Meet the Arab women smashing stereotypes in STEM
The Arab world is undergoing a gendered STEM revolution. At an ever-increasing rate, Arab women are getting involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) related fields, which will no doubt encourage the next generation of Arab women to follow in their footsteps.
According to UNESCO, 57% of STEM graduates in the MENA region are women, a figure that rises to 61% in the UAE. To put that into perspective, both of those figures are higher than those achieved in the United States and Europe.
In this round-up, The New Arab speaks to this latest generation of female trailblazers about their journeys into the industry.
"According to UNESCO, 57% of STEM graduates in the MENA region are women"
The woman who took the UAE to Mars
Sarah Al-Amiri is the chair of the UAE Space Agency and Minister of State for Advanced Technology who, on February 9 2021, led Hope – the UAE's successful mission to orbit a satellite around Mars.
In doing so, Sarah's team – consisting of 80% women – is the fifth nation and first Arab nation to get their probe to orbit Mars.
Sarah is set to expand the UAE's space ambitions, with 2028 the proposed year for the nation's next major mission, including a fly-by of Venus and a tour of seven asteroid bodies.
COVID-19 brings Arab women to the fore
The COVID-19 pandemic meant countries pooled and scramble their resources to prevent the spread of the virus: new challenges meant new solutions. In the midst of this environment, several Arab women scientists conducted themselves and their research with aplomb.
One such individual is Dr Nadine Rouphael. Professor of Medicine, Director of the Hope Clinic at Emory University, Dr Nadine was part of the research team that helped develop the Moderna vaccine.
Speaking to The New Arab, the doctor of Lebanese origin told us that it was an honour to be part of a research group to find a universal vaccine that saved lives.
"It was a race against time to find a vaccine so I'm proud of the steps the global medical and scientific community both in the Arab world and in the West have made," Nadine said.
From the lab to member of parliament
Dr Najat Aoun Saliba, Professor of Atmospheric and Analytical Chemistry at the American University of Beirut, has swapped her lab coat for politics after standing for election in the most recent Lebanese elections in 2022 as an independent.
Previously specialising in the analysis of air pollution levels and pollutants, she was nonetheless upset by the government's lack of oversight and strategy to deal with the growing problem.
Speaking to The New Arab, Dr Najat said that she "won't let up against corruption in the environmental sector in Lebanon. As a Member of Parliament, I plan to push for more environmental regulation. It is in Lebanon and the world's interest."
Outsider her advocacy and research, Dr Najat has become a mentor to many young Lebanese women, hoping to encourage them to pursue a career in science.
After the Beirut Port Explosion in 2020, Dr Najat set up Khaddit Beirut (Shake Up Beirut) – a community-led and locally driven recovery plan set up by herself and 50 other scholars that sought to address Beirut and Lebanon's political system.
Khaddit Beirut has since impacted the lives of thousands, supporting the recovery of over 30 organisations, businesses and schools over the past two years.
Overcoming the occupation
For Palestinians, embarking on a career in science is fraught with additional challenges. Difficulties in getting a visa, systematic discrimination by Israeli authorities, and lack of funding all heavily impact the success rate of the next generation of Palestinian women in STEM. Yet more and more are breaking these barriers, one of which is Dr Haneen Dwaib.
Assistant Professor and Chairwoman of the Department of Clinical Nutrition and Diabetics at Palestine Ahliya University, Dr Haneen spoke to The New Arab about the challenges she faced getting to this point.
"Challenges start before even accepting your PhD as you first must secure funding or a scholarship. Whilst I was accepted to do a PhD in the Netherlands, I had to turn it down as I wasn't able to afford it. A lack of funding is one of the main obstacles that prevent many Palestinians from getting their doctorate," Dr Haneen said.
"In Palestine, we don't have a body that supports graduate funds, nor do we have research laboratories or projects. These issues stem from and are compounded by Israel's occupation. For example, travelling between countries and transporting samples are both difficult due to restrictions"
But after months of perseverance and extensive competition, Dr Haneen was accepted into the American University of Beirut, where she completed her degree. She now focuses on food addiction and the impact that gender plays in this regard. Dr Haneen is also establishing a clinical nutritional laboratory at the university.
"In Palestine, we don't have a body that supports graduate funds, nor do we have research laboratories or projects. These issues stem from and are compounded by Israel's occupation. For example, travelling between countries and transporting samples are both difficult due to restrictions."
To encourage a more self-sufficient method of research, Dr Haneen has been conducting clinical research without funding.
"I'm fully dependant on the volunteers I have," Dr Haneen told The New Arab. "It's been impossible to get funds so we are forced to do it ourselves. We're doing this for future generations of Palestinians who can look at us and say 'they did it, so can we.'"
“Being a young female scientist in the STEM field does not make me any less capable,” said Batoul Al-Abadi, a 30-year-old neuroscientist and biologist who works as a researcher at the University of Baghdad after graduating from Beirut.
“I’m equipped with the knowledge, skills and abilities and I’m a very strong advocate for women in science," she told The New Arab.
Batoul now working on several types of research on the functions of the nervous system and identifying several medical applications through experiments, surveys and scientific research.
Her most recent research focused on Alzheimer’s disease in the Arab world and its healthcare costs, the lack of resources and financing for both patients and their caregivers, especially in vulnerable countries.
“I’m proud to have graduated from a country in the Middle East and to now be working in Iraq, adding value to our healthcare system," Batoul said.
Across the Middle East, Arab women play a vital role in the development of scientific research and innovation. The challenge is keeping young women in STEM and overcoming the obstacles they face at different stages of their careers.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462