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Kuwait Conference Builds Partnerships between U.S. and Arab Women Scientists
KUWAIT CITY—Itimad Soufi is an accomplished mid-career scientist, a Moroccan woman internationally recognized as an expert in the safety and security of nuclear materials. She's been to many science and technology conferences, but on arriving at a recent conference in Kuwait, she found herself in awe.
Gathered in an elegant hall at the Arab Organizations Building for an event co-sponsored by AAAS, Soufi was surrounded by more than 200 scientists and engineers from 18 nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa, plus a delegation of top scientists, scholars, business executives, diplomats—and even astronaut Janet Kavandi—from the United States. Some were eminent figures, and some in the early chapters of their careers; some from the region wore traditional dress, and others tended toward designer fashion from the West. But with a few exceptions, all had one thing in common: They are women.
"It's the first opportunity I've had to attend such a conference," explained Soufi, head of radiological safety programs at the Moroccan Centre National de l'Energie des Sciences et des Techniques Nucleaires. "I find this very interesting, because I think it's the subject of the moment—something had to be done, to see and to share the experience of women in the Arab world. And I'm learning a lot."
Alan I. Leshner
The AAAS delegation, led by CEO Alan I. Leshner, along with others in the U.S. group, shared her sense of surprise and amazement. Though most are long accustomed to moving in international science and technology circles, the Kuwait forum neutralized their generalizations about the region and shattered stereotypes about science, technology and the role of women there.
"Going in, I didn't know what to expect," said Elahe Enssani, who grew up in Iran, has traveled extensively in the Arab world and now chairs the department of civil engineering and computer science at San Francisco State University. "But I was amazed at the caliber of the women we met. My impression was that women from Saudi Arabia, for example, are in a conservative culture that really limits their opportunities. But I met some very interesting women from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman...They were women on their own and very serious about the work they're doing.
"All of my beliefs were shaken."
"A Hopefulness that Filled the Room"
Nasser Al Mohammed Al Ahmed Al Sabah
The International Conference on Women Leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering was held in Kuwait City from 8-10 January. The event was held under the patronage of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammed Al Ahmed Al Sabah. It was organized by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, and the U.S. State Department. Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer, played a central role in organizing the event; also part of the AAAS delegation were Monica Bradford, executive editor of the journal Science, and Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources.
Outwardly, the Kuwait gathering resembled a typical science conference, with participants coming together for presentations, discussions and workshops on subjects ranging from mentoring and science education to publishing research papers and marketing scientific products. But at a time of conflict and rising mistrust, the gathering also proved to be a bridge between cultures. Many predicted that the event would encourage long-term, constructive engagement among women scientists and engineers in the region and with their colleagues in the United States.
"In addition to just meeting people and learning about the diversity in the region, there was a hopefulness that filled the room," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "It really was powerful. You had a sense that many of the women came out of this conference with a new realization of some possibilities for the future, and they were going to go home and apply that in their work. And you could say the same for many people in the U.S. group, too."
Farkhonda Hassan being interviewed
On the morning that the conference opened, the Kuwait Times published a commentary co-authored by Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science, and Farkhonda Hassan, a professor of geology at the American University in Cairo, a member of the Egyptian Parliament, and secretary-general for the National Council for Women in Egypt.
"In a world growing ever-smaller, no single nation, no region or culture, owns science," they wrote. "Our times may be challenging, but scientists both in the West and the Islamic world...can play a vital role in easing conflicts and building trust."
The opening of the conference was attended by dignitaries including Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, Kuwait's deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs; Sheikha Amthal Al-Sabah, another member of the royal family who serves as president of the Kuwaiti National Association of Volunteers for the Protection of Environment; and Richard LeBaron, the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait.
The deputy prime minister, speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammed Al Ahmed Al Sabah, said the Kuwaiti government regards women as crucial to building the nation's strength and well-being.
"Kuwait has been the pioneer in the region in the empowerment of women," he said, "and the government has always supported scientific advancement to serve the national interests....We want more women to take part in the developmental process of the nation through their contributions to the society on firmly rational grounds."
Paula J. Dobriansky listening to Arab women scientists
Paula Dobriansky, the U.S. under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs and a leader in developing the idea for the event, echoed that sentiment in a later address. The conference was "the first of its kind...to bring women leaders in the sciences from the Muslim world together with their sisters from the United States," she said. "International science cooperation is at its best when it provides opportunities for women, and draws on their resources and strengths, thus greatly expanding our capacity for achievement and the dissemination of new developments.
"Science and technology empower individuals," Dobriansky added, "and empowerment gives hope—which is the antithesis of many of the problems that fuel the world's current conflicts."
Working "Outside the Political Agenda"
Leshner, in one of the opening talks of the forum, also emphasized the theme of scientific cooperation and collaboration (PowerPoint file).
The attacks of 11 September 2001 "changed the very nature of American life and...the nature of global science, as well," he said. "It resulted in a whole variety of changes in the ability of people to share information, to travel around the world, for foreigners to come to the United States, for Americans to go to other countries, and to have genuine communication among scientists around the world."
The number of foreign graduate students in the United States gradually is rebounding, he said, and visa difficulties are improving. Meanwhile, though, other nations are deepening their commitment to science and technology. A clear barometer: In 1992, about 20% of the research papers accepted for publication at Science were from authors outside the United States. By 1999, that number had risen to just under 30%, and by 2005, it passed 40%.
"The scientific enterprise is global in nature," Leshner told the audience. "If you want to be a full participant, you have to participate in the global, not just the local, enterprise."
Leshner's talk elicited a poignant exchange with Rafia Ghubash, an epidemiological psychiatrist who serves as president of Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain and president of the Arab Network of Women in Science and Technology. She expressed regret for the attacks of 9/11, and acknowledged that in the current climate, it will take time to repair relations between Arabs and Americans.
"I would like, at this conference, to talk seriously that we would like to work with the American people—but outside the political agenda," Ghubash said.
Leshner immediately agreed. "We believe science is the apolitical, or nonpolitical, vehicle, and should be used for far greater communication generally around the world," he said. "[It] can be a very important vehicle for peace."
It was an exchange that in many ways set the tone for the days to follow as women from the diverse nations of the Middle East and Northern Africa met with each other, and with colleagues from the United States. In presentations and discussions, speakers offered a portrait of their nations, or their region—a portrait of the challenges faced as women seek opportunities in science, engineering and technology, and of the significant progress that has been made in many nations.
A more intimate dialogue unfolded in the time between sessions—at meals and receptions, on bus rides to and from the meeting site. Then they told more personal stories of what it is like for women seeking to make a career, and an impact, in fields long dominated by men. One woman from Saudi Arabia told of the challenges she faced in returning to her country to work after living and working in the West for more than 20 years. One described how her new husband objected to her continued career as an engineer—until her father stepped in to insist on the importance of her work. Another smiled as she described the slow-but-sure process of winning the acceptance of male co-workers in a power plant. And one explained that once she proved she could handle the duties of an engineer in a petroleum plant, she never faced resistance from her male colleagues.
Breaking "the Plexiglas Ceiling"
The surprising progress and the significant remaining challenges were captured in a presentation by Samira Islam, a pioneering Saudi pharmacologist and scholar who serves as head of the Drug Monitoring Unit at King Fahd Medical Research Center in Jeddah.
In earlier writings, Islam has noted that the tenets of Islamic belief stress gender equality, and that the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad require every Muslim to seek knowledge. Often, Islam said at the conference, the West sees the Arab world and the role of Arab women simplistically. But with 321 million people in 22 countries, "the Arab world cannot be viewed as a single monolithic community in term of endowment or human development," she said.
In many countries in the region, women have made significant progress. For example, she said 17 of 22 Arab countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, a measure adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly this is widely seen as an international bill of rights for women.
In education, the progress is well-documented. Egyptian women have attended university since the 1920s, Islam said. Citing 2005 statistics reported by UNESCO, she said that 74 percent of science graduates in Bahrain were women, 71 percent in Qatar and 47 percent in Lebanon; in the U.S., 43 percent of science graduates were women, and in Japan, 25 percent. In Saudi Arabia, among six major universities that admit women, nearly 45 percent of science graduates in 2004-05—nearly 8,700 in all—were women.
Once out of school, however, the opportunities available to Arab women are diminished, Islam found. In countries such as Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, women make up only about 20 percent of total scientific researchers. At Saudi Arabia's King Abdulazziz University, while the student body in science fields was roughly half women in 2003, only about 14 percent of the faculty were women. That gender disparity is reflected also in Saudi government grants for research and in promotions within the government workforce.
But, Islam noted, women everywhere face similar challenges. "The glass ceiling is still existing for women in the Arab region and around the world," she said.
Ikhlas Abdalla, an expert in human resources development for the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, suggested that the ceiling holding Arab women down may be stronger than glass.
"Arab women often cannot shatter the ceiling because the legal system turns a blind eye" to the practices that hold women back, Abdalla said during a panel discussion on developing women's leadership. "They call it a Plexiglas ceiling because you literally cannot break through.... In a few Arab countries, it is made of concrete, because you cannot even see the guys above you."
Meanwhile, she said, accomplished Arab women "are not only unseen, but are hidden from each other."
In presentations and informal discussions, the Arab women detailed the cultural practices that create obstacles: family values that often are biased toward the success of male children; expectations that women are responsible for cooking and child-rearing; social restrictions on interacting with men, which makes networking difficult; and limited options for mentoring.
"The problem is not the number of women attending schools, or high schools or universities—the problem is what are they doing afterwards," said microbiologist Maysa Azzeh, a Palestinian and assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "Most of them and their parents are actually more worried about are they going to get married and have kids or not. And this is not only an Arabic problem—it is an international problem. But it is more focused and clear in our society."
Added Abdalla: "The concept of mentorship is not known in the Arab world. We don't even have a name for it....Due to traditional social norms, it is difficult for women to have men as mentors."
Building Partnerships—and Peace
When these and other cultural barriers are taken together, these produce a general restraint even on the best and brightest women. "I have faced a lot of gender issues," said Shafika al-Awadi, the chair of medical oncology and assistant vice rector for health sciences at Kuwait University. "Being a lady, you have to prove yourself even more, beyond what males have to do."
"We have to change culture rather than politics," said physicist Latifa Al-Houty, director of the College of Technology Project in Doha, Qatar. The Arab world would profit from "a culture of tolerance, a culture of acceptance, a culture of continuous learning," she added. "That is what we have to work toward."
To women in the U.S. delegation, none of these issues were surprising; most of them had experienced such obstacles and pressures themselves. While women's challenges are the same, some suggested, it may be that women in the West are simply slightly ahead on the historical curve.
"We're talking about massive changes at this meeting that it's taken us in the United States 40 years to achieve," said Wanda Jones, deputy assistant secretary for health and director of the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health Services.
And yet, by the meeting's end, the sense seemed pervasive among participants that the change was not only desirable, but possible. In public sessions and private conversations, women from Middle East and Northern African nations discussed strategies: adopting the practices of mentoring; building networks; establishing local science centers for students; giving their daughters and sons the same opportunities.
On both sides, women expressed a hope that the Kuwait conference would be followed by action sustained over the long-term—exchanges, research collaborations, workshops and conferences that would contribute to a cross-cultural engagement of women, and men, in S&T. That would serve not just to advance science and to improve the daily lives of people, many said, but to achieve a greater hope for the future.
"What galvanizes women scientists and technologists, and men of course, into action is nothing less than the humanization of science and the acceptance of social responsibility," said Hassan, the Egyptian geologist and political leader. "This would imply a reorientation of science toward what are really human priorities."
Marye Anne Fox, a chemist and chancellor of the University of California-San Diego, struck a parallel note. "World peace can only be achieved, in my opinion, if we have a better understanding of each other, about how our daily lives are spent, about what sort of objectives we have," she said. "With respect to social justice, this world will never achieve peace if women are not in a position where they can achieve parallel leadership with our male colleagues."
While women like Hassan and Fox are among the intellectual elite in their nations, others suggested that the spirit of the Kuwait conference would have an impact at the grassroots, as well.
One of the key conference organizers, Hayfaa Almudhaf, director of public information for the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, said she was "overwhelmed" by the conference. The participants' responses were "extremely positive," she added, and that creates "hope for the future, as well as drive and determination to make a difference on an individual as well as collective level....I can only hope that the movement begun during the conference will be maintained so that the progress envisioned becomes reality."
Fatima Ahmed Alhadi
In the closing minutes of the forum, a woman in the audience asked for the microphone. Her name was Fatima Ahmed Alhadi, an assistant professor of plant physiology at the University of Sanaá in Yemen. She was dressed conservatively—a black robe, her hair covered by a black scarf, her face covered by a black veil, except for her eyes. The room fell silent.
"Women scientists in Yemen are very much underestimated," she said confidently in English, "maybe because we come from a country that really doesn't believe in woman as a woman in any field, especially in science. We have very distinguished scientists and very active girls who would like to be distinguished in science, but they don't have that chance, or they don't get that chance. This conference gave us a very big help and we benefited very much from the people we met.
"We hope very much that in particular we will have more chances to communicate with anybody we feel that can help us... And we would like, after we come home, to be more distinguished in our county and be more active and achieve all our expectations in the field of science. I thank you very much, everyone."
Edward W. Lempinen
1 February 2007