Being a woman scientist in the Arab World

They come from Tunisia, Egypt, and the UAE. They are scientists. They are women. And they are changing the world. The 1st International Forum of the Arab World, held on the 15th and 16th of January 2015 at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris brought together 4 Laureates and Fellows of the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science program for an inspiring talk on women empowerment through science and education in the Arab region. Here is what we can learn from them.

Dream big

“When I started at the National Research Center in Egypt 35 years ago, my Director asked me if I was sure I should be there. But I believed in myself and I carried on” shares Professor Nagwa Meguid, 2002 Laureate of the For Women in Science program. If there is one thing this roundtable has proven, it is that anything is possible if you truly believe in yourself. “Even if my parents were uneducated, they always supported my interest in science” says Habiba Alsafar, a 2014 fellow from the UAE who has overcome many challenges including creating an Ethics comitee with the Ministry of Health.

Science is life

Science is an amazing lever to address the most important challenges of the world. In the field of health for example, “scientific research has an impact on the real life of patients” says Farah Ouechtati, another 2014 fellow of the For Women in Science program who has moved from Tunisia to Paris to do research on Alzheimer’s disease. Progress made in research allows to find new treatments and to better understand how diseases appear and evolve. “It is important to share what we are doing so more people can come into scientific research” she adds.

Women do make a difference

As Sara Ravella, Managing Director of the L’Oreal Foundation, said in her opening speech “When you empower women, they use their knowledge to solve practical issues.” We could add “and to give back to their community”. “After getting my PhD in France, I decided to go back to Tunisia to build a lab there” remembers Professor Zohra Ben Lakhdar who won the L’Oréal Unesco Prize in 2005.

In the Arab region, being a woman scientist can also be an important game-changer. “It is difficult to really talk to a woman when you are a male doctor”, explains Pr. Nagwa Meguid. By working with children with special needs, she has seen up-close the consequences of their disease, often linked to consanguinity, on their mothers. In many cases, they suffer from what she calls “gender blame”. They are seen as responsible for their children’s disability and are often isolated from their community. “I found myself helping them. I was treating the children, and working with the mothers to empower them through education by creating a network of women going through the same situation and sharing information on their children’s diseases” she explains. It did work as these women have felt empowered enough to create a center for other women in their situation.

Knowledge and self-confidence will close the gender gap. 

Prof. Nagwa Meguid

Education is empowerment

Empowerment of the whole population can only come from an efficient school system that educates girls and boys equally. Since she retired, Pr. Zohra Ben Lakhdar has dedicated most of her time to education and the implementation of new teaching approaches based on active problem-based learning. “Students have to learn to use their brains at any time. More experiments should be done in schools.” she says before adding with a grin on her face “Plus, everyone is equal in front of a problem. If the girl finds the solution before the boy, she has the power.” Science has an important role to play in this education process since it is based on experimentation. “Science opens minds”, she concludes.

During her opening speech, Sara Ravella asked an important question: “are these women an exception?” Access to education, and particularly access of women to education is still an important challenge in some parts of the Arab World. And even when women have reached secondary studies, they are often faced with obstacles coming from the professional field or within their home. However, positive patterns exist. Legislation in some countries like Oman enforces equal treatment and salary for men and women as well as 3 months maternity leave. According to Habiba Alsafa, the UAE encourages women to reach for leadership positions. In Tunisia, where the concept of gender equality is stated in the constitution since the Bourguiba years, the recent revolution has empowered women in the civil society and allowed for more progress to be made. Rather than exceptions, these women are indeed role models, real success stories for young women, and the whole Arab society. They are living proofs that there are no limits to what women can achieve. 

For Women in Science

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