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Saudi Women Break Down Barriers in Medicine

March 12, 1993

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ When Siddiqa Kamel Pasha addresses a medical conference, she is usually the only woman on the dais.

No one is surprised to find her there, however, even though Saudi Arabia’s conservative Muslim society often segregates men and women.

Women are barred from many kinds of work, but medicine is emerging as the one field where the sexes work side-by-side and women can advance acccording to their abilities.

″There’s been a social change in this country,″ said Fawzia Pasha, Siddiqa’s daughter and also a physician. ″People used to turn down women doctors. Now they ask for them.″

Saad al-Dosary of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh said it has 39 women doctors and ″is similar to other Saudi Arabian institutions in providing equal opportunity for female physicians.″

Neither male nor female patients refuse to be treated by women, and women often prefer gynecologists and obstetricians of their own sex, he said.

Siddiqa Pasha, who now specializes in that field, never let being a woman slow her down. As a young general practitioner before the oil boom of the 1960s, she was the only woman doctor at Jidda’s only general hospital.

She came to Saudi Arabia, her ancestral land, from Pakistan and soon became a citizen. Her family originally is from the holy city of Mecca.

Quite often in the early years, a truck from Yemen would pull up to Siddiqa’s clinic in old Jidda to unload a woman who had suffered several days of troubled labor. The driver knew the patient would get the help she needed, even though the doctor was a woman.

Medicine in Saudi Arabia has come a long way since, and so has Siddiqa. In January, she was congratulated by the head of the World Fertility Federation, at a conference in Venezuela, for a video presentation on ″test tube″ babies delivered by the all-woman team at at her own hospital in Jidda.

Enrollment in Saudi Arabia’s three medical schools is almost evenly split between men and women. The kingdom has 666 women doctors, 44 percent of the total, according to Health Ministry statistics.

The Islamic custom of segregating the sexes has even increased the demand for female doctors. Hospital administrators say many conservative women ask for doctors of the same sex so they will not have to expose themselves to men.

Ten years ago, noting the trend, Siddiqa Pasha opened her own institution, Siddiqa Maternity and Children’s Hospital, run ″by women for women.″

Her husband is managing director, but all doctors, technicians and nurses are women.

A sign in the reception area says: ″No entry for males except with permission.″

″I noticed that, because of the conservative society here, women really wanted a women doctor they could confide in,″ Siddiqa said. ″They’re relieved when they see a woman doctor.″ Fawzia Pasha received her medical degree in Jidda and plans to join her mother as an obstetrician and gynecologist at the hospital in a few years.

″Some people from outside say that Saudi women have no freedoms - they’re not allowed to drive, and so on - but when it comes to education, we’re treated equally, almost preferred,″ Fawzia said.

Medicine may provide opportunity, but it is ″a hard life,″ Siddiqa said. When she was getting started, she delivered 5,000 and 6,000 babies in her patients’ homes, many in the middle of the night.

Because women are not allowed to drive, she had to depend on the fathers for transportation.

These days, Jidda has many hospitals, all with the latest technology.

When aspiring women doctors ask Siddiqa how they can devote the time needed to be a doctor and not neglect their families, she explains: ″We’re fortunate to have lots of domestic help in this country and we have the support of our extended families.″


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