"Beneath her warm personality beats the heart of a lion"

Roula Allouch, in her fifth year as chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) national board, is known for her human rights work and advocacy for Muslim-American civil rights.

She’s a busy trial lawyer at the Graydon firm in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, serves on American Bar Association committees, and is a frequent speaker locally on social justice, interfaith activism, and public policy.

Born in Wisconsin, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, she grew up in Berea and Lexington, graduated with honors from University of Kentucky in economics and business administration, then earned her law degree from UK in 2006.

An unabashed University of Kentucky basketball fan, every March Allouch wears her Wildcat blue hijab --  the traditional head covering for many Muslim women -- as March Madness is usually one of her favorite times of year (2021 was an unfortunate exception).

Allouch moved to Northern Kentucky not long after becoming a lawyer.

“I’ve had incredibly beautiful experiences. I've met great friends and mentors and colleagues. And I've also had some really challenging experiences,” she says. It was a change from the “bubble” of living in a college town.

“Within a week of being in Northern Kentucky, I remember I was driving, and I was … simply about to turn, and someone was driving near me and yelled out, ‘Go back to your country.’”

Allouch quickly regained her composure, thinking, “I’m in my country.”

The well of the courtroom has brought some unusual treatment. A judge tried to silence her from speaking, failing to recognize that she was the attorney, not the client. It was a “moment of awkwardness,” she says calmly.

“I have never met a person more comfortable in her own skin than Roula,” says Jack Greiner, Graydon’s managing partner. “She is very proud of her identity, but never arrogant. She is confident, but in a very inclusive manner. She has a way of being a calm presence in whatever situation she finds herself and she inspires confidence in her colleagues and her clients. Our firm is a much better place with Roula as a team member.”

Along with business attire, she wears a hijab most of the time, except while at home. But even at home, during the pandemic, a Zoom-ready headscarf rests close to her computer.

Her reasons for wearing the hijab are two-fold.

“One, it's an act of worship,” she says. “I'm a Muslim and I believe in the practice of wearing a hijab, and I like being identified as a Muslim woman, in particular in a country and society around me that oftentimes has assumptions and misperceptions about what that means. And I also wear it as my own personal act of resistance to this notion that one can't be Muslim and American, you can't be a Muslim-American woman who is a leader.”

While being visibly Muslim is not exactly easy, “at the same time it's liberating for me.”

“The First Amendment is incredibly important. As a rule-of-law advocate, as somebody who is deeply concerned about constitutional issues. It's like my living, breathing act of protecting the First Amendment, and what it means not just for Muslims in this country but all of us,” Allouch says.

The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville recognized Allouch as a Daughter of Greatness, which honors women active in social justice and civil rights. She savors the honor, since Ali was a childhood hero who shared her faith. “I learned about how he was not only a champion in the ring, but he was also a champion for justice.”

April 12 began the month of Ramadan, observed by Muslims worldwide as a time of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community. “I didn’t know how I was feeling about it because it was so tough last year with Covid,” Allouch says. “But now that it’s here I’m grateful and excited for it.”

“She is truly a spiritually driven woman who carries herself with humility and love,” says her close friend, Cincinnati architect Jaipal Singh.

“I have never once heard her even raise her voice; even in excitement,” he says. “She has a soft, kind, and gentle manner … Roula has a quiet, calm demeanor that just exudes confidence. She is firm and resolute. And through her legal work and social justice activism, Roula is absolutely a force to be reckoned with,” Singh says.

She has an interest in the arts and recently joined the Leadership Committee for Over-The-Rhine International Film Festival. Just before the pandemic, she moved from Erlanger to Over-The-Rhine.

Col Owens, a Fort Mitchell lawyer who teaches at Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law, says Allouch is “a very busy woman,” considering her legal career and national civil rights leadership.

In 2018, Owens invited Allouch to aid his campaign for state representative. She did, by delivering literature in Erlanger. “I thought it was so impressive, that while she had such high-profile national responsibilities, she was also involved in her local community in meaningful ways.”

Allouch has chaired the Council on American-Islamic Relations through what she calls difficult times.

“The 2016 presidential campaign was incredibly challenging for our communities,” she says. Though usually braced for traces of Islamophobia, most Muslim-Americans were not prepared for a presidential candidate calling for a ban on all Muslims, and “saying things about not just Muslims,” but others as well.

For the next four years, “it really felt like looking over our shoulder all the time. Just as an individual living in my local community, my guard was up more. I was more aware of the risk of somebody harming me, not just verbally but physically, as a result of the bias they had toward me.”

Yet, Allouch sees an opportunity to “push back against the divisions that have happened to bring our communities together for everyone’s benefit … and I’m optimistic.”

One of her primary goals during her tenure as chair has been to strengthen the unity of the Islamic community, she says.

“At the same time, during the past five years our community has faced enormous challenges,” she says. “We’ve emphasized our civil rights work, increasing the number of attorneys across the country, to address those challenges and protect the American Muslim community.”

"Roula Allouch is an icon of social justice who has done herself, her Muslim faith, and her community of Northern Kentucky (and Cincinnati) proud,” says Robert C. “Chip” Harrod, executive director of EquaSion, a non-partisan civic organization founded upon interfaith dialogue.

“Beneath her warm and gracious personality beats the heart of lion, a real fighter for the civil rights of all vulnerable and targeted groups,” Harrod says. “Steadfast in her values and beliefs, humble by nature and collaborative by practice, Roula leads by personal example, consistently standing with those who are experiencing bigotry and hatred,” he says.

“Many community leaders join me in praising Roula for the person she is and the impressive work she's done. I'm honored to call her my friend.”
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Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include photography, rewatching "Better Call Saul" and "Succession," and playing the "Alphabet Game" on Zoom with six siblings across the globe.