Part of the “Women To Watch” featured in the November issue of Inc. Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East and North Africa region is home to millions of highly educated, driven and successful women who stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Here are some of those inventors, change agents, business leaders, educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors are no longer okay with the status quo.
When Jordan-born Nermin Sa’d first moved to Saudi Arabia with her husband, there was little to no chance of her getting a job as a female mechanical engineer. Her options were limited to either changing her career to become a teacher or to sit at home and do nothing.
Neither of these options appealed to her, and so her husband, also an engineer, convinced the men in his field to outsource work to her on a freelance basis. This lasted for ten years, and as she worked on, her freelance business grew to a point where she needed more people.
This prompted her to start her business, Handasiyat.net, a very successful online engineering platform employing only Arab women engineers serving in Saudi Arabia.
This, however, took a big turn one day, when she got some devastating news. Sa’d’s best friend had advanced breast cancer, and after having to undergo a double mastectomy, her husband chose to divorce her, leaving her with the broken memory of a 20-year marriage and four children.
Deeply affected by this situation, and overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness, Sa’d decided to put her engineering firm in the hands of her co-founder, and take a significantly different route.
She launched her second company, Smart Detection Bra, and spent $15,000 developing the prototype of a bra that could detect changes in breast tissue across five different criteria. Working together with oncologists and other medical and engineering professionals, Sa’d spends all her time now researching and developing her invention.
The final product is a bra, which would be worn once a month and would send various information about temperature, shape, weight and density to the woman’s mobile phone. This, in the hands of the public, could see an end to uncomfortable mammograms and limit embarrassing visits to the doctor, especially in a deeply conservative country like Saudi Arabia.
It does not help that there is a worrying void in research and statistics surrounding breast cancer in the Arab world. In February this year, the World Health Organization warned that by 2020, cases of breast cancer would double unless governmental authorities took action.
According to Sa’d, one of the biggest problems is that breast cancer —which is easily treatable if it’s detected early—goes undiagnosed until it’s too late.
“Because life in Saudi Arabia is so incredibly conservative, women, and many men also, are too shy to go to the doctor,” says Sa’d.
Sa’d is currently in the process of raising funding to the value of $3 million to develop the product. In the future, she plans to take her research and invention much further.
“If I’m able to perfect the technology and take the product to the marketplace, the same technology can be used for many other things, like detecting prostate cancer in men.”
She is hopeful, adding that technology has made it easier and cheaper to launch companies, which in turn has made it easier for Saudi women to earn money or have a career.
“There is still a lot of work to be done,” she says, “but I am seeing a lot of change happening.”
Sa’d is of the opinion that the onus to change the status quo doesn’t only lie in the hands of Saudi men to empower women, but also the women.
“Culture and tradition are very strong in Arab families, so it’s easy for modern women to just go along with how their mothers and grandmothers did things,” she says. “There needs to be more awareness for women to see that they now have more options than ever.”
Photograph by Studio Banat