The rise of women in STEM in the Arab world
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Getting girls and women involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a big concern in Western countries. There are more and more efforts being driven by the community, schools and universities to encourage more representation of women in STEM, which has been lacking.

In certain countries in the Middle East, things are the opposite. In fact, contrary to stereotypes and propaganda, women in STEM in Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates test better and feel more comfortable in mathematics than men, and are not intimidated to say they like science-based subjects.

According to UNESCO, 34-57 percent of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women – a figure much higher than that seen in universities across the US or Europe.

Stereotypes of Arab women are being smashed in Rana Dajani’s new book, Five Scarves. A hijab-wearing molecular biologist and Associate Professor at the Hashemite University in Jordan, Dajani’s described herself as “half Palestinian and half Syrian with a Jordanian passport”, but also as “a global, cosmopolitan subject”.

With a PhD from the University of Iowa and several visiting positions at Cambridge, Harvard and Yale under her belt, she has also launched an online mentoring programme for female Arab scientists, the Three Circles of Alemat, as well as the NGO We Love Reading, which encourages volunteers to foster a love of learning in their own neighbourhood and community.

She is a strong example of the increase in women’s interest and foray in STEM in the Arab world, and she has the evidence to back it up.

In her book, she wrote, “women make up 64 per cent of [Jordanian] students in the natural sciences, medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy” as well as 60 per cent of engineering students in the Gulf (compared with only 30 percent in the US and Europe).

“Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries where women test better and feel more comfortable in mathematics than men, according to the OECD”.”

She told Times Higher Education, “Despite “a lot of stereotyping and propaganda [in other countries] about women and science in our part of the world. In Jordan and the [Arab] Middle East, but also South-East Asia and even Africa, girls are interested in going into [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], and the parents and the community actually encourage them.”

Rana Dajani is breaking gender stereotypes in her new book, Five Scarves. Source: Islam & Science

Rajani claimed that girls don’t feel intimidated about saying ‘we like science’ as many seem to be in the West. “That is where the West has something to learn. In the US and UK, the problem is getting girls to go into STEM…In our part of the world, it’s cool to be a mathematician and it’s something boys will respect…Women scientists from the Middle East and other regions of the world where they have also had relative success should be at the forefront of the global effort to improve conditions for all women.”

Another misconception that Dajani addresses is one that the field of science is underdeveloped in some Arab countries.

Dajani said there has been “a huge improvement” in its quality since she returned to the country of her birth in 2005 and began working at the Hashemite University. She spent most of her childhood in the US.

“Although the improvement is “not as fast as we might want…Jordanian science is doing very well regionally and picking up. PhDs are coming back and the ones who came back in the early 2000s are reaching senior positions, making the grants flow more easily.”

Another shining example of women in STEM is the story of Shaesta Waiz, who became the first certified civilian female pilot from Afghanistan and the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree — both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Shaesta Waiz, the first certified civilian female pilot from Afghanistan. Source: DreamSoar

She was born in a refugee camp and her family traveled from Afghanistan to America in 1987 to escape the Soviet-Afghan war, settling in an underprivileged school district in California where “substitute teachers, sharing textbooks with classmates, and watching friends drop out of high school was the norm.”

Initially believing her future consisted of getting married at a young age and raising a family, it was only when she discovered aviation that she started thinking about a career and going to college.

At Embry-Riddle, she started the Women’s Ambassador Program, an initiative that seeks to mentor and support young women pursuing an education in aviation and engineering, as well as Dreams Soar, in order to share her story with women around the world, encouraging them to achieve their dreams regardless of the challenges and traditions they face.

The Dreams Soar mission is to partner with strong female role models to share and promote the importance of STEM education.

Although the number of STEM graduates are high in these Arab countries, it doesn’t necessarily translate to representation in the workforce.

An article on the World Economic Forum reiterated the strength of women in STEM and how certain factors are leading to the adoption of digital platforms and online commerce. “When it comes to STEM subjects (which include skills critical to launching and running a start-up in the Fourth Industrial Revolution) several Arab countries are among the global leaders in terms of the proportion of female STEM graduates.

“Despite the fact that many Arab women are thriving in school and graduating with advanced degrees, this success has not necessarily translated to the job market. Many women are instead staying at home, whether from choice or because of cultural, social, or familial pressures. In fact, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab world, according to the World Bank.”

Some are overcoming these obstacles by launching their own start-ups from home, leveraging the internet and engaging through online platforms to reach new markets. In fact, one in three start-ups in the Arab World are founded or led by women, a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley.

Saada Zahidi said in her book Fifty Million Rising, “These digital platforms allow women to be unimpeded by cultural constraints or safety issues, and they lower the implicit and explicit transaction costs of transport, childcare, discrimination and social censure.”

The article explained, “Women are becoming a force to be reckoned with on the start-up scene across the Middle East. Because the tech industry is still relatively new in the Arab world, there is no legacy of it being a male-dominated field. Many entrepreneurs from the region believe that technology is one of the few spaces where everything is viewed as possible, including breaking gender norms, making it a very attractive industry for women.”

Arab women in STEM are definitely inspiring, and their success stories are good examples to other countries attempting to increase female interest in the field.

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