“I will not apologise for telling my truth. I will not be silent.”

Poet Najwa Zebian is no stranger to public backlash. From fighting against sexual harassment to being threatened by legal action, she’s had to rise from the ashes of humiliation – drawing from an arsenal of experiences that help her stand up, speak out and comfort others who have struggled too.

Even among all of the women who have stood up and spoken out as part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, Najwa’s address to a crowd of 700 people on International Women’s Day in London, Ontario, Canada must have taken a particular kind of courage.

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The others were also under threat of legal action by the men they accused of harassment, sexual abuse, exploitation of power, and other offenses, and all risked their reputations and careers – sometimes their personal safety – in being named.

However Najwa had actually been threatened with legal action – a potential slander and defamation lawsuit – launched in support of the man she accused of sexual harassment on the job.

Keeping a commitment to speak her truth, the high school Arabic and leadership teacher, who was born in Lebanon and moved to Canada with her family in her teens, did not stay silent – even with lawyers for the man she named on Facebook just before Christmas having said they would be in the crowd, listening to her every word.

“It is my shame that kept me quiet,” she told the London Abused Women’s Centre’s International Women’s Day Breakfast and Auction. “I stayed quiet until my silence broke me. All I asked for is an apology.”

A post shared by Najwa Zebian (@najwazebian) on

In her half-hour speech, which ended with a standing ovation, local media reported that Najwa urged business leaders in the crowd to reexamine their procedures governing harassment investigations, particularly with low-ranking employees. She said her students inspired her to speak out.

“There I was standing in front of my students every single day . . . asking them to stand up to injustice, when I myself knew that these were just words,” she said.

The 27-year-old’s climb to international recognition began in 2016 when she self-published her first book, Mind Platter. She followed up by self-publishing Nectar of Pain, building on her base, attracting retweets and postings from the likes of celebrities including LeAnn Rimes and Hilary Swank, and joining a community of like-minded emotional healers and motivators including School of Greatness podcaster Lewis Howes.

The #MeToo advocate and social media influencer has 735,000 followers on Instagram and tens of thousands more on Facebook and Twitter. She has been covered by the New York Times and CBS News.

Najwa built an army of fans by posting emotionally stark quotes from her books that resonated with a multitude of others experiencing loss and rejection around the world. From Nectar of Pain: “When you walk away from your source of pain, you start healing”; and “These mountains you are carrying, you were only meant to climb”.

Things are moving quickly for Najwa now, with both of her books picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Mind Platter was released weeks ago, while Nectar of Pain is due out in October.

In person, she is reserved, composed and guarded. Although she chooses her words carefully, she said firmly “I’m not scared”. So it’s no surprise that she went ahead with her Women’s Day speech.

“I will not be quiet after I discovered the power of my voice,” she told the packed crowd. “I will not apologise for telling my truth. I will not be silent after finally being heard.”

Lawyers for the man Najwa named told local media there was no intention to silence her. As for Najwa, she says that when late last year she named him in a Facebook post, she wasn’t aiming to punish or hurt anyone.

A post shared by Najwa Zebian (@najwazebian) on

“I did it for myself,” she says. “To heal. To no longer allow the experience to have power over me. And also to tell young women everywhere, especially those who belong to certain cultures or certain backgrounds where there’s a lot of shame attached to those experiences, to say stop feeling shame…Let it leave you. Let it be released from you so you can move forward with your life and not feel like you always have this one thing in the back of your mind or in the back of your heart.”

Naming her accuser was “such a big relief,” she said.

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“Your pain has power over you, as long as you keep it protected you don’t want to talk about it, it has power,” she says. “When you just say ‘I don’t care and I’m letting it go, it’s not my weight to carry’, you feel light after that.”

No matter what happens Najwa, who is working on a third book and about to start her doctorate, plans to continue teaching and inspiring others along the way with words of comfort, like these, posted on Twitter last August: “What they did will never be okay. But you will be. You will be.”

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Words: Ann Marie McQueen
Images: Supplied