Najwa Zebian says 'old white men with law degrees' not connected to realities of victims they investigate

Poet and teacher Najwa Zebian came out swinging Friday, calling the defamation paperwork she received this week shameful and those who investigate harassment complaints are “old white men with law degrees.”

The poet gave the keynote address at International Women's Day breakfast after being served for defamation

Najwa Zebian delivered the keynote speech at the International Women's Day breakfast in London on Friday. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

She won't shoulder blame, she won't be quiet and she won't apologize.

"I will not be quiet after I discovered the power of my voice. I will not apologize for telling my truth. I will not be silent after finally being heard," poet and teacher Najwa Zebian told a packed house at the London Convention Centre. 

Zebian was the keynote speaker at the annual International Women's Day breakfast, put on by the London Abused Women's Centre. 

She came out swinging Friday against lawyers who served her with defamation paperwork earlier this week. She called on workplaces to look at their harassment policies and warned that investigators are usually "old white men with law degrees" who don't know power dynamics, cultural sensitivities and the daily realities of those experiencing harassment.  

Zebian said those at the Thames Valley District School Board who looked into her harassment complaints failed to take those things into account, leaving her broken.

Zebian's speech was watched closely by those connected to Faisal Joseph, the lawyer who represents the man Zebian says abused his power at the Thames Valley District school board. In her speech, she didn't name names, though she has previously done so in social media posts and media interviews.  

"We did have people in the audience taking note of any and all of her comments and as far as what's been reported back to me, it was more of the same, nothing new," said Joseph. 

Zebian's speech come the same week she was served paperwork for defamation for publicly accusing school principal and community leader Michael Deeb of an abuse of power. 

"No one chooses to be abused," Zebian said from the podium. "I am so proud of myself....this is my truth whether you believe it or not. I no longer allow people's opinion of my truth to dictate my truth."

Zebian's accusations led the city's police services board to ask for an investigation by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission into Deeb's actions, a process that's currently underway.

Joseph said that complaint is being looked at by a female investigator. 

The Thames Valley District School board hired an external investigator at the time of the allegations, resulting in both parties staying on in their roles. 

"I found it amusing and disappointing that a woman who wears a hijab and identifies as Muslim would resort to name-calling the senior lawyer involved in an independent capacity for her school board complaint 'an old white man with a law degree...I'm sure if he found in her favour, she would have loved the old man with a law degree." ​

Attacked for speaking out

Zebian's keynote speech got a standing ovation from the 700 Londoners in attendance.

Her voice broke at times as she implored employers to make sure their harassment policies look at all aspects of a claim and don't favour abusers.

She said she has been called evil, sad, mentally ill and attention-seeking. In a lengthy Facebook post, Zebian said principal Michael Deeb abused his power when she was first starting her career as a young teacher.

In introducing Zebian, the head of the London Abused Women's Centre said the poet is an inspiration to men and women.

Megan Walker called the defamation proceedings "completely appalling" and "an effort to silence and intimidate women from speaking their truth."

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.