Gender, politics and science

Despite being in majority among students in our schooling system, society creates barriers for women to progress

Muhammad Hamid Zaman February 22, 2016
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The barriers to become a leader in Pakistan are multi-dimensional. First, there is no correlation between a rigorous thought process, analysis and leadership. Ministers in the provinces show the rotten core of politics and their profound lack of humanity when they proclaim innocence when citizens die of drought, or defend protocol even when a baby girl finds the hospital doors closed to her. Organisations and institutions are not faring particularly well either. Academic institutions, with a couple of notable exceptions, lack the leadership to embrace diversity of thought and suffer from poverty of imagination and initiative. The Pakistan Medical and Dental Council has not been able to figure out, for years, whether to have private institutions on the same table as the public ones. Pakistan Engineering Council, not too long ago, was seen supporting the water car project. The dearth of leadership goes deep down.

The second dimension is along the gender lines. While good people of highest integrity have a hard time reaching the zenith of their careers, leadership opportunities for deserving women are even rarer. Despite the fact that women make up nearly half of the population and majority among the most gifted students in our schooling system, the society creates insurmountable barriers for them to progress and assume the mantle of leadership.

The third dimension of belonging to a religious minority is so obvious that it is not even worth mentioning here. People from the “wrong” sect have a hard time surviving, let alone thinking about grand ideas that can change our situation for the better.

But this does not have to be so. There are places in the world, where a woman, a scientist, an academic leader and a visionary, and someone belonging to a religious minority can become the president of a nation. Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, just over a thousand miles east of the southeast coast of Africa, did just that. Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a noted scholar of chemistry, with a passion for conservation, an academic leader and a fearless advocate for gender equality and acceptance of diversity in all of its forms, assumed office in June 2015. Not only is she the first woman elected president of the country, she is also a career academic and a scientist to hold the office of commander in chief of the country.

Dr Gurib-Fakim, throughout her distinguished career, has advocated for understanding the biodiversity of the nation and has championed the cause of conservation and environmental protection. In 1994, she completed the first-ever inventory of aromatic and medicinal plants native to Mauritius, thereby bringing forth a treasure of knowledge to the research community. This work, along with her subsequent publications, has led to the development of a richer understanding of African plants and their uses in medicine and pharmacology and has led to significant new discoveries and initiatives. Yet, unlike the charlatans, who sell snake oil and promise the moon, her work is based on rigorous science that embraces both the scientific method and the regional biodiversity.

Since coming to office, she continues to champion issues at the interface of science, education, environment and development. She is leading efforts to develop not only her own country, but also bring scientific rigour and high-end research to Africa.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2016.

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Jamil | 5 years ago | Reply This is very positive and important - but we have issues that are deeply problematic when it comes to women - we are even unwilling to recognize the problems.
Afzaal Ansari | 5 years ago | Reply indeed it is unprecedented example of a women leadership. Unfortunately, in our country insurmountable barriers are being created socially for women's success.
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