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Bureaucracy and the Ambition of Saudi Women

Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, August 21

As a young girl, Amal Al-Awami knew that she wanted to become a physician. Despite being told that she isn’t fit for the job, she continued to fight for her dream. She eventually became an ophthalmologist. Despite growing up in a traditional community, Fatima al-Sayed Hassan al-Awami and her cousin, Amal al-Sayed Ali al-Awami, were among the first three Saudi engineers working for Saudi Aramco in the early 1980s. The two women did not let men dictate their careers, even when they were told, time and again, that engineering is a discipline reserved strictly for men. Thankfully, this legacy continues to this very day among most circles of Saudi society. More and more young women are choosing to pursue careers in science and technology while celebrating their achievements as well as those of other women. But there is still work to be done. Yasmeen AlFaraj is a Saudi scholar who was sent by the King Abdullah University to study in the United States, at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. A passion for science led AlFaraj to graduate with distinction and get accepted to a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT offered AlFaraj a spot to complete her doctorate in chemistry with a specialization in polymers and soft materials without the need to first obtain a master’s degree. This is because her academic achievements were so exceptional and because the university only provides a combined master’s and doctoral-level program. Despite rejoicing in her achievement, AlFaraj faced a bureaucratic nightmare with the Saudi Education Ministry, which refused to provide her with a much-needed scholarship due to the fact that she only had a bachelor’s degree. Ironically, at the exact same time that Saudi women are finally being empowered, in accordance with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, many of the rigid old structures disadvantaging women continue to plague our society. So instead of receiving the help she needed, AlFaraj was turned away from the ministry by a disgruntled bureaucrat who had no appreciation for her incredible talent. The man had no idea of what it means to be accepted to the University of California, Berkeley or to a doctoral program at MIT. Instead of being supportive and encouraging the young woman to chase her dreams, he followed a rigid protocol. If Saudi Arabia is truly serious about becoming an innovative society that stands at the forefront of technological innovation, then it must embrace not only its sons but also its daughters. Archaic government programs and protocols place an obstacle not only in front of AlFaraj but in front of all talented, ambitious, and gifted Saudi women who are exceptional in their respective fields, yet fall short of being recognized or supported by their society. – Hassan Al-Mustafa (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)