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The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science

posted on: Mar 31, 2017

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
One of the characters of the movie Hidden Figures, Katherine G. Johnson, surrounded by her white, male colleagues at NASA.

BY: Vivian Pham/Ambassador Blogger

The movie Hidden Figures (directed by Ted Melfi) follows the careers of three NASA mathematicians as they help to construct the first rocket to put man into space. As a statement on social equality, the film seeks to celebrate the contributions of these three brilliant African American women, whose parts in this American milestone have largely been ignored because of their gender and race.

Today, in the age of information, despite (and maybe because of) the excessive information we have at our fingertips, we often miss the social barriers showcased in the film that still exist today. Many offices and positions continue to be disproportionately held by white males. Nowhere is this truer than in the engineering and mathematics industries.

Arab American females are no different in this respect, and experience even more barriers as a result of cultural norms that discourage women from taking these traditionally male roles.

In this month heralded as Women’s History Month, the world needs to acknowledge women’s history in the workplace, particularly in the fields of science. Their “hidden” accomplishments are reminders to always encourage more diversity in these typically white-male dominated industries.

Not only that, but we must also remember to support the women closest to us: our mothers, sisters, wives, friends, cousins, and daughters if we are ever to go farther than we’ve ever gone before, to space and back.

Even when we think that women aren’t capable or willing to join the fields, “hidden figures” prove otherwise, particularly in countries, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. These countries, despite their historic gender inequality, have given America something to aspire to with their astonishing numbers of women engineers and computer programmers. Currently, UNESCO estimates that women comprise as many as 60 percent of engineering students in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf.

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
Four nuclear engineers, newly hired by the United Arab Emirates, standing in front of a model of a nuclear reactor.

These Arab women get to where they are today through the support of their families who view engineering professions as honorable and prestigious. As Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi and former Duke University faculty member states, “The engineering profession in general holds a lot of prestige in the UAE and we find that the families of our female students are very highly supportive and proud of their daughters, wives, siblings studying these subjects.”

Especially as many of these positions are becoming more amenable to women, the number of women scientists in the Arab world only continues to grow.

Here are more empowering statistics about Arab women in science:

  • 40% of women graduating from engineering class in Kuwait are women
  • 32% percent of engineering students in Bahrain are women
  • UAE women enrollments in engineering increased from 2.9% in 2012 to 24.9% in 2015
  • Even in Saudi Arabia, graduation rates for women in engineering have risen from 1% in 2000 to 10% in 2011, and 80% of female students show interest in engineering

In order to keep these statistics growing, we must look back at Arab women and their historic roles in science.

Medieval Era

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in ScienceAt a time of extreme gender inequality, Labana of Cordoba was employed as the private secretary to the Umayyad Caliph of Islamic Spain, Al Hakam the Second. She gained this prestigious position through her ability to solve the most complex geometrical and algebraic problems known to that time.

Astrolabes, which astronomers and sailors used in order to locate the sun, moon, stars, and planets, required much skill to make, so astrolabe craftsmen were given very high status in society. Al Ijiliyyah bint al-Ijili al-Asturlabi, who followed in her father’s footsteps, was employed at the court of Sayf-ad-Dawla, one of the powerful Hamdanin rulers in northern Syria, to make royal astrolabes.

Sutaata al-Mahamili was a mathematician born to an educated family in Baghdad. While she was proficient in fields, such as Arabic literature, hadith, and jurisprudence, she is best known for her many solutions to algebraic equations, which have since been cited by many other mathematicians. Her skills and intelligence were so admired that she was cited by historians Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi, and Ibn Kathir.

Modern Era

Zaha Hadid was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. She also received the Stirling Prize in 2010 and in 2011. Her buildings are described as distinctively neofuturistic, characterized by the “powerful, curving forms of her elongated structures” with “multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry to evoke the chaos of modern life.” Zaha was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects. She has been on the board of trustees of The Architecture Foundation.

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
Zaha Hadid at Riverside Museum – Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Rana El-Kaliouby, Ph.D is currently the chief science officer of Affectiva, leading the company’s Emotion Science team. Her team applies computer vision, machine learning and data science to leverage the company’s facial emotion repository – the world’s largest – with over 2 million faces to understand people’s feelings and behaviors. While she was initially interested in improving human-computer interaction, she quickly became fascinated with the possibility of applying this technology to improve human-human communication, especially for sufferers of autism. This led her to founding MIT’s Autism & Communication Technology Initiative while working there as a research assistant.

Her many accomplishments include being inducted into the “Women in Engineering” Hall of Fame, being named one of the 7 Women to Watch in 2014 by Entrepreneur Magazine, and making it to Mass High Tech Top 20 Women to Watch 2014. She is also a member of ACM, IEEE, Association of Children’s Museums, British Machine Vision Association, and Nahdet el Mahrousa.

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
Rana el Kaliouby (right) demonstrates her Affectiva app at a TED Talk

Hayat Sindi is a Saudi-born inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur. She became the first Saudi and female scientist to become a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for sciences, as well as one of the first tranche of 30 women to be appointed to Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Assembly, or Shura Council, which is the formal advisory body to King Abdullah. Her focus these days are on mentoring the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs through her fellowship program, the i2 Institute.

“In the Middle East people are tired from hearing that we don’t have inventors,” Sindi told Arabian Business in September. “We have lots of TV shows about Arab Idol and music and things, but we need to celebrate something else, we need to celebrate the brains.” More recently, Sindi has continued to work on the patent for a portable MRI scanner.

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
Hayat Sind speaks to media as a Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Secretary-General of the
United Nations hosted by UNESCO

Kouhaila “Ki” Hammer is the CEO and President of Ghafari Associates, a leading architecture, engineering, and consulting firm based in Dearborn, Michigan. With offices in South America, the Middle East, and South Asia, Hammer has been an integral contributor to the expansion of Ghafari Associates. When she was just ten years old, she moved from Lebanon to American without knowing any English. Today, she employs over 500 people and reported $118 million in profits in 2015. Hammer says she would like to see more women in the engineering world, as well as in leadership positions on the business side of engineering.

“As a member of the International Women’s Forum, we support women in a variety of fields and take on charitable projects,” Hammer told Crain’s Detroit. “I try to be a good role model and tell women not to walk around with a chip on their shoulders.”

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
President and CEO Kouhaila Hammer says Ghafari Associates’ international expansion starting in 2007 helped the Dearborn architecture and engineering firm through the recession and fuels its growth now. Photo by NATHAN SKID/CRAIN’S DETROIT BUSINESS

Manahel Thabet has a PhD in financial engineering and in quantum mechanics. She is known for her brilliance with her IQ of 168, and was even named Genius of the Year in Asia, and chosen to be part of the World Genius Directory. To add to that, she is also a world-class humanitarian and was given a UN award for undertaking humanitarian missions in Africa. From her roots as a member of Young Arab Leaders, Manahel has definitely come far in her life.

Currently, she acts as the head and founder of SmartTips Consultants, President (Middle East and North Africa/MENA) of The Brain Trust Foundation, president of the World IQ Foundation, Vice President of the World Intelligence Network (WIN), Deputy Director of the Institute for Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition and Vice Chancellor of The Gifted Academy. She has been recognized as one of the most powerful Arabs in the world.

The "Hidden Figures" of Arab Women in Science
Manahel Thabet recognized as Freeman of the City of London