Peeling back the onion… working on women’s rights one layer at a time

Lina AbiRafeh
8 min readMar 29, 2023

Working on women’s rights is easy, right?! In some ways, yes. All we need to do is take whatever spaces we occupy and make them feminist. In other words, bring your values into your home, your school, your workplace — no matter what kind of work you do. And if you have a platform, use your voice for good. Start where you stand.

Dr. Shereene Idriss does just that. Dr. Idriss uses her platform as a successful dermatologist with a loyal following to highlight women’s voices, fundraise, and bring attention to causes close to her heart. As a board-certified dermatologist, founder of Idriss Dermatology in New York City, and founder of the skincare brand PillowtalkDerm, she lives her values of education and empowerment. Dr. Idriss believes that skincare is “an empowering form of self-care.” She shares clear science-backed solutions with her following with a view to, as she says, stopping the B.S and misinformation that characterizes her field.

Dr. Idriss invited me to speak with her on Instagram Live about my work, our shared values, and what we can all do in the face of massive global challenges. And, how we can all champion women’s rights in our own lives. Dr. Idriss is just as passionate about equality, and particularly committed to supporting young women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“It’s a personal mission of mine,” she told me, highlighting a UNESCO report showing that women in higher education pursuing careers in STEM are only 35% of the total. And this is much worse for young girls, for displaced populations, for minority groups, she explained, because of stigma, cultural issues, lack of mentorship. “This is something I hope changes for the next generation.”

It’s not just a personal mission of hers, it’s also a mission for her company, PillowtalkDerm. They have aligned with STEM for Her, a nonprofit organization creating awareness and educational opportunities for young girls to pursue STEM. Dr. Idriss plans to donate $10,000 a year to sponsor young women to follow this career path.

What’s more, Dr. Idriss is Lebanese by origin, and also provides support to her home country. In recent years, Lebanon has faced overlapping crises — political instability and corruption, the deadly explosion in Beirut, and increasing poverty and displacement. After the explosion in Beirut, Dr. Idriss started a GoFundMe that raised a quarter of a million dollars for food staples to disaster victims.

And so our conversation evolved, talking about what we can do to make the world a better place, and why it matters. I told her how my spark was ignited, in a classroom, as a 14-year old — the day a bomb went off in my heart.

And everything I have done from that day on has been in pursuit of women’s rights, equality, and freedom. Despite hardships and setbacks, I would have made no other choice. At the same time, there is something wrong with our world if we are charged with fixing a problem we did not cause. And, there is something wrong with our world if ending inequality is a career, rather than common sense.

Both Dr. Idriss and I shared our commitment to giving women opportunities to seek their passions, not just defend their lives. To thrive, not just to survive. “You are a social architect,” she said to me, “changing the constructs of society.” We recognize how long this process may take. We are both in it for the long-haul, we agreed, even if we don’t see the changes we’d like in our lifetime. “Dig me from the grave,” as I often say. I want to know when we’ve succeeded!

Ultimately, it is about small successes, micro-moments. If I sought massive social change, I’d be sorely disappointed. And defeated. Instead, it is about making one woman’s life better in one small way in that moment.

I see myself as a bridge. In my work in humanitarian emergencies, I met women without home, family, safety. Women who are on the move, forced to flee, living in makeshift shelters and in circumstances more challenging that we can imagine. I would ask them: “What is one thing I can do for you right now that will make things easier?”

I might not have had much power, and certainly could not wave a magic wand to make it all disappear, but I desperately wanted women to feel safe — at a minimum. And Dr. Idriss, she too builds a certain safety for women, a comfort in their own skin — quite literally. In her practice, and in her person, she helps women feel seen.

And in our seemingly-different lines of work, we both understand that women have a voice, but are too often not asked what they need. We both ask, we both listen, and we both act on that information. Ask, listen, act. In that way, an aid worker and a dermatologist share a similar philosophy.

My baseline is women’s safety. We need to start there. Even if we give women all the opportunities in the world, what good will it do if we’re not safe? Today, women all over the world are unsafe in their bodies and lives, at home, at school, on the street, in the office, and in public office. We are not safe in the very spaces where we should be safe, where we have a right to be safe.

Even living in the fear of violence is a form of violence. Why? Because it restricts our choices and our lives, it constricts us and makes us live smaller, reducing our opportunities and freedoms. Reducing our lives. We still don’t have the right systems and support and services and structures that we need to ensure our safety.

We are getting better, yes. But do we need more? Also yes.

Dr. Idriss and I talked about how we can do better for the next generation — for her five-year-old daughter, for my eight-year-old niece. We agreed that young girls deserve a world that is far better than the one we had to navigate. We give them ammunition in the form of understanding consent and bodily autonomy, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to? If the world evolved enough to understand that our bodies are our own, and that “No” is a complete sentence? One day, we’ll get there. We both agreed that we’re going to do our part to make sure the world gets there!

But how to embed this in our thinking, in our ways of living? How to build respect as a reflex? I often think of seatbelts as an example. I remember a time when seatbelts were optional, and people chose not to wear them. And then — constant campaigns, changes of laws, stricter policies, messaging just about everywhere, and poof! We all do it automatically. Reaching for the seatbelt is a reflex, so deeply ingrained we don’t even think about it. Our arm does it without our brain registering the act. And more than that — we can’t imagine not doing it. Why do we do it? To protect our lives. So why can’t we make the safety of other lives just as easy, a reflex, an automatic response? It should be a reflex, because it is the right thing to do.

Dr. Idriss and I also share the same sense of injustice, and the painful need to act on it. “What small things can individuals do to make an impact,” she asked me. And, “do you ever feel like you’re standing in front of a massive mountain?!”

Yes.

There are things people — anyone, everyone — can do. I might have chosen an unusual path, going straight to the frontlines of a war or disaster. But we actually don’t have to go far to do good. It starts right here, where we are. We need to first see that inequality is all around us. Once we see it, we can’t unsee it. And once we see it, we can’t ignore it. We have to act.

Start where you stand is not just a tagline, it is a call to action. It is a movement.

It is a force that says yes, I see these things happening, and I have a duty to do something to fix these things. And to fix these things, I can start right here, right now, in the space I occupy. Now imagine if everyone did that?! I would very happily be out of a job.

Dr. Idriss echoed this, adding that we can start by “changing what you can control, how you treat other people versus how you’ve been treated… changing the continuum.” Breaking the chain. We talked about how women’s safety is a starting point, and how we might help raise the next generation not only to shift the continuum but to thrive in a world that feels safe. In a world where they are free.

Dr. Idriss added that she wants to teach our children to share in care work, to bend gender roles, and to create new ways of being. And alongside the cultural and personal work of shifting norms is the backing of these changes by policy and law. It has to work together.

“It’s a multi-layered onion issue,” Dr. Idriss said. “One that needs to be reset from the center out.”

“And what do you do for you,” she asked me. “How do you keep going in the face of all this? How do you protect yourself while also fighting the massive mountain?”

Resilience for me is in the small things — just like the successes. When I was in the field, I used to dream of having a dog, being part of a community that did not move, finding a space to dance. After 25 years in the field, I now have all those things. I delight in the ordinary. And I am so very grateful for it.

And, I have my commitment to this work. I might not be on the frontlines anymore, but I’m learning that there are many ways to dedicate my head, hands, and heart to this cause.

“What is your greatest accomplishment?” she asked me. To be honest, I didn’t know. I never stopped to ask myself that. Besides, I’m not done yet. Maybe my greatest accomplishment is yet to come!

“When someone cannot name their greatest accomplishment,” Dr. Idriss said, “I am in awe of that person. It means they’re more than just a one-hit wonder.”

And neither of us are one-hit wonders!

“We all do what we can,” she said. “It’s up to us. And we can make a difference in the long run.”

Yes, we will.

Dr. Idriss and Dr. AbiRafeh — chatting and changing the world!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!