Sahab – Swedish-Iraqi Counselor with a Different Approach

When Sahab Saheb started her therapy service Authentic Dialogues she had decided that she wanted to offer counseling in three languages: Swedish, Arabic and English. At 32 years old with a master’s degree in social work and sexology, she wanted to offer her counseling services to such a wide range of clients as possible.

“There’s a challenge in working in different languages,” she says. “But I wanted to use my full potential.”

I wanted to write about Sahab not only because of her interesting character as a Swedish-Iraqi woman, but also since her approach to counseling seemed different. According to her, psychological counseling should be accessible and of low cost. Based in Malmö, Sweden, she also offers counseling via Skype, and on her website, under description of fees, it states: “Fee reductions are available for people on low incomes and this can be negotiated on an individual basis”.

The aspect of wanting to reach out to the many Arabic speaking people in Sweden is not a coincidence. In her master thesis Sahab researched an integration project for Arab immigrants, where she examined factors that determined the effectiveness of the program. The thesis published this year and is titled “Transformation of newcomers, responsibilities and consequences. An evaluation of the project ‘Newcomers, Shortest path’” (Malmö University, Faculty of Health and Society, Department of Social Work). The research gave her new insights in the world of social work and psychological assistance. Through the research she met many immigrants who tried to integrate themselves in Sweden and learned about the challenges they faced.

“The most important aspect is the gap between the experience from the home country and Sweden. The main difference between the two countries is the role that the state plays. People from the Middle East, Syria for example, come from a society where the state has a very negative reputation. People associate the state with fear and betrayal, and it’s not responsible for the individual’s welfare and personal development. Here in Sweden, the state is in charge of everything and a lot of mistrust is going on (from the newly arrived immigrants, my comment) that the Swedish authorities have no clue about.”

In contrast with some other Western countries, where immigrants that have received asylum are left on their own to find housing and work, sometimes with help from voluntary organizations, Swedish authorities offer a roof-over-the-head-guarantee and financial assistance until the person is able to provide for him. However, the choices of where to live or what to do (financial assistance requires the person to take part of mandatory Swedish classes or work programs in return) become reduced to a minimum when being dependent on the system, which many are until they have learned enough Swedish to manage on their own.

Having seen the clash between the Swedish society and the newly arrived immigrants and how the society sometimes fails to help people who suffer from traumas and psychological illnesses, Sahab wanted to create her own service instead of being part of the system.

“The professionalism of the Swedish bureaucracy has a distanced approach to people, and this approach is by many immigrants perceived as something personal against them, it becomes the only thing that the immigrant experience during the first years in Sweden. Even if we have to carry out the integration aspect through the institutions, since this is the way it works in Sweden, we have to implement more of a personal reception since these persons come from a society where there are stronger bonds between people. We shouldn’t dehumanize people the way the system sometimes does now.”

Still, the failures of the system served as an incentive for her to contribute with what she believed would be the best way to help people with psychological problems from experiences of war and terror.

“Instead of being bitter over the fact that I can’t implement what I think is right, I wanted to start my own thing to help people in a way that I believe in”, she says. “If we learn how to be more empathetic we’ll have better dialogues and a stronger society.”

The therapy Sahab offers is based on the existential humanistic psychology, which she says pays respect to people’s own inner potential and responsibility for their actions.

“I wanted to work with counselling that derives from an equal dialogue between the therapist and the patient. I believe that an illness in the society is that we don’t communicate between each other. I believe that this therapy is very helpful since you can carry it with you the whole life and apply it to new relationships. In the therapy you help people to have more confidence in themselves so that they can take more initiative and thereby enhance their own self-esteem.”

She emphasizes that it’s still important not to see people as solely traumatized and damaged individuals, since people have a lot to offer that you can encourage and build on.

“You also have to be very careful in how you create a dialogue with people who come from traumatized societies,” she says. “This therapy is non-directive, there is no right or wrong, it’s up to the client how he or she thinks. I believe this is very important in a multi-cultural society where people have different values. This will create less guilt and insecurity.”

I ask her how she deals with people that might have twisted or reversed values as they come from countries where war or a repressive state have been prevailing for so long that it affects the persons and their personal values. What does she say to them if they have internalized what they have seen and for example believe that violence is justified?

“Even if I tell this person that this and that is wrong it won’t help him if he doesn’t realize this himself.  We need to understand why the person has chosen to believe in this, because it’s a defense mechanism. And the less we use our defense mechanisms, the more we get out of life.”

She adds:

“I believe in this small effect. If we help one person, we will also help many others that will exist down that person’s road.”

So what is her dream with her service, which she recently started earlier this year? She laughs when I ask the question.

“I don’t believe that much in dreams, I believe in being present in the moment and enjoy that. I try not to be too much in the future, my challenge right now is to be able to assist people in need of help. And well… maybe sometime in the future I’ll be able to work together with other people, who want to work in the same way I do.”

Photo copyright: Sahab Saber

To get in touch with Sahab please visit her website: authenticdialogues.com

Advertisements

Hawzhin The Middle Eastern Feminist

Hawzhin Azeez

The Middle Eastern Feminist page singled itself out from other feminist pages on Facebook when it started up in December last year. Feminism across boundaries of ethnicity and nations; love over hate; support over anger, seemed to be the red threads for the page.

If you are struggling today, remember that you were never meant to be ashamed, depressed and guilty. You were always meant to be victorious! Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” says a quote followed by a heart from July 16.

The reconciling approach seemed to appeal to many. The page soon had many followers.

Often white, middle class women are blamed for having this approach to women’s rights as they haven’t faced real hardships themselves. But the woman behind The Middle Eastern Feminist page is not one of those.

Hawzhin Azeez’s early childhood memories consists of escaping Iraqi Kurdistan as Saddam Hussein bombed the area with chemical weapons; her pressing a scarf against her face not to breath in the lethal smoke; her mother having skin burns all over her. Living as illegal refugees in Iran the family sometimes didn’t eat for days, and on a regular basis the police came and took away her father, accusing him of being a part of the resistance against the Iranian regime due to his Kurdish ethnicity. The family never knew when or if he was coming back. In this setting there was no room for women’s rights.

“When growing up in a refugee setting, in war-torn countries, it’s incredibly hard being a woman,” says Hawzhin when explaining her upbringing and how she became a feminist. “People hold on to their ethnicity and as a young woman you’re just supposed to behave.”

After finally receiving asylum in Australia, Hawzhin and her family faced a new dilemma: the one of suddenly being in a liberal culture with new gender roles that they had no idea how to manage.

“I was going through my puberty in a family traumatized from the war,” Hawzhin says. “And we were stripped off our identity. My parents were very traditional and conservative and it was difficult for me to be friends with Australian girls. It was an isolating experience going to a Western school.”

In the Kurdish community where they lived a strong social control was being exercised. Hawzhin points out that it was first and foremost the women who exercised this control over each other and each other’s daughters. She says they had internalized the racism and sexism they had been exposed to as Kurds in the Middle East, and turned it into misogyny.

“Gossip was used a tool to limit and control each other between women. It was used to shame and guilt what women and girls did in the community.”

Despite the lack of role models, Hawzhin knew she was a feminist.

“I was born a feminist!” she says. “In Iran I witnessed things that were incredibly wrong and unjust. Religion was used as an ideology to limit the women, what they wanted to achieve. What chador means for me as a human being is that I become sexualized.”

As a teenager she was incredibly angry because she wasn’t able to live her life the way she wanted to. She read a lot of feminist literature in high school, it was her escape.

“My choices were directly linked to my family, if they agreed. I couldn’t create any issues for my family in the Kurdish community. It was a constant struggle between the community’s values and my feminism.”

Despite having arrived to Australia as an 11 year old with only two years of primary school education, Hawzhin was able to enter university after high school to study international relations and political science. But even having made it so far, she couldn’t live the way she wanted to. When she moved out of her parents’ house to do her PhD in another city at 25 years old, she was finally able to be independent. But it took a long time for her to adjust.

“I had no idea who I was. Growing up in a patriarchal family I had been constantly told how to behave and how to live. I now choose to live independently and I wish for every girl to have this freedom. Unless you do this you will never be able to make informed decisions on yourself.”

When starting The Middle Eastern feminist page it was after a long and difficult semester at university, when she was emotionally drained and spent a lot of time in front of Facebook. She noticed how people mostly posted things about what they ate and going to the gym, and wanted to turn her Facebook time into something more intellectual. Her motivation also steamed from being back in her country of origin for the first time since the escape. She went on her own without her parents and met up with her relatives. The trips were wonderful, she says, but she noticed how little women in Iraqi Kurdistan knew about their rights, and this was something she wanted to change.

“I wanted a safe place for Middle Eastern women or women from developing societies where they could talk about their rights and issues they were dealing with. But I also wanted to challenge them and tell them they could have a traditional life and still be feminists.”

Hawzhin mean that some women in the Middle East might not be able to escape their traditional life but that they can find space where they can still be feminists.

Another goal was to educate Western women on Middle Eastern women’s issues. She wanted a place for women from the two worlds to meet and realize that they were dealing with the same issues.

“Women everywhere are dealing with for example street harassment. Although the issues Middle Eastern women have are on another level, we are all struggling. I wanted to create a place for solidarity, for women to find commonalities in their lives.”

“Have you felt supported by Australian feminists or have you felt excluded?”

“Feminism in Australia is not a priority for many people… There is also a barrier between privileged women and women of color. A lot of the feminist groups and women are diffused within the political movements, there are not many groups trying to bridge the gap between privileged women and women of color, to bring all of these different identities together. But this is necessary.”

The page is now an active place for discussions and many of the over 6.000 followers are not only from the Middle East but from all over the world. Through the page connections are being made and people are making friends across boundaries. Hawzhin is actively promoting other feminist pages on her own, urging her followers to like a new page that has recently been started. She’s also sharing her private Facebook page with followers that want to add her as a friend – a page where she has posted photos of herself and her mom hugging, dressed up in Kurdish clothes, as well as photos from university parties where she’s dolled up (“I dress very femininely, I love to wear lipstick,” she says on a side note).

On combining the different cultures, she says that she sees herself as a bridge between women in Afghanistan who can’t leave the house, and urban, developed women in Egypt; that they can contribute to each other through the page.

A long message to her followers on the page from July starts like this:

I haven’t said this in a while, but: I am so incredibly in love with all you inspiring feminists (male and female), and the new ones on this page and the ones that send me private emails and share their stories, and those of you who comment and make witty and brilliant comments to posts. I know that we all come from different cultural and social settings but that does not take away from the fact that we are all struggling against a global system which thrives on the oppression and subjugation of people based on their gender or sexual orientation or race. All of our struggles matter, though the problems we face may differ somewhat.

Hawzhin has had very little negative feedback on her page and says she is shocked by the amount of support and number of women that have been contacting her. Some people expect that she’s a Muslim feminist but this is not what she calls herself.

“I call myself a secular feminist,” she says. “But if women want to cover up that’s great – I don’t believe in ripping women off their scarf.”

“Does your family know you’re a feminist?”

She laughs:

“Oh yes, very much so.”

So how are her parents, the once traumatized refugees that had such a hard time to adjust to the new society they were in, dealing with their daughter having developed to being such an outspoken feminist?

“My family has come such a long way,” she says, delighted. “There were so many things we couldn’t discuss before due to our culture, but this has changed. I am now teaching my younger sister and brother about feminism. When I visit them I always show them feminist documentaries, and my sister who is 13 comes with me to political marches. I’m teaching her to be more independent. It’s important to start with the children.”

Photo 1: Copyright Hawzhin Azeez, Photo 2: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Dina – Women’s Rights Activist in Iraq

fist gallary(1)

Dina Najem became an activist after finishing her degree in French at the university in Baghdad, when she started blogging and became active in social media and realized how invisible the women were in Iraqi media.

“Iraq has always been a closed society,” she says. “Even before the US invasion the society was controlling towards women, and after 2003 there was no security at all. Women couldn’t even walk outside alone.”

Dina, now 24, decided she wanted to work for women to be able to participate more in the society.

“I have myself no support from the society” she says. “It’s my husband and my family that supports me. The government has the ability to improve the lives for Iraq’s women, they have the financial resources, but they are not doing anything.”

After a few years as an activist within local NGOs and social media Dina applied in 2012 to the Swedish Institute’s academic program for human rights activists from the Middle East and North Africa, “Social Innovation in a digital context”. She was accepted as one of 15 participants, and so was her husband Hayder, who is also an activist.

“I wanted to focus on women” she says. “Men are already dominating trainings, the political life, everything.”

She believes many women have not been fighting for their own rights.

“The war made so many stay at home, they were prevented from educating themselves. Women don´t have the knowledge to demand their rights.The one that does are not a big number.”

Lack of technical skills is another reason for the absence of women in Iraqi media according to Dina.This makes them unable to compete with men who are in the same business. With the knowledge gained on digital media from the Swedish Institutes program Dina was able to start training others.

After the six months long course she returned in April this year to Baghdad and started the photography project “Rights Without Words” for young women in the ages of 20 to 30. She went herself to look for a sponsor and got International Media Support to fund the project. By publishing information about the course online she received an overwhelming number of applications. There are obviously many young Iraqi women that want to make their spot on the media scene.

Finally Dina chose to include 22 participants instead of 15 as originally planned. The training was divided into three courses: human rights, photography and social media.

“I want to promote human rights in a creative way in my project. The participants have learned how to express themselves by photography, and how to illustrate the declaration of human rights without using any words.”

Dina has already been able to show the photos in the Iraq National Theatre, when the Iraqi musician Nasser Shamma was hosting a concert, a previously rare but nowadays more frequent happening in the capital.

Dina hopes that the world is interested of the positive development that is taking place in Iraq. She and her husband are not planning to move abroad – they want to continue with their activism despite the insecurity in Iraq. Even though she criticizes the domestic politics she thinks that there is hope in the expanding civil society. The many applicants to her project are a sign of willingness to change.

“I’m hopeful” she says. “I see so many girls that want to study and participate in everything.”

Next up in her work is to focus on women bloggers, and she also wants to work with mixed groups of young women and men. In a country where the sexes often are separated she thinks it’s crucial for women and men to work together and get to know each other.

The struggle for women’s rights is the core of her activism and she openly calls herself a feminist despite the resistance she often encounters. At the same time she is a Muslim and proud of that.

To the ones who question Dina’s commitment to human rights in a country where civilians are killed every day, she usually says:

“Well, but you can’t just sit on your chair. You have to defend your own rights.”

Rights without words

Participants in “Rights Without Words”

Photos: Copyright Dina Najem

Ruth Benyamin – The Real Miss Iraq 2013

Getting hold of Ruth Benyamin, the 67th Miss Iraq and winner of this year’s Miss Iraq competition, is not easy. The competition is no longer accepted by everyone, why in recent years Iraq’s beauty queens has stepped down one after another after death threats from hardcore religious groups, the competition had to move abroad – and Talat model agency that are handling the contest are careful. Over the course of a few months I exchange e-mails with the agency and upon request e-mail the questions that I want to ask in advance. Then all of a sudden I am in touch with the current Miss Iraq of 2013, or, as she boldly calls herself on Twitter and other social media: The Real Miss Iraq.

Ruth Benyamin was chosen in June this year after the first winner stepped down, but not due to death threats this time, according to Ruth it is because she wanted to get married – there seem to be many reasons for the Iraqi beauty queens not being able to hold on to their title. Ruth tells me that she in general is discouraged from giving interviews for security reasons, but she takes her time and writes me several e-mails with long replies to the questions. Born to an Iraqi father and a Hungarian mother, Ruth is actually one of the few Iraqis winning the last years’ competition.

“Miss Iraq is an old competition, being a titleholder is a great honor” she says. “I am the 67th titleholder, 66 previous amazing women have worn the crown, and they have represented different Iraqi ethnic backgrounds and have done well in their lives.”

This year’s competition was held in private and not advertised, why Ruth was officially crowned in a private cocktail party in Heidelberg, Germany. She explains that not many people know about the contest since the organizers keep a low profile due to the threats, and because of this, holding the crown doesn’t give her as much media attention as it could:

“The pageant itself is not a televised competition so it doesn’t get much exposure. There were attempts by organizers to sell air rights to various Iraqi TV satellite stations, but the deal were rejected as TV stations had their own reservations, plus they didn’t want to be attacked by Iraq’s hard line Shiite government.”

Her guess is that this will remain the conditions for the competition, citing the dependency on the country’s security but also the fact the modelling industry in Iraq is very limited and that there is no Iraqi fashion magazines.

Although born and raised in UK, Ruth has visited Iraq several times and have ideas about the potential development of the country. She points out that she believes the situation in Iraq will remain the same unless a three state solution is adopted; this means that apart from the already existing autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Southern/Central Iraq should be divided into two states, in order to curb the ethnic violence. She seems well acquainted with this political idea:

“Part of my work as Miss Iraq is promoting such a plan, a peaceful three-state solution. There is already a Miss Kurdistan which is treated as a contest that represents an independent country, and it’s not called Iraqi Kurdistan, for example.” Later on, when explaining why she would recommend another young Iraqi woman to participate in the competition, she adds: “You become nationalistic once you compete. We were 16 girls who competed in the 2013 edition in Mombasa-Kenya, each representing a city state. I represented Lagash (state in South-Eastern Iraq, author’s comment), we did not win local pageants, because there are no local pageants, but each candidate wears a banner of a city state and it was an amazing experience to learn about our heritage, culture and history.”

Ruth was modelling part time before being crowned Miss Iraq and is all positive about the sudden change in her life that the title has brought her:

“Talat Models has kept me busy travelling from one place to another. I have been to Dubai (where I am based, I am provided a luxury furnished apartment which I share with Miss Teen Iraq, Lina Ovadia), I have been invited by the Iraqi community in Brazil, Germany, I visited Frankfurt, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Budapest, Rome, and I will visit Sydney and Auckland later in December… The advantages are that I get public relations training, etiquette classes, a model portfolio, public speaking.”

She hopes for a career in hotel management and believes that the work experiences she gets as Miss Iraq is beneficial for the future. As for her personal experience, she says:

“The title has shaped my personality and my perspective on life, it definitely boosted my confidence as young lady.”

Entering the contest was not only a daring decision for a young Iraqi woman, living outside Iraq is not necessarily a guarantee for safety; Ruth is also Jewish, an Iraqi minority that left the country en masse due to suppression, especially during the 1940s and 50s but also after. So what was the response from the Iraqi community on her participation?

“I guess some people like me, some don’t, so far the twitter feedbacks have been positive. Some feel because I’m Jewish that I don’t represent Iraq” she says, then adding, diplomatically: “But those are a minority.”

And diplomacy is definitely a much needed skill, when being in the sometimes dangerous position of the Iraqi beauty queen, that many of her predecessors have left in advance. The Real Miss Iraq seems to hold it up very well so far.

Photocredit: http://iraqibeauties.blogspot.com/

Xena the True Lebanese Feminist

Xena Amro

This article is published in an edited, Swedish version in the feminist magazine AstraNova’s October issue 2013.

When Xena Amro started the True Lebanese Feminist Facebook page in July 2012, it created turmoil. Xena’s own Facebook page had been reported and blocked several times, so she wasn’t surprised.  On her desk in high school, random insults were written in the beginning of her school year: “Xena is stupid”,Lesbian”, “Feminism sucks ass”, reads the messages that she shows to me when we meet at Starbucks in Beirut, pictured on her smartphone.

Why was it so provoking to her fellow students that Xena was an outspoken feminist? Was it because of the success of her page? Or was it because of her uncompromising position? “I am a feminist, because those ignorant rapists out there, have limited my Freedom! They have ruined my childhood! And made me lose my mental innocence!” says one post from September 2012.

Despite the harassments in school and on the Facebook page, Xena kept up her page and now it has over 6.000 followers. She has support from both men and women, and she says she loves it especially when men become feminists:

“That’s what’s keeping me strong” she says.

Xena became a feminist early in 2012 when she was one of the winners in a competition for young writers, on the topic “In Lebanon”. “True Lebanese Feminist” was the story’s name and it was chosen to be in the top 12 list nominated for the prize. After the story and the competition, it was impossible to look back.

Xena explains on how stories about domestic violence reached her and that the general suppression against women was what made her become aware at such a young age.

“The purpose of the page is to raise awareness about women’s issues not just in Lebanon, but also globally” she says. “There are too many stereotypes placed on women that I want to fight against.”

I started to follow the page myself in the beginning and have seen it explode in to what must have been a previous vacuum, where a similar feminist page didn’t exist before. On Facebook there are many pages for women’s rights, but few that create as much discussions. What makes the page different is also that when someone attacks Xena or her statements she often don’t reply, but let the discussion have its course, relying on her supporters on the page, and makes a point out of not insulting anyone back.

Every day the self-taught 17-year-old Xena updates the page with pictures combined with quotes; invites the followers to discussions; and shares other women’s stories. Female Arab writers like Joumana Haddad and Nawal El Saadawi inspired her. The numbers of followers quickly increased and the page turned into a place full of heated discussions. Not shying away from any subject, Xena brings up religion, sexuality and mass media from a feminist point of view:

Today is the international day for safe abortion!” reads a post with a link to “Women’s Rights to Abortion in Lebanon

True?” over a photo that states “Girls see over 400 advertisements per day telling them how they should look”.

Calling myself an outspoken dictator wouldn’t get me as much hate as I’m getting for calling myself an outspoken feminist” says another one.

Despite being as provocative in a society as Lebanon, one of Xena’s goals is to increase the number of Lebanese people on her page – out of 6,000 followers only 528 are from Lebanon (in comparison with 1,532 from US). It might not be a coincidence since her posts on religion and its links to patriarchy provokes many, and she has been accused of being a westernized atheist that hates religious people – a quite harsh insult in a society where religion plays a crucial role. Still Xena wants her page to stay relevant in her own country.

“I don’t hate religious people” she says. “They have the right to think whatever they want, and so do I – this is freedom.”

Since the beginning also emails for help has poured in. Many women from different countries have been writing to her about violence and rape, desperate for support, probably not knowing Xena is only 17. Xena takes her time to answer all emails, urging girls and women to seek help and not to feel ashamed.

I ask her how she handles it all. On top of managing the page on her own and the publicity it has given her, she gives feedback to all the members writing to her, and is also trying to finish high school to hopefully be admitted to nursing school this year. She admits that her parents, although very supportive of her feminist page, are worrying about the toll it might take on her grades.

“It takes all my free time… But the page is not pressure, it’s relief. I see a lot of injustice in the society, and I don’t want to hold these grudges in my heart.”

Photo credit: Xena Amro

Maryam the First Kuwaiti Woman on Antarctica

Maryam Aljooan

I saw Maryam Aljooan in Kuwait Science Club, holding a presentation for an enthusiastic group of young Kuwaitis, for the first time back in 2008. The club was located out in the desert, far away from residency areas and shopping malls. A bleak building from the outside, colorful posters describing the earth and models of the planetary system decorated the inside. Small, claustrophobic stairs led to the roof where a telescope offered opportunities to watch the stars at night. The place was a refuge for young, smart people who wanted to do something else but shopping or eating. In weekends the members went on star watching trips to the desert and gathered to watch space related movies.

Maryam was the supervisor. Her main interests were space, earth and environment; she had studied engineering in US, one year in Russia at St Petersburg Polytechnical University; and was dedicated to share her knowledge.

“In Kuwait I met many young people that say ‘it’s not possible here’ about anything. There’s a lack of believe in themselves” she says.

Kuwait is a wealthy country where oil, expats and American-style malls have put the country on the map for many. But Maryam’s own childhood was characterized by the Gulf War, when the quiet little country suddenly was invaded and subject to horrible abuse by Iraqi troops. She retells how the society changed afterwards into a hopeless place. Many had lost family members; with the Iraqi army targeting the young boys, almost every family lost at least one of their sons.

“Before the invasion we had a little farm in our school, we did music and learned about arts. After the war everything was put aside.”

According to Maryam, materialism replaced curiosity and involvement in the community. The influence of American culture brought fast food chains and malls popped up with food courts and imported designer clothes, adding to the growing consumer culture. In a few years obesity had become a general health problem (today Kuwait ranks number 1 in obesity internationally). Many young people had lost hope and saw no importance in accomplishing. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to finish school and getting married. In her own family, there was no history of education: own father had only finished high school and her mother had dropped out when she was 12.

“My grandmother didn’t really care about my mom’s education; she wanted my mom to help out with her younger sisters and brothers at home.”

Her grandmother had herself no schooling at all and had been married off in her early teens.

It might not have been likely that Maryam would continue at university; she also went to a public school, not one of the high-ranking American or British private schools. She retells how her family, although being kind and even accepting her marrying a European man, never encouraged her, and she didn’t tell them her dreams about being an astronaut – she nurtured the dream since receiving a small telescope and books about space when being a small girl. In school she was shy and didn’t know how to do things on her own, and until the last year of high school she didn’t know that there was something called university or scholarships to apply for. When her class went on a tour to the university she was surprised: “Oh, there’s something more”, she remembers thinking to herself.

Now she started to wonder if it possible for her to pursue her studies in the space field. A scholarship made it possible for her to move to US to study her bachelors degree, and a NASA conference in 2003 made her decide what she wanted to work with.

“Space, earth and environment are all connected,” she explains to me with enthusiasm on Skype from Belgium, where she lives with her husband Alex, whom she met on a space conference in Japan. “I want to contribute to science and do something for climate change.”

For long she wanted to be the first female Arab astronaut in space and kept an acclaimed blog about it. But her involvement in the Kuwaiti community took a lot of time; she became the supervisor of the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Kuwait Science Club and dedicated her free time to help the young members, at the same time she was travelling a lot and starting up her own NGO Lazurd (Arabic word for Azure, a hue of blue representing earth). She also put her efforts in to being the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica, and succeeded. Photos of Maryam with penguins; Maryam triumphantly holding up the Kuwaiti flag on an ice berg; Maryam in a small boat on her way over the chilling sea, fills up her Facebook page The Antartic Expedition of Maryam Aljoaan”.

I ask her why she is so dedicated to the young people in Kuwait now that she has a career of her own and is living outside of the country.

“I was in this situation myself that I see many of the young people in today. If I wouldn’t do anything for the young people in Kuwait I would feel like I would disappear. I know I can set my own example for the kids.”

If she would be able to help another woman to be the first Arab woman in space, she would now appreciate this as much as being the first one herself. I ask her what her parents think about her, the shy girl from a public school who became a celebrity in Kuwait; the supervisor of Kuwait Science Club; and the first Kuwaiti woman on Antarctica.

“My mom is proud” she says. “And as for my dad, well he don’t talk much, but when I was in Russia he made a point out of calling me when he was in the Diwaniya” (gathering at someone’s house). “‘I’m speaking to my daughter, she’s in Russia! She’s studying space engineering!’ he would tell his friends. That’s how I know he’s proud of me too.”

Photo credit: Maryam Aljooan

Riham – on Changing the Society

When Riham started the Kuwait Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign in 2012, it was the first of its kind.

“The general idea about eating disorders here is that it’s about girls wanting to be thin”, she says. “But it’s more than weight, it’s an addiction. A Kuwaiti girl saying she’s struggling with an eating disorder is hard.”

It was when Riham was 12 and watched an American movie where a young girl has an eating disorder, when the idea struck her: “I think that’s what I have”. It was in the early 90s and she was in the US where her father was a diplomat. Although Riham seemed to have a word for the rules she put up for herself around eating – she was only allowed to eat a certain number of foods, the food couldn’t touch either on the plate – she kept it to herself.

The family moved back to Kuwait and things got worse. Riham started overeating and quickly gained a lot of weight. She didn’t speak Arabic very well and her self-esteem dropped with her new extra kilos and the struggle with the new surroundings. Eating disorder was recognized internationally but in Kuwait the issue was not recognized, just like other mental health problems was often a taboo, even though many of the country’s inhabitants were suffering from psychological problems after the Gulf War. Still, Riham’s father paid attention to her problems: “On the contrary to what people think about fathers in the Middle East, my father saw exactly what was going on.”

Riham’s father made her see a psychiatrist when she was 21, but the doctor didn’t understand that her binging and vomiting was nothing that she could just stop doing, and although remaining in therapy her eating disorder remained unchanged for several years. To her great sorrow she lost her father at the age of 25, before she had been able to progress: “He never saw me getting better.”

A few years later she found information about Timberline Knolls Treatment Center in US online, and gave the support line a call just to see what they would say. The person on the other side of the line made Riham open up, and she felt trust. She decided that she wanted to have the treatment at the treatment residential center, to finally try and come to terms with her disorder. Riham’s family agreed on paying for the quite expensive treatment in Illinois. Two weeks later she was on a flight to the US.

In the center she lived with 35 other women that suffered from the same problems as she did. In short time she learned to overcome and master her disease that she had been battling since the age of 10. Her family took part in the regular therapy sessions by phone, even if that meant them having to get up in the middle of the night to participate. Riham improved quickly: “It was residential treatment that I needed. It completely changed my life.”

Three months later she signed out from the center and returned home, where she was to take another important step in her new life.

Not only were there no groups or therapies for people suffering from eating disorders in Kuwait before Riham’s campaign started – in all of the Middle East there is no residential treatment center for eating disorders, why many young girls and boys are left on their own. It was in such an environment Riham came of age, and this was what she wanted to change.

Upon her return from Illinois she started a training to be an eating disorder specialist. She describes herself as healthy and in recovery, with a lot of support from her “conservative, typical Kuwaiti family” – a family that is very happy to see a grown-up Riham helping other young women overcome what haunted her for years.

“My ultimate goal is to open a residential center in Kuwait or the Middle East. When you talk about it you kill the secrecy around the eating disorder.”

Her first step, the campaign, received a lot of attention when launched. Riham became a member of Middle East Eating Disorder Association, was soon in the board of directors, and chosen to be the Kuwaiti representative. She started a support group that now hold meetings every Sunday and have a number of young women attending. As her new mission started to take up most of her time, Riham quit her previous job to work full time towards changing the society by raising the awareness, not only regarding eating disorders, and maybe not only in her own country, but in all of the Middle East:

“There is a stigma around mental health issues here that I want to change. A person with these problems is not the crazy person walking around in the street; it’s someone like you and me.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog