Using the Words of Islam, an Iraqi Princess Fights for Women in Science

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Nisreen El-Hashemite seems an unlikely champion of women in science. First, there’s her genetics. The granddaughter of Faisal I, the first king of modern Iraq, El-Hashemite is a princess. Also, she is Muslim. Her family traces its roots to the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Extreme forms of Islam are known to oppress women and prevent the education of young girls. The Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, has declared that women should have no pursuits outside of the home, and girls should end their education by age 15 and be married soon after.

Yet El-Hashemite has become a vocal proponent of gender equality in science, and she’s using the words of Islam against those who would have it otherwise.

El-Hashemite has already fought her own battle to become a woman in science. She is a geneticist who holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. She spent years working as a physician and scientist at University College London and then researching genetics at Harvard Medical School. But her heritage nearly prevented her career. “My title was an obstacle,” she says. “In a world that looks at you by image, not for who you are, titles are a problem.” She was told that female royalty didn’t attend medical school, a message not delivered to her three older brothers. “Society has a difficult time absorbing the idea of a princess and a doctor,” she says.

After entering the workforce—she’s been living off her own salary since 1997—she faced the same problems other female scientists face. Her pay was less than that of her male colleagues doing the same or similar work. She had to fight harder for grant money and promotions. She credits her success to standing up not only for her rights but for those of all women. “I always take the initiative because I believe that will create a change not only for me but for others,” she says.

The underrepresentation of women in scientific careers is well documented. According to a recent UNESCO report, women account for 28 percent of scientists worldwide. Although just as many women as men earn doctorate degrees in science and engineering in the U.S., only about 21 percent of science professors in the country are women. And these women earn about a third less than their male counterparts. In Europe, 89 percent of senior university faculty are men. These proportions are echoed in every region of the world.

That gap is not present during early education. Girls do just as well as boys in math and science through high school. The separation begins during college. In the U.S., as many women as men earn bachelor degrees, but fewer focus on computer science, physical science and mathematics. The disparity is firmly established by the time women begin working. The cascade of recent reports of sexual harassment of women who do work in science further darkens the view.

Disturbed by this imbalance, El-Hashemite left her academic position in 2007 and began working closely with the Royal Academy of Science International Trust—a nongovernmental organization founded by her father, Faisal I’s second son. She also began leading RASIT’s Women in Science International League, a program designed to promote women working in science, connect them to each other, and assist women seeking scientific employment.

Two years ago, El-Hashemite presented a resolution to the United Nations to create an International Day for Women and Girls in Science. That day—February 11—has been celebrated for the past two years with a daylong conference at the U.N. building in New York. This year’s conference, held on February 10, was accompanied by events in several countries, including South Africa, Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Cambodia. The goal of the day is to encourage women and girls to pursue their interest in science and to shed light on what stands in the way of those pursuits. This year’s talks focused on the role media—movies, television shows, commercials, magazines—play in influencing girls toward or away from science.

El-Hashemite is not alone in her wish to balance the gender scales in science. Several countries have organizations dedicated to the cause and scientific journals are slowly starting to pay more attention (including to their own gender biases, such as lower acceptance rate of manuscripts by women and fewer women peer reviewers). Social media movements like #actuallivingscientist and #dresslikeawoman—the latter a reference to an alleged comment by President Donald Trump that female employees in his administration should “dress like women”—are also steering the gender ship against the tide.

But El-Hashemite has taken the surprising step of using the words of Islam to speak against those who would prevent gender equality in science. Her religion, she says, does not call for halting the education of girls. Rather, it advocates the opposite. “Islam will not prevent a girl from going to school, when the first message of the Prophet Muhammad was to read,” she says, citing the first word of the Koran. She emphasizes the hundreds of times that the Koran mentions education and knowledge. “How can you say you’re a Muslim if you do not follow the Koran?” she says. As she sees it, the efforts in some Muslim countries to stop girls from being educated are not true to the religion. “Some people are trying to push whatever they want in the name of Islam,” she says, “but it has nothing to do with Islam.  

Although she grew up in exile, El-Hashemite’s own efforts have roots in an Iraq of an earlier time. When her grandfather became king, he created a constitution requiring equal treatment and status of all citizens as well as freedom of expression. Faisal I called for tolerance of all religions and envision, according to a 2014 biography by Ali A. Allawi, “a modern-minded religious class.” Women were not permitted to hold government positions, but the country was not thick with the gender oppression that prevails today. The country’s first women’s magazine, Layla, was published in 1923. Its articles focused on literature, sociology, education—and science.

Now El-Hashemite is hoping to resurrect that legacy and spread her gumption to girls interested in science. If Talya Ozdemir is any evidence, the message seems to be working. Ozdemir, a 10-year-old girl from Istanbul, spoke at this year’s International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Standing at the podium in the general assembly hall, she spoke about the need for more female role models for young girls interested in science as a career. She dreams of working in renewable energy. “I think the future can be a place where everyone can live,” she says, “and it will be equal.”

El-Hashemite takes that vision even further. “I have a dream to fulfill,” she says, “that women in science around the world will be the celebrities.”  

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