I’ve been fascinated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since I was a child. As a painter and a writer, I never imagined I could go there. Then I became Executive Vice President of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, which has strong relationships in Saudi Arabia. Recently, and incredibly, I not only got to go to Saudi Arabia, but I spent a month in the Kingdom. I toured a souk, explored the country, and attended a conference. In this final installment of a four-part series, I asked four remarkable Saudi Arabian women to share their life stories in their words. They did more — they shared their private photos with me. Meet Khawla, Rasha, Yasmin and Mona.
Dr. Khawla S. Al-Kuraya, MD FCAP
Professor of Pathology
Director, Research Centre, King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre
“I was born in Al Jouf, a small town in Northern Saudi Arabia. I’ve faced challenges since I was a young girl, and I believe many of the attributes I enjoy today, including strength and tenacity, have developed as result of growing up in a household surrounded by brothers. I grew up believing that I could do anything my brothers could, be it hunting, biking, or playing soccer, activities which were quite unusual for little girls in the conservative Northern province. I went to school in Al Jouf and was extremely studious, scoring the highest in every subject. In my final years of high school, I realized that no matter how intelligent or athletic, there was no escaping the firmly held cultural tradition of early arranged marriage for the Saudi Arabian girls.
“At 17, my family decided it was time for me to get married. I did not let that or anything else get in the way of realizing my ambition to go to medical school at King Saud University in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. By the time I finished medical school, I was a mother of four children who are now my best friends: two wonderful boys and two amazing girls. Throughout medical school and my early experience of motherhood, I learned many valuable lessons. The most important: mastering the fine art of a work-life balance.”
“With this skill in my repertoire, I was able to enjoy time with my family and maintain my top-of-the-class status in medical school. The question I get asked most nowadays is, “How did you do it?” I never really know how to answer. I think the key is to be unapologetically goal-oriented. The struggles you face along the way will seem so trivial. I remember the days I used to wake up at 4 AM to finish studying before waking my kids up for school.”
“It wasn’t until my final internship year in medical school that I realized I wanted the focus of the rest of my career to be on cancer research. I was fascinated by how two patients with the exact same cancer diagnosis receive the exact same chemotherapy and yet respond completely differently; one would get cured while the other would lose the battle. After graduating from medical school, I decided to pursue my residency and fellowship in the United States, at Georgetown University Hospital, and obtained my Board in clinical pathology during my time there.
“Having accomplished my childhood dream, it was indeed time to go back home. In Riyadh, I joined one of the best hospitals in the Middle East, King Faisal Specialist Hospital, where I am now a director of cancer research.”
CEO, Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women
“Growing up in Saudi Arabia in the ’80s, I was constantly bombarded with society’s attempt to teach us that girls were not as capable as boys. Girls, it was believed, should be limited in their life pursuits and activities because of their biological and intellectual weakness. As a young girl growing up in a family that encouraged my intellectual development, that stereotype just didn’t make sense to me.
“In college, I gained a new viewpoint on the status of Saudi Arabian women when comparing their historical trajectory to that of women of other countries. In my undergraduate education at Wellesley College, I pursued an understanding of why women were in the space they were in, and then in my graduate work, at Harvard University, I searched for ways to try and ameliorate our challenges.”
“I finished my Master’s Degree and then started my Ph.D. and during my research, I got married and started my own precious family. When I was recruited to be Chief Projects Officer at Al-Nahda, I was elated. It was finally time to put to the test all the ideas, projects and plans I believed could help Saudi women reach their full potential. It was fortuitus timing as the laws and social mores governing women’s life pursuits and their spaces within the public domain were shifting. The first of such new projects at Al-Nahda was Mustaqbali, a college and career counseling program targeting high school girls. It is currently being applied in Al-Nahda and two government schools.
“As CEO, I have worked with our teams on Al-Nahda’s latest project, focusing on civic engagement in the third Saudi Municipal Elections. As the result of a Royal decree by the late King Abdullah, women above the age of 18 now have the right to both vote and run for election for seats on the municipal boards of their respective cities. With the approval of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, Al-Nahda is working on an awareness and media campaign that educates and encourages citizens to register and vote.”
“Ultimately, there is not one path for Saudi women. The ability to make a positive impact on our world, no matter how big or small, is what I hope for every woman. I also look forward to when Saudi women’s accomplishments are remarkable not because of their gender but because of the inherent value of their contributions to their nation and humanity.”
Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri
Senior Scientist and Head of Epidemiology at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre
“Growing up, I often asked my mother why she didn’t have a job. I couldn’t understand at that young age why a woman would choose to be a stay-at-home mother even if she didn’t need to work. I thought there is nothing more exciting than being a professional female.
“During the ’70s and ’80s in Saudi Arabia, the societal changes accompanying the economic development of the country were palpable. Our lifestyles changed, including our food, our dress code, and our diseases.
“As expected, our population increasingly began to develop the chronic illnesses that are typical of more developed countries. Initially I wanted to study medicine in order to help deal with the impact of these health problems, but after a few years in medical college, I became more interested in understanding the root causes of these health problems in our community. I wanted to learn how we can prevent them from occurring in the first place. This is what sparked my interest in epidemiology. But epidemiology was not offered as a specialty in Saudi Arabia, so in order to study it, I had to travel abroad.”
“Although my father was a US educated industrial engineer, it was not possible to convince him that I could travel abroad for my degree. It was socially unacceptable at the time. After I got married to a newly graduated physician who was preparing for a pediatric residency program, I convinced him that he should apply to programs in the US, and filled out all his applications for him. While he was interviewing for his residency programs in Boston, I was in the hotel room studying for my GRE exam. I got accepted at Tufts University and graduated with a PhD in nutritional epidemiology, after working on a doctoral project that evaluated how cardiovascular disease risk factors begin to show up starting during childhood.”
“Returning to Saudi Arabia, I became a mother of two children. I could easily see how they could fall into the trappings of an affluent and sedentary lifestyle. To overcome that, I enrolled them in a competitive swim team. This kept them physically active and away from electronics and TV screens while I was at work. Eventually my daughter became one of the top swimmers in her age group in the city, and both were achieving national qualifying times that made them eligible to attend the AAU Junior Olympics in the USA each year.”
“During our summers in the United States, I enrolled my kids in summer camps that taught them how to program computer games. My daughter became a serious gamer. She spent many hours on a game called, “Starcraft”, where she would compete with players from all over the world. The top players of this game were from South Korea. In order for her to understand what the Korean players were saying, she taught herself Korean.
“She became so enamored with the language, culture and history that she spent the next summer with a Korean family in Seoul while studying an immersive Korean language program at Sogang University. Not only did she learn Korean, but she also learned about the rapid economic development of South Korea from a poor agricultural country to one of the world’s top economic powerhouses. She decided to study economics in college. Unlike me, she will have the opportunity to study in the country of her choice. She chose to study in the US. She also became an advocate for developing personal finance skills among high school students when she brought a program called NextGenVest to Saudi Arabia.
“Recently my daughter asked me why I wasn’t a CEO. I told her I wasn’t interested in becoming one. She looked at me the same way that I looked at my mom when I asked her why she was a stay-at-home mom. I am so proud that my daughter grew up believing there are no obstacles in her way.
“Like any working mother around the world, my daily concern is dealing with balancing career and family life. This becomes even more challenging when you are carving a career from scratch. At the moment I am heading a national survey to study mental health in my country. This project is a collaboration with Harvard University and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Household surveys are almost unheard of in our country, so we had to develop all the tools and procedures ourselves. Once our survey is completed, we want to ensure that the data collected will be packaged for the different audiences: our scientific colleagues, the policy makers and the general public. In particular, we want to become advocates for mental health wellness in our rapidly developing society.”
Mona Kamal Shahab, MA
Executive Manager of the Intercultural Initiative Department, Alwaleed Philanthropies
Co-Founder, The Empowerment Hub
“Long trekking pants … check, Trekking poles … check, crampons … check, sleeping bag … check! Less than a week to go before Argentina embraces us, and only a few hours left before Aconcagua, standing at 6,962 meters, stares back at eleven climbers challenging us to a feat of a lifetime.”
“A Child Clinical Psychologist by profession and an explorer by birth. If I am not on a mountain, I’m most probably planning and training for one, buried in a book or in a meeting with my fellow “Empowerment Hub” co-founders discussing our upcoming event and what cause we want to adopt, brainstorming ideas with my colleagues at Alwaleed Philanthropies on how to build a better tomorrow, or simply enjoying a heartwarming cup of cardamom coffee (Arabic coffee) with friends on a chilly winter night engulfed by the surrounding sand dunes.”
“Born and raised in Al-Khobar, a city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, I was one of many “Half & Half” kids — Half Saudi/Half Lebanese. Growing up, I had the best of both worlds, in my humble opinion. While sitting around the dinner table enjoying homemade “Kibbe” and a hearty Fattoush or Tabboule, my parents indirectly carved in my siblings and me morals and values I hope I live up to. Never once did my parents make me feel like a question was unwelcomed. I would pick my father’s brains when it came to endless questions in Biology and Chemistry. The surgeon in him simplified things to the point where I decided to walk in my father’s shoes one day. My mother, in her magical way, taught me the ABCs of how to remember things and associate them with one another when I thought I was failing Religion and History due to the amount of information we had to memorize. She somehow managed to place me amongst the top three students in class for 12 years.”
“I doubled majored in Biology and Psychology at Boston University, returned home in 2003 and joined Saudi Aramco as a Career Counselor, missed the stress of exams and deadlines and therefore returned for my masters in Child Development with a concentration in Clinical Developmental Psychology at Tufts University.
“Prior to graduating from Tufts, I applied for an Optional Practical Training permit, which allows undergraduates and graduates to work in the USA for twelve months. I had my eye on Children’s Hospital Boston. The Developmental Medicine Center was calling my name ever since I was a junior at BU. I wanted to be supervised by and learn from experts in the field. Knowing that I would return home one day, I was thirsty to bring back the best practices tweaked and adapted to be culturally acceptable. The boat finally docked at the Developmental Medicine Center and I spent 2.5 years working as a Research Assistant with the the experts whose names were printed in textbooks and articles.”
“KSCDR hired me as a Mental Health Program Manager. I was going to work on a Mental Health Project with Drs. Abdullah Al-Subaie and Yasmin Al-Twairji, the Principal Investigators, and Noha Kattan, the Program Coordinator. I was excited yet overwhelmed, for I did not know what to expect. The team knew I was only there for 2 years and would be returning to the US to pursue a PhD. In 2014 I became a co-investigator and handed over the baton to Lisa Bilal, the current Program Manager of SNMHS, an individual I admire.
“Leaving a family is never easy. The only reason I decided to leave was because I knew the project was in great hands and I wanted to fulfill my dream of spending 6 months to a year volunteering in Africa prior to my PhD. However, an opportunity I found hard to reject came knocking on my door, and so I joined Alwaleed Philanthropies (AP) as the Executive Manager of the Intercultural Initiative Department (IID) in March 2014.
“IID Bridges the gap between Islam and the west through Education, Research and Youth Development. My professional career may have taken a detour but it has been a rewarding detour to say the least. I’ve come face to face with inspiration, passion and determination. Thank you Abir Kaki!
“My mountaineering addiction, The Empowerment Hub, rocking climbing, training for marathons and a few other chapters did not kick off when I was living in Boston for nine years. These chapters all began when I returned to Saudi. It’s what we make out of the opportunities that come our way. I’ve repeatedly heard people say ‘I live in Saudi, there is not much I can do.’ Yet we all know that ‘When there’s a will, there’s a way.'”
In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you say farewell with “Ma’a assalamah!” — peace be with you. Which is very much the message I took away from my Saudi Arabian experience.