each one, in the Islamic world, so that's like 1.6 billion, so they gave a title for each one of us, and the title they gave me, which I did not like, was the Islamic feminist. And I asked them to change it, they didn't. But since then, I embarked on a journey to redefine what that means to me. Many times we get labeled or put in boxes or stereotyped, and it's up to us, to not to succumb to that, but to own it, engage with it, embrace it and redefine it according to our own terms. So now I say, I mean, I'm not an Islamic feminist, I'm a human being who wants to do what is good for humanity.

Part II. Navigating the label, “Islamic Feminist”

Mayss: How’s the journey been navigating the idea that you’re an Islamic feminist, representing both a bit of the east and a bit of the west in some ways?

Rana: So, you're right in saying that Islam represents East and feminism represents West. But again, I think these are boxes that people put us in. What does feminist mean? It has multiple meanings in different cultures and contexts, and therefore everybody has a different idea of what it means. And to me, I understand a feminist to be somebody who defends and upholds women's rights. Well, I want to.. be much more broader and I want to say I defend and uphold human rights, and that includes women who, as you know have been treated unequally all over the globe. But to me, it's about human rights, because you have other minority groups who have also been subjected to such discrimination as well. So that's the feminist part.

Rana: As for the Islamic part, to me, Islam is not a label nor a group of people. Islam is a way of life. So you may be practicing Islam even if you don’t call yourself a Muslim, because it's a way of life. It's about universal shared values. It's all the ethical issues, like “do unto others as you want others to do unto to you,” to be conscientious, to be honest. That's what Islam is. It's a way of life. And that's who I am. And it just so happens that this way of life, which is Islam, is one of the greatest ways for humanity to work together, to take care of Earth in the way I understand it. So, again, I'm a human being in that sense, seeking the truth, following my curiosity, giving my brain. To me, this is all Islam. It tells me to use my brain. It tells me to ask questions. It tells me to be curious. It tells me to be kind. It tells me to care. So to me, those are all the hallmarks...of the way of life of being a Muslim, which I subscribe to and follow. And I hopefully will manifest it or, you know, try as much as possible to...live that life.

Mayss: I love that theory. I mean, I don't necessarily agree that the idea of Islam is tied to the East, but I think about how the term “Islamic feminist” was sort of coined or made to define you as your identity.

Part III. Education systems in the SWANA region

Mayss: OK, I'm going to go a bit off script. So, I spent two years in Jordan… the rate of women choosing STEM majors is pretty high, but their career participation remains low. How do you think we can talk about that in a productive way that actually has an impact beyond mere conversations and storytelling?
Rana: The high percentage of women in STEM is a phenomena across the Arab world. In comparison to the West, you find the numbers in the Arab region are much higher. So first, there's a lesson here to be learned, right? The West is struggling to get women interested in STEM and we've already done it.  Why hasn't anybody come look at us? We're only perceived as the developing countries, third world countries, whatever, when we've actually done something they haven't. So let's shed light on that and learn why. Maybe we have a solution for it for the world. That's number one.

Rana: Two- there are less working-women, not just in STEM but in all industries. And this is true all over the world, not just in the Arab world or Jordan. So then the question becomes why? Right? This is a global phenomenon. We don't want to tie it with religion, and we don’t want to fall into the trap that this is something particular to Arabs or Muslims, you know what I mean? Because we usually do that and I like to highlight: no, it’s a global thing, we're all in this together. So...the question becomes why? And that's actually part of my book, The Five Scarves. The last two chapters discuss all of this. My hypothesis is: the reason we have less women in [the workforce] is because the framework of work has been designed around white, Western, men. Everybody around the world, whether men from other places or women, have tried to fit into [it] rather than saying, wait a minute, we may have another definition, because everybody is different, we're not all white men. We may look at life a little bit differently and so the way we would design a workplace, our priorities, may be different.

Rana: So to me, it's not about fixing the workplace. It's about changing the whole framework, because fixing it will always be a bandaid, right?  We want to scrap this model and come up with a whole new model that is inclusive for everybody and allows everybody to fulfill who they are and respect [their differences/them]. So maybe as a woman I want to have kids in my 20s-30s, because I want that and by the way, that follows my biological clock, which has nothing to do with social structure. Then after 30, I want to become a professor. Why not? Or maybe the other way around, you know? I want to be a professor at 20 and study and whatever, and then I want to have kids at 35. Why not? We're always put in boxes [and told] that this is the only way and there's no other way. No. There are many ways, as many as how diverse we are.

Rana: By the way, because of Covid-19, we have seen many things that people told us or we thought were impossible [are possible]. You know, people used to say “you can’t work from home” well everybody's working from home. “You can’t do this,” well, everybody is doing this today. So COVID-19 has taught us two lessons. One, that nothing is impossible. If there's a will, there's a way. Two, we're not very different from each other across the world. People used to complain about, you know, “these developing countries don't know how to behave.” Well, look at the West now. People are not following masks. [It’s actually the opposite] you find the people in the, “developing countries” doing much better in protection, hygiene, best practices compared to other countries.

Part III. The power of reading & mentorship

Rana: One practical way to change mindsets is through reading
That's why I myself, to make sure that I don't just preach what I don't do, started We Love Reading....it's a program [that] fosters reading among children so that they fall in love with reading and therefore their mindset changes through reading. Our mantra is “changing mindsets through reading to create change-makers.” And it's also about motivating children. You know, if you are motivated, if you love something, you want to find it, you want to, you know, dig it up from anywhere. So if children fall in love with reading, they will seek opportunities to learn. So they become lifelong learners, not just learning within the class or within an age limit. They keep on learning forever until the last day. And this is what allows them to expand their imagination, to learn about other people, cultures, solutions, and to get the courage from the heroes they read about to become the change makers themselves. So  reading is fundamentally important, and starting as early as when the mother was pregnant….But this is long term, right? We're not talking that this is going to make a change tomorrow, but we always have to plan long term and hope that

Rana: The second way to go is role models. Unfortunately, the only role models we see come from the West and they are of particular sorts, again, white men... or white woman. whatever. So we need to highlight role models who look like us, who dress like us, who we can relate to. Right? Because when I read about a woman in America, “[ah, of course] she's from America.” No, I want to read about a woman who was my neighbor, who then I can say, “Oh, she made it, I can make it. If she was able to figure things out, then I can.” And it's not that we don't have role models. There's plenty in the Arab world and other parts of the world. It's just that they don't have a voice... so we need to write their stories and this will change the subconscious minds of the children growing up so that it's very normal to have different expectations, it's very normal to aspire, because you grew up with these role models at the back of your mind.

Rana: So stories, telling stories is very important. And I always tell everybody, you should tell your story, [because] nobody's going to tell it better than you. Second, if you don't write it, somebody else is going to come and write about us, and we can't blame them if they go and say something that's different, wrong or what what we don't want, so we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our children, we owe it to the future to tell our stories. And the second thing I say… is everybody's story is worth it - very worthy. People tell me, you know, what's my story? I'm just a normal [person]. Oh, no, you're not. You're unique. Your DNA is unique, your perspective is unique. Every person has a story that they should share with the world and we should highlight. And then from this comes language… If you're going to share something if you're going to fall in love with something, if you're going to change mindsets, it can only happen in your native tongue. So reading [and] writing in your native tongue is very important because it’s the language you grow up with and the language that makes you dream. It's the language that makes you think and be creative. So you need to give material in that language, because if the material is not in that language, then there's less accessibility. It becomes a barrier.

Rana: The third...practical thing is mentoring. So we need mentors to support each other, advise each other, learn from each other, know that we're not alone. So this is very important, especially for women, because they don't have a lot of time, they're doing many, many things, and therefore they need a mentoring network to connect them. And so that's why I also started a mentoring network for female scientists. We called it the Three Circles of Alemat (عالِمات - plural of female scientists in Arabic), and we spelt it out phonetically, Alemat, because we wanted to show the world that there's a word in Arabic for female scientists. So this is part of our culture and identity, and this is a mentoring circle...the first circle is in Jordan, the second circle was the Arab world, and the third circle was connecting Arab female scientists and diaspora with Arab female scientists in the Arab world. The program is available online. It's a free tool kit. Anybody can adopt it... and it has been used by minority groups in the U.S. like Black Americans. It has been adopted by not just STEM professionals, but for business and law, and not just for women, but also for men.

What's unique about it is that it targets mid-career. Most mentoring programs available target students...there are very few mentoring programs that target mid career. And so this is targeted, because that's where women start falling off. So it's a leaking pipeline. So this is only a mid career.  The second unique thing about it is that it's adopts a personal and professional approach. ….So the toolkit is really like five steps. People identify their mentor through it, like a speed dating kind of [process] ...you either click with somebody in the first few seconds or you don't, and then the two who we pair them as mentor and mentee have this very loose yet firm relationship where they advise each other. And it's not just about somebody older than you, it  could be somebody younger, being your mentor for certain aspects and you're their mentor for other aspects. So it's a very dynamic relationship going both ways. And we just turned it into publication, we did research on it because I'm a scientist, so everything has to be studied, and hopefully it'll be published by the end of the year.

Mayss: I love the mentorship aspect. I myself am always looking for mentors because I feel like, especially as a woman, I don't have a lot of easily accessible role models. You sort of have to navigate what's available and be bold enough to say, I reject this, I want to create something that's not there. And that's a bit of the social entrepreneur part. I really like that.

Part IV: The Significance of Storytelling

Mayss: How do you feel storytelling within ourselves is important in framing how we see ourselves? Or maybe how you personally experience that as a female?

Rana: Oh, I like how you say that. Actually, I totally agree. In the end, we create our own story. It's all about imagining and creating the narrative in your mind and then acting it out and learning along the way, of course, and changing as you go. But every now and then, you have to go back inside yourself and check on that dream. How has it changed? How has it evolved? And you live it, because in reality, if you can dream it, then it can happen. Now, of course, life is dynamic and you may not be able to follow your dream the way you imagined... and that's OK. I mean, I wanted to be a scientist when I was growing up. But when I got accepted at the University of Cambridge to do my PhD, I couldn't go because I couldn't afford to go. I got married, I became a school teacher and….I had four children. That went on for ten years; where's my dream, right?  Well, it was there, but it was on hold because you have to deal with the circumstances and make the best of them. So the first lesson here is that I tried to make the best of what I did. So I became a school teacher. If this is going to be my life, I'm going to make it the best. So I would create programs and connect people. Actually, I taught all the teachers in 1995 to use email….

Rana: So this is one thing, but that dream stayed. And then when I was thirty and pregnant with my last daughter, my husband said, “Oh Rana, there's an ad in the newspaper for a PhD scholarship from the Fulbright.” So I went back and took my GRE, wrote my essays, took the TOEFL again, and I was actually called for an interview the day I was due with my baby. And I said, “it’s my due date,”  and they said, “oh yeah, we know, but if you have her, we can do it through the phone while you're in your bed.”  Well, I didn't have her. I went fully pregnant to the interview and the next day I had Sara, my daughter, and I got the scholarship. That's when my husband resigned from his job to support my dream of becoming a scientist, and so we all went to the U.S. for me to do my PhD. He was taking care of everything so that I could pursue my dream—choosing your partner is very important. So, again, the path that I [initially] envisioned was finishing university, doing my PhD, becoming a scientist didn't happen that way. It did happen, but in a different way.

Part V. Historical misconceptions

Mayss: Yeah, in your Ted Talk you also talked about Yamanaka’s discovery, or when he said, you know, “Why not? Why can't we reset cells?” Women are getting more and more attention, our rights are being, I guess, seen more because of media and because of the different activism tools that we have. But, for me, I feel we still need a lot more progress to actually create permanent change, like whether it be policy-wise, culture or social. [So,] I was thinking to myself, what is the “why not” for us women in the region now?

Rana: That’s a great question. Why not, why not to feel proud of being a woman from the Arab Muslim world, because I feel that my culture and civilization has given me rights way before other civilizations around the world, why don't I talk about that and feel proud of it rather than being apologetic? And I’ll give you an example. Two nights ago I watched Enola, the Sherlock Holmes movie. It’s the story of Sherlock's sister set in the 19th century and shows the discrimination, the patriarchy, I mean, it was a disaster. [Men telling her how] she has to dress, and how she has to behave and what is expected of her. So this is the 19th century... If I go to my region in the 19th century, in the Arab world, and this is historically documented… women would go out to coffee houses, they went out to the baths. They were not at home. They had a political voice. They were the ones whose council was heard. This is at the same time when the women in England were [told] you have to be quiet, you have to take care of your husband, no politics, don't get involved, no vote, no rights. Actually, they were [even] debating if a woman had [a spirit] or not.

Rana: … So fast forward [to] today, we have the West coming to save the Arab Muslim woman and say, “we want to help you; we want to save you from your men, your culture, you religion, from your civilization.”  And I say, excuse me, what do you mean you want to save me? Actually, you're the ones who put me back, because the 19th century is when colonization started. So the colonizers came into my country, into my area, my region, and started disseminating ideas of what is a female; “stay at home, don’t talk, take care of your husband, your house, how to set the table and dont be political.” You're the ones who came and told me and destroyed the way we were in our communities, Right? And now you're coming to fix me?? Just leave me alone.And so the question, why not? I want to say, why not we reclaim who we are. Figure it out. I'm not saying we're perfect. We have a lot of challenges. We have a lot of things that we need to figure out, but we don't want any more interference. We want to figure out things ourselves, and why not. Maybe we don't solve just our own problem, but maybe we have a solution for all the women in the world? Why not?

Rana: Why not, women's rights and human rights  solutions will come out of us? Why do we always think, ah, the solution has to always come from the West?  So let's imagine a world, just like Yamanaka wanted to reimagine “who said we can't take an adult cell and turn it back to a stem cell?” I want to say from this region that everybody says poor region, they’re lacking, they’re not developed [and so on,], why not the solution will come from us?  And have the confidence ourselves to figure it out... I would love somebody to make a movie, just like this movie about Sherlock Homles’ sister,  but of a girl from the Levant, who grew up with all this freedom and then the colonisers take it away from her. And then fast forward to the future where she's trying to figure things out...we need this information, we need this story, for us [primarily], but for the world too.

Mayss: Yeah, absolutely. I like that a lot because you take it back to the source, which is colonization, and how we have now reached the point of intolerance, of this need to decolonize curriculums, decolonize thinking, decolonize our perception of ourselves, our society. Because as you said earlier, it's not about reform, for me, it's about you demolishing; you revolutionize and you build something completely different to it.

Part VI. Covid-19 and trauma

Mayss: We've been talking for a while. I really enjoyed our conversation. I will end on coming back to our current situation with COVID, and I know part of your research is epigenetics [the study of how trauma gets passed on across generations]. So, if we consider this pandemic and the status of politics around the world, wherever you may look, there are issues... if we look at it as a trauma, as a traumatic experience, how can we now, as the people experiencing this trauma, deal with it and frame it so that generations moving forward can sort of benefit or are not as harmed...? Does that make sense?

Rana: Yeah, yeah. So my personal take on this and other similar situations in life, is that to me this trauma is terrible, it's terrible for people around the world. Some of us are privileged [though]: we have a home, an income that hasn't stopped, food, maybe loved ones haven't died. But for others, it's been terrible. So I have to say that. But as we embrace this trauma, which, by the way, in terms of human evolution, we've always been traumatized one way or another, right? So, this is not the first pandemic… and human beings are very resilient. We cope, we manage, we pick ourselves up and move forward. So having said that, actually, what I see from this particular trauma, this pandemic, we are similar and united as human beings.  The differences that were erected artificially have all melted because the virus knows no boundaries - rich or poor, educated or not. And, you know, whatever or whoever you look like, wherever you come from, whatever religion you have, for the virus, you're all the same. And this is a very powerful message for us to embrace it, to remind us that nobody's better than anybody else. It's what you do. It's your actions, how you're helping, though. Your intention is what matters. Well, this is very important. This is one message which makes a person reflect on..  what is my role? What can I do? I matter. I'm important.  Because I'm as equal as anyone else. So...what can I do going forward? So that's number one.

Rana: Number two, this trauma has also shown, what's the word, how transient we are on Earth. But at the same time, it shows how relevant and important we are and that's kind of a dichotomy, a dilemma - we're very important, yet in the grand scheme of things, we seem to be very transient. So in this context, in this framework, therefore what I do as Rana, or you as Mayss, is very important for you, right? And therefore, you don't have to worry about the whole world. All you have to worry about is what can you do. And that matters, right?

Rana: And this philosophy is from Islam. In Islam, it tells you, what matters is your intention,  to do good, whether you succeeded or not, whether you change the world or not. It doesn't matter. What matters is your intention, one, and that you tried, you tried. A lot of people just give up because they think I'm not important, and even if I tried, nothing's going to happen. No, you are important and you have to try. And if somebody tells you you're just a drop in the ocean, you tell them, but what is an ocean except a million of drops. Or I like to quote the butterfly effect, right? The chaos theory that when a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, there's a hurricane in another part of the world. It is physics. So your little try, your little try that little thing you try, will make a difference. It will have an impact in time and space that you may never know about, but it starts with you trying.

With that, my conversation with Rana wrapped up on an empowering note: a reminder of the significance of our individual agency and of humanity's collective existence; that the importance of owning our work and presenting it to the world surpasses our individual benefit, extending to those in communities near and far. If there's one thing to take away from our conversation, especially for our female readers, it's to own our identities, and to navigate them as we please, not as imposed upon us, and to be bold enough to change and re-write our narratives with power and hope. I hung up the call with Rana feeling as though I am able and allowed to take up space in this world, in whatever form I wish, and that I am worthy of disseminating my story and that of my ancestors to re-create a better future. I hope you feel the same.