Houriya Kazim grew up listening to her mother tell her that words and phrases like ‘no’ and ‘not possible’ did not exist. It’s a philosophy that has stood to the first Emirati female surgeon
In a country where surgery has long been the preserve of men, Houriya Kazim is a rarity. The first ever female Emirati surgeon in the UAE she broke new ground and now serves as an example to other modern Emirati women. But just how did she get to where she she is today?
It would be easy to presume she was influenced by her father, Dr Ahmed Abdullah Kazim, an orthopedic surgeon from Dubai. And while she acknowledges his guidance, Dr Kazim says the main reason for her success was because of the ‘can-do’ attitude of her mother, Sultana Abdulrahman Faruk. It was also the inner strength that her mother passed on to her that has seen her through the tough times in her career.
“It [her attitude] used to annoy the living daylights out of me when I was a child,” confesses the doctor. “But now I see where it came from. She used to say, ‘There may be a price to pay, but everything is possible’….and it’s true.”
Born in the UAE, to a family from Bur Dubai, As a young child Dr Kazim moved to England with her family so her father could train as a surgeon. Later the family went to the Caribbean and then she was sent to boarding school in Canada. She did her medical training at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, before returning to Dubai where she worked for the Dubai Health Authority.
The fact that her father and the majority of her family members had gone to university meant it was always presumed she would do the same. “My Dad is in his 80s now and for that age group to be formally educated was actually unusual here. As a result it never occurred to me [not to go to college],” she says.
But education alone is not enough to make a surgeon. There is a lot of hard work involved and luckily she inherited a strong work ethic from both her parents. “My mother is an artist, a fashion designer and a businesswoman and she started her own business wherever we went,” she says. “People say, you became a surgeon because of your father, and I say no, it’s because my mother made me sew all the time,” she laughs, recalling how her parents used to make her and her siblings get up at the weekends to go to work with them.
“I now realise that working from an early age was not a bad thing because I learnt a lot early on. However I always thought I had to have a career. It’s only now that I realise it was in fact optional – I didn’t really have to work. In fact I could be sitting somewhere else, sipping a cappuccino right now…”
It was her background that made medicine a natural choice. “On the last count, we had 70 or 80 doctors in the family. We grew up going to family lunches and dinners; and if you put doctors in a room, the topic of conversation inevitably comes back to something medical.”
Despite the fact that Dr Kazim spent her formative years overseas, her connection with her home country always remained strong. She has good memories of the time she spent in Dubai as a child, visiting her grandmother in an era when everything was different. “When I used to come back from college in the 70s, I remember driving down the road and the tarmac would just suddenly end in the sand; the roads didn’t actually go anywhere,” she says.
“Sometimes I miss the ‘small-town’ atmosphere that Dubai used to have, when you literally knew everyone that you met on the street. There were fewer luxuries though. For example you had to drive all the way to Wimpy’s in Sharjah just to get a soft-scoop ice-cream... But in general life was simpler back then.” Dr Kazim returned to Dubai to work at Rashid Hospital after she had qualified as a general surgeon, but she decided to move back to the UK to do further training in cancer surgery at the Royal Marsden in London, a course she had applied to on a whim, being both a foreigner and female and therefore unlikely to be accepted for it.
“Surgery is such a male-dominated field,” she says. “By scanning the room, you can tell who’s going to get the jobs: first the English guys; then the non-English guys; then the English girls; and then the non-English girls,” she laughs, recalling how she was at an automatic disadavantage. However, much to her surprise she walked into a job in the breast cancer clinic and after her first day realised she’d found her calling. “It was like one of those revelations.
I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to do’. I believe there’s an invisible hand that sometimes leads you where you think you didn’t consciously expect yourself to be going. Becoming a breast surgeon just sort of happened to me… and I’m happy it did.” After spending many years in Ireland, Dr Kazim now lives in Umm Suqueim. She enjoys living in the UAE, where she has set up home with her husband and her two young daughters. “After several years of experiencing rain practically everyday in Ireland, I love the endless blue skies and the predictable heat,” she says.
She likes the fact too that there’s now so much more to do in Dubai than there used to be. “After I graduated and came back to work here in the late 80s, I longed for more to be happening in my city – especially cultural events. Now however there’s an endless array of things happening to interest people of all ages.”
She’s incredibly proud of how much her country has achieved in such a short period of time and would like to see the school and hospital systems continue to grow and develop to reach world-class levels.
Today Dr Kazim is the country’s most prominent breast surgeon. What’s more, in 2006, she set up her own practice at the Well Woman Clinic in Satwa, Dubai. She is also the founder of ‘Breast Friends’, a support group for breast cancer survivors, and ‘The Breast Cancer Foundation of the Emirates'.
While there are now other female surgeons with specialising in various fields in the UAE, the doctor believes there’s always room for more. “I try to encourage young medical students to follow in my footsteps, but I’m also honest and tell them that it’s not an easy road and the sacrifices are great,” she says. “As I get older I realise that one of the battles I didn’t have to fight as a young woman was to be educated. My parents belived it was ok to delay getting married and having children. Whereas, there is still a lot of pressure put on women here these days to get married and have kids, by their parents usually or if they are already married, by their husbands who want them to have more children and it’s not easy. If a woman wants to study, it can be a challenge to keep going.” As a proud Emirati, who has made an invaluable contribution to her country’s medical profession, her advice to other Emirati women is: “Choose to study something you love; that you have a passion for; that you’re good at and then stick to it.
She adds: “It’s a privilege to be a UAE national and I’ve always reminded myself of that and the importance of really being a part of the country. I try to represent it the best that I can within the domain of what I do professionally.”