Celebrating International Women & Girls in Science Day

Last year, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) choose to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science through highlighting me and my work. Thank you WEDO, it meant a lot to me personally.

A few days ago, an article came out titled “A lot of Americans don’t know a single scientist. We need to fix that.” The first thing that came to my mind was yeah that may be true but this also applies to the majority of the total Bahraini population. For most Bahraini’s I’ve met in my lifetime have never met a scientist until they met me.

 Today, the 11th of February 2017, the world is celebrating International Women & Girls in Science Day. This has always hits a spot inside of me, for many reasons, especially growing up in a country that does not take science seriously, leave alone giving it any proper attention.

 Many might argue that this applies to many countries in the world where science is ignored. Looking at a developed country like the United States, where scientists will be “Marching for Science” on Earth Day (22 April 2017) to call for support to safeguard the scientific community. This comes following recent policy changes, which have mischaracterized science as a partisan issue, thereby giving policymakers permission to reject strong scientific evidence making it a critical and urgent matter. This has unsurprisingly caused scientists – not just in the US but worldwide – to worry.

Bahrain is currently the only country in the Arabian Gulf, which does not have an official scientific research center. The one that did exist for a few years was shut down in 2010 with claims that there is no funding for scientific research. Some may argue that it has three or four universities in the country that teach science and so can be considered scientific institutions. I would argue, that to be considered as a scientific institutions there needs to be ongoing research happening with publications being published so that the public knows what studies are being undertaken and what the results are showing.

 I myself met my first scientist in the UK when I was 18 years old, for I had left Bahrain to pursue my dream of being a marine biologist – a degree that no university in Bahrain until today provides. As a child I use to be fascinated by stories of Arab scientists that we studied about in history class, for like them my sense of wonder was endless and my urge to explore the unknown was very deep.

 To name a few, Ibn Al Nafis, originally Syrian but moved to Egypt was a physician who mostly was famous for being the first person to describe the pulmonary circulation of the blood around the 12th century. Ibn Al Haytham, an Iraqi, was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who made significant contributions to the principles of vision, optics and light – he basically figured out, how on earth does our eyes function during light time. Ahmad Ibn Muhammad, was an astronomer from the 9th century and was one of the lead scientists who was involved in the calculation of the diameter of the earth in Bagdad, Iraq. It was only years later that it hit me, all these scientists were men. Where were the women I wondered. But of course “there is no life in whom you call[1].

 Between the ages of 6-12, I wanted to be an astronaut. I remember I use to play with my sister and brother in the car where I would make us all sit in our seats and buckle our seat belts. I’d sit in the front seat next to my dad or mum when they were driving, and then pretend we were flying a space ship to school. After watching a film on killer whales at the age between 12-14, things started changing and I felt the ocean calling me and so my life path was decided on becoming a marine biologist. Both fields never the less were in science.

 Throughout my teenage years I was made fun off, humiliated, was the butt of every joke anyone can think of. I remember I use to do French theatre every week during school and until today the memory of how much that group made fun of what my dream was is very vivid. I remember the texts I use to get from them that would have things that said “sharks can smell the blood of a human from x km” watch out Reem. In my last year of secondary school, teachers asked students what they wanted to do so they could arrange for trips to meet those in the work places. Unsurprisingly – I was the only odd one out. I remember at the age of 17 calling the Fisheries Department to ask if they offered any scholarships to help fund my undergraduate studies, the response was “we don’t have girls on the boat.”

 Strangely the only two people that believed in my dreams even though they never understood what I wanted to do were my parents to whom I owe everything. I went to England, I was shattered internally from the bashing I got throughout my teenage years, I had low self-esteem and I told myself if I could control my insecurities long enough, I will surely make it. I came to this crazy place where everyone around me talked about how all their lives they watched things like the blue planet and worshipped David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and more – all of whom inspired them. I was the only idiot standing there thinking – who are these people again? sheepish smile

 Fast forward a few years later, I grew and built my foundation. I acquired the knowledge I needed to be strong, to grow my self-confidence. I established myself, I threw myself at every opportunity that knocked my door. I opened myself to the universe and in returned it opened doors I never dreamt of going through.

 I learnt what it meant to be privileged. The people around me were all privileged but never realized how much privilege they lived in. I also saw myself as privileged to have been able to make it there and to grow this far. Years later I returned back to Bahrain, but now finally its “cool” to be a marine biologist, so no more being the butt of the joke. Alas, the focus of the country was entrepreneurship, if you weren’t an entrepreneur or a wannabe one, you are nothing. There is never funding for science, but there is always funding for a cupcake or any other unnecessary business idea.

 I made it a mission to start the environmental movement in the country as at the time of my return I was the only one of my generation in the field. I started meeting people interested in environmental issues – none of whom were scientists but that was ok, for I needed those who cared. I started getting known in the country and worked myself up, meeting scientists who have been in the field in Bahrain but neglected, burnt out, hidden from the public eye and out of inspiration. They would go absolutely insane when they realized I was interested in what they did. The total number of scientists that I met was less than 15 people in the entire country. All of whom are near retirement age. Things need to change. Things are changing… Perhaps there is hope, even though sometimes I feel there is none. For now though, I celebrate that I no longer need to be ashamed that I chose to be a scientist considering I am Arab and was born in a Muslim country. For now I should be grateful that no one is throwing stones at me – even though when I do criticize or question I do get pulled aside and put in my “place” for daring to speak out. For now, I am living my dream and am pursuing my PhD – with no support from Bahrain of course. Perhaps one day, a little girl, from a middle-lower class, will look at me and think, if she did it, maybe I can. I have had a couple of people tell me I inspire them and if I can succeed in that, I have done my job in this life time. For I never had a role model in science growing up.

Many might think, she’s exaggerating, but then again, they don’t live it. We judge what we don’t know even though we’ve never walked a day in those shoes. To all the amazing women out there in science with unsupportive circles, let the haters hate, stand strong, tall and proud – Happy Women & Girls in Science Day indeed.

[1] An Arabic expression which is similar to “You are pouring water in a broken glass” – meaning, its useless.

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