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Women in physics in the Palestinian territories

In the Palestinian territories, more women than men study physics, yet women faculty members remain a very small minority. At Birzeit University, outside Ramallah in the West Bank, Chair of the Physics Department Wafaa Khater offers a unique example of success to her postgraduate students. The demands of social norms, of gender bias across the international scientific community, in addition to the challenges of pursuing science in the developing world and under occupation render a career in physics a difficult undertaking. Yet despite these obstacles, and in an ever changing landscape, more and more women are choosing to embark on a career in physics.
 
Through exploring the lives of some of these women at Birzeit University, this study goes beyond stereotypical portrayals of Palestinian women and highlights some of the issues incumbent in their experience.
 
These women are exceptional. The photographs and accompanying quotations displayed here represent an attempt to capture something of this in as balanced and fair a way as possible.
 
The authors would like to thank Wafaa, Doa, Suhad, Wesal, Waad, Tasneem and Worood for their enthusiastic participation in this work. Sponsors of the work are ICTP, The Elsevier Foundation, and OWSD. Photography by Jack Owen.

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Dr Wafaa Khater was born in the village of Ein Sinia in the West Bank, the ninth of ten children.
 
“My father was a farmer and we all worked with him, I am a peasant girl who grew up on the farm. Whenever I said I wanted time to study for my exams and I wanted to excuse myself from working on the farm, father told me: It’s the fresh air and farm fresh vegetables that make you smart at school.”
 

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After graduating from Birzeit University in 1993, Dr Khater was awarded a scholarship to further her studies at the University of Bergen in Norway, before returning to Birzeit University as a faculty member in 2004. “I was, and still am, the only female faculty member in the physics department.”
 
Since 2013, Dr Khater has been the chairperson of the physics department at Birzeit University.
 
Her success story is a source of inspiration for aspiring young physicists in Palestine.


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The six female physics M.Sc. students at Birzeit University. From left to right: Waad Awad, Doa Hawamdeh, Suhad Daraghmeh, Worood Shadeed, Tasneem Saleem and Wesal Halaiqa.


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Doa Hawamdeh:  “I think physics is the mother of all the sciences. If I can learn physics I will learn mathematics, chemistry, everything. It is the principle of life. That is my feeling.”


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Dr Wafaa Khater: “Nowadays with the existence of the Palestinian Authority and the state-to-be Palestine, there is a Ministry of Education and Higher Education which provides various kinds of grants and loans to help students get their education, and more and more young women are going to university to get a degree as they are not entirely dependent on their parents to support them financially.”


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Suhad Daraghmeh: “I think academia here in Palestine is very powerful. I see this when I go to Europe. I think we as Palestinians are good students, our education is good. But of course there are many difficulties here in Palestine and we can't ignore them. It’s not just the occupation, it's also the government. They have a long list of priorities and scientific research is at the bottom.”


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Dr Wafaa Khater: “It is a natural process that societies change with time and so do women and their various roles. Palestinian society has gone, and is still going through, radical changes due to the changing political situation on the ground. This is reflected in the role of women within society.”


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Waad Awad: “My father said to me 'you should study engineering or medicine'. But I said to him I want to study physics because I love physics, and he allowed me. This is the thing I love most about my father, he always says his opinion but he never makes me do what he thinks.”


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Tasneem Saleem: "I was born in Jerusalem. I have four sisters and two brothers. I have a lovely family. They encourage me of course to do this, and everything that I love they put me to do that. I have a daughter and a son and I love them so much. I love my life… but I have a lot to do. I have to put all my strength to make the balance between my family, my work and my study. It’s about organising your time.”


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Worood Shadeed: “I don't have my own family, but when you get married and have children, it is difficult for you. I know that it’s difficult, but you can. We see Wesal and Tasneem, yes, they have family and they are studying and they have work. Of course their lives are harder but you can.”


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Waad Awad: “Maybe the only thing that restricts our dream to continue our education is this social point: you should have a family. You should marry, yes, but according to my family it’s my choice, they didn’t restrict me with these social ideas.”


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Worood Shadeed: “I live here in Birzeit and my family is in Tulkarm. Sometimes, I stay here for two weeks or three weeks. Living alone and doing everything by yourself is good for me.”


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Worood Shadeed: “But maybe the way is very long, it takes more time than it should to get to Tulkarm because of checkpoints and the roads are not very good.”


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Waad Awad: “When we travel we feel we are not a country, not even a semi-country, we are a people living under occupation.”


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Tasneem Saleem: “I can have a balance between my children and my study … I had the power to reach this stage and I will have the power to balance in the future Inshallah.”


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Tasneem Saleem: “It’s about yourself inside. If you have an aim and you want to reach some point, you have the power to reach it.”


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Dr Wafaa Khater: “I am very optimistic to see more and more female faces on the faculty line, given that a new generation of female physicists is starting to build up. I hope that these excellent women students of physics find opportunities to continue in prestigious institutions and are able to pursue careers in physics and research.”

Article originally published by ICTP.

> Link to interview with Kate Shaw