In our continuing series on Women of Distinction, Al Shindagah profiles Professor Samira Ibrahim Islam who received recognition for her contributions to science at the L’Oreal and UNESCO Women in Science Awards in Paris.
Science is traditionally seen as a male dominated field the world over – with female scientists in Europe, America and Asia receiving less support than their male colleagues and women taking up just a tiny percentage of the decision making positions in the international science community.
It seems remarkable then that this year when 15 women in science were chosen from candidates around the world to receive special support and recognition at the L’Oreal and UNESCO ‘For Women in Science Awards 2000’ in Paris – over a quarter of the women honoured were from the Middle East region. While one of the major awards (a Helena Rubinstein Award nomination) went to a Gulf scientist – Professor Samira Ibrahim Islam of Saudi Arabia for her incredible contribution to the sciences in her home country.
The list of Professor Islam’s achievements is seemingly endless and includes a number of firsts for Saudi women: she was the first Saudi woman to complete a basic education; the first Saudi woman to obtain a BA and PhD degree; also with respect to all specialties she was the first Saudi woman to become a full professor. While in the field of Pharmacology she was the first Saudi, man or woman, to become a full professor.
Professor Islams successful working career was not limited to pure science research projects only; with considerable devotion to, and a sincere interest in the field of girl’s higher education which was in its infancy in the early 70s – Professor Islam’s contribution branched into many separate areas.
Professor Islam started her academic career in 1971 by volunteering to lecture at the College of Education, King Abdulaziz University, Makkah Branch (now Umm Al Qura University). In 1972 Dr Ahmed Muhammad Ali, the university President, appointed Dr Islam as an official member of the teaching staff in the position of Lecturer.
With the encouragement and support of Dr Mohammed Abdu Yamani, then the Rector of King Abdulaziz University, in 1973 Dr Islam was assigned as Academic Advisor for the girl’s section in both the Jeddah and Makkah branches. She introduced formal university education sections for girls; prior to 1973 girls were enrolled as external students only, and those interested were allowed to attend limited evening classes only.
At the expense at time of furthering her own scientific career and research Professor Islam dedicated her time to starting official, regular daytime university education for girls. Dr Islam established many new educational programmes for women and she was also assigned as the Head of the Science Departments. During 1973, Departments of Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Biology were founded in the College of Education Makkah branch with Dr Islam at their Head. This was the first time girls were enrolled into science subjects and allowed to carry out practical studies in laboratories.
In 1974 the Faculty of Medicine was established; Professor Abdullah Basalamal became the Dean of the Faculty and professor Islam was the Vice Dean, the first time such a title had been given to a woman in Saudi Universities. In 1975 she was the second person to be assigned as one of the founders of the Faculty of Medicine and Allied Sciences. In 1975 male and female students were enrolled in the medical programme, Nursing and Medical Technology programmes followed in 1976. The Nursing Programme was opened for girls only, with no male staff; Professor Islam took the full responsibility of developing its programme faculty and in 1978 became the Dean of that programme.