[KUWAIT CITY] A lack of support from governments, research institutes and male colleagues is holding back women scientists in the Arab world and reforms in the wake of the Arab Spring may end up blocking their hoped-for empowerment, a conference has heard.
The International Conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries, held in Kuwait City this week (21–23 April), was itself an example of this lack of support, according to one of its organisers.
For example, there was only one male delegate, a scientist from Yemen, at this multidisciplinary gathering of more than 100 researchers and there was little interest from the region in funding the event.
- It was hard to find funders for this week's conference on women in science in Arab countries
- To boost women's status in the field, men's views must change and decision-makers brought on board
- Islamists' rise after the Arab Spring may further harm women's rights
"We have to admit that changing the status of female researchers begins with changing men's attitudes and highlighting the importance of gender integration for true female empowerment," Rokhsana Ismail, a chemistry professor at Aden University, Yemen, and a member of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World's (OWSD) executive board, told SciDev.Net.
Ismail argued that government support for women scientists may actually be weaker after the Arab Spring, as new laws indicate that women could face more hindrances.
"The legislation amendments after the Arab Spring show that Islamic parties are not supporting women's rights — actually they are fighting against them," she said.
The meeting aimed to give an overview of the research being carried out by female scientists in Arab countries and the problems they faced.
Ismail said she believed that this type of female science gathering has to primarily target men, as they dominate top posts and are often the decision-makers.
The conference also had a limited attendance of scientists from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as their research institutions showed little interest in the event, she added.
"There were so many attendees from India, Pakistan and South Africa, while there were fewer than five researchers from GCC countries," Ismail said.
The main goals of the event were to facilitate communication among women researchers and to explore the obstacles they face in their careers, according to Samira Omar, OWSD's vice-president for the Arab region and the director of the Kuwait Environmental Remediation Program, and a conference organiser.
She said the biggest challenge for building strong networks of female Arab scientists is finding funding.
"This conference is an example: I tried to convince the private sector to help fund the conference, but I didn't get enough support," she told SciDev.Net.
Omar said it was much easier to convince the private sector in the region to fund the environmental events she has organised than gender-related events. In the end, the conference was funded through the Kuwait Institution for Scientific Research.
Sohair Abo-ElEla, a researcher at the National Research Centre in Egypt, stressed the importance of engaging with decision-makers about the obstacles that female scientists face.
"Inviting officials and decision-makers to events is very important," Abo-ElEla told SciDev.Net. This way they can understand the challenges facing women scientists and know how to act to alleviate them, she said.
Link to SciDev.Net's blog from the conference