Muscat, Asharq Al-Awsat – Dr. Noura al Nahed, a Saudi woman who is a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh (Department of Family & Community Medicine) has just been appointed as a director at the UN Population Fund office in the Omani capital. She prefers simplicity and elegance, away from showing off. She chooses her clothes and opts for colors that reflect calmness, as if she sought to assuage her audience; whatever the situation, she remains good-natured and pleasant, even away from her white robe. She wants her voice and ideas to be heard without distracting others by her attire, which is why she seeks to implement the principle of “simple is best”.
The 56-year-old doctor was born in 1950 in al Barud in the province of Najd. The mother of four, three sons and one daughter considers motherhood a pleasure and not a duty. Her sense of motherhood is stronger than any other feeling, giving her an unparalleled feeling of “being complete.” Yet, at the same time, she considers her profession and social life extremely important.
Like other women, she is required to make a number of sacrifices, unlike men in the Arab world and Gulf societies especially. But this awareness of the difficulty of juggling a professional life and raising children transformed Noura al Nahed into a fighter.
She has remained ambitious and hard-working and has maintained only a mild temper and her gentle nature. This can be clearly seen in her choice to specialize in family and community medicine, after she obtained her degree in general medicine and surgery. Her aim was to strike a balance between the requirements of her environment and family on the one hand and her quest for knowledge and work on the other, despite initially preferring gynecology and children’s medicine. She wanted to succeed in balancing her duties as a mother and wife and her professional responsibilities. She also had to contend with inherited family values and behavior in Saudi society and tried to single out what she saw as detrimental to the family in general, and especially to women and children.
“We, as women, face difficult choices, much more than men, if we are to safeguard our family life and its stability. Most responsibilities rest on our shoulders. Our role is to ensure a happy stable home and that our husbands do not feel any different to other men whose wives stay at home. Men have prerogatives they do not want to lose or change. There is no difference between the educated and uneducated man in this instance.”
But, al Nahed, fearful of generalizing, quickly adds that many men are cooperative but working women need additional cooperation/help/assistance, not only on the level of the family but also on the level of existing laws and regulations in Saudi institutions and other countries in the Persian Gulf.
Al Nahed started her long journey in education at the Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz School in Najd, which opened a special section for women. She was one of the lucky selected few girls to be able to enroll in education. The credit goes to her father who considered education a priority for his children and gave them the chance and ambition to succeed, even if this varied from what was common in Saudi society at the time. “My father encouraged us to be ourselves,” she said.
The Doctor admits, “It is difficult for the majority of people to be themselves. Everyone lives under several masks, a mask for the outside works and one for the local environment and a third for the family. People need considerable effort to reach themselves. It is difficult for us to knock on a new door and not be afraid. The equation is difficult and unbalanced. Some embrace all that is unusual/ different and give up their heritage and lose their personality…or withdraw within themselves. This makes it difficult to define our identity.”
She adds, “In the Gulf region, we have our own personality and it is very beautiful: we have love, honesty and modesty. It is sad to see us reject these characteristics in our tribal milieu and adopt the arrogance or superiority.” But how does al Nahed explain the caution when adopting ideas and communicating with others?
“Unfortunately, in our society, there are people who hold their conscience responsible for keeping an eye on others. They monitor their actions and pronouncements and behave as the judge and executioner. Honest and good intentions have become rare. Evil intentions are prevalent and assumed. From this point of view, I am always instinctively cautious in order to avoid being misinterpreted. Some individuals consider that working women want to stealing women’s rights.”
Nahed says that she wants to be an active citizen who plays her part in developing her country. She is aware that Saudi Arabia’s efforts in this regard are not yet complete. She is optimistic that more opportunity is forthcoming. “There are a number of giant steps that need to be taken for Saudi women to have their distinct role in society.” She does not condone a discussion on equality of the sexes because it is not needed. God’s creatures are not equal and each has their own ability. What is needed is for women to be supported by men.”
This is what Nahed has sought throughout her academic career. She has imposed a picture of a strong capable woman and did not dwell on extremist views, although she admitted that the extremist outlook affected women and reduced opportunities available to them. She adds that many women preferred the easy option in which they leave others to fight while they subscribe to the extremist view in order to be accepted.
The beginning of Nahed’s involvement with the UN population front also reflects her personality. She applied for a vacant position at the offices in Muscat, as she believed she had the necessary skills and experience to succeed in the role. She had no prior support from anyone else or any links to the international organization.
Ambition holds an important place in Nahed’s life given that after she obtained the highest academic qualifications, she felt the need to continue to search a new area in which to prove herself and succeed. Her new post represents a new beginning and she is looking forward to continuing success because she will be working, for the first time, outside Saudi Arabia. Nahed is optimistic and believes that social and cultural traditions that hamper individuals and reinforce unhealthy social practices should be modified. She is also aware that the UN’s Population Fund works in cooperation with local governments and does not challenge societies. However, it has to be daring and transparent in its work. Perhaps this strategy has made Noura an obvious candidate for the UN Fund. She is the product of a changing society and is best placed to navigate through sensitive issues, without negative consequences. She is skilled at using methods that do not antagonize others and can reassure those who confide in her with a cautious smile and an understanding look.