A Yemeni woman’s struggle to prove herself [Archives:2008/1200/Health]

October 20 2008

Soad Ahmed Al-Sofiani is a twenty years old Yemeni nurse working as the head of the nursing department at Al-Zahra Medical Center in a remote area in the outskirts of Sana'a City. She joined this field three years ago as a practitioner at Al-Manar Hospital in Sana'a and decided to empower herself further through availing a nursing diploma from the Vocational and Technical Institute in Sana'a. Today she is about to graduate and has proven herself in her work that she has been appointed head of nursing staff at the medical center where she works.

Ola Al-Shami interviewed her to talk about her work, her personal life and many other things.

Isn't it out of the norm that a girl from your area is working in a public place?

Yes it is, in fact I am the only female in my large family and neighborhood who is actually working in such a public domain job. I have a cousin who is a teacher in an all girls' school and that is it. It was not easy to make such a choice but because of the encouragement of my family, especially my father, I was able to be what I am today.

Did you have to make any sacrifices for this?

I had to struggle to convince my family of allowing me to study nursing. Especially because it meant that I would travel for about an hour on my own everyday from my home to the training institute.

Also I had to break my engagement because my fiance did not want me to work. He wanted his future wife to stay at home, and for me that was not possible. I wanted to prove myself. In fact I wanted to be a doctor, but because of many factors I had to settle for being a nurse.

Even my elder brother said that I should not study because I will get married, and will have children. He said there is no point of studying since I will eventually stay at home to raise my kids.

I owe it to my father who stood by me and recognized my love to learn and agreed to give me this opportunity. Today I try to pay back whether in helping at home financially or in sorting any issues that need someone on the outside.

Does this mean that your family now is appreciative of your work?

Definitely, they are really proud of me, and they often seek my advice or help on many issues which they don't ask other women of the family. I feel that I have proven myself as a worthy person and dependable. But I also understand that this may also mean that the men of my society would not accept me easily.

What do you mean by that? Do you fear you will not get married?

Most men in where I come from are very traditional and dominating. They feel that a women can never do what a man does and would not accept a women who is for example earning more than they do, or has more education or better skills. Even my male patients are like that. I would be giving them medical care and ensuring their treatment and they would be thinking low of me. The male patients or male companions of a female patient think that they own me. Sometimes to the extent of eve teasing me or talking to me in an unacceptable language hinting that I care for them because I want them or I need their masculine touch. It is disgusting some days I feel down and wish I never joined this profession.

Is this the only problem you face in your work?

Another big problem is the patients' ignorance. This is not only frustrating for me but it can be very dangerous for them. Some patients are very stubborn and would not take my medical advice. They would rather do it their own way which many times makes me wonder why they came to the health center in the first place. I remember once a woman came with her daughter to take a Penicillin injection. She had no medical record and I had to test for allergies before I administer the full injection. The mother would not wait for this, when I argued with her she simply grabbed the injection from my hand and injected her daughter so brutally that the poor young girl was crying in pain. I was so helpless because there wasn't anything I could do at that moment except pray that the girl does not have any allergies and that she would be fine. When I realized that the reason behind the mother's rush is that she wanted to go to some social function I was beside myself with anger. She could have killed her daughter, yet she didn't seem to care or comprehend.

Many patients who come to our center don't follow the instructions I give them. They don't take their medicines as told, they don't take care of hygiene. And they are very noisy and loud while they are in the center. When I ask them to be quiet they simply laugh at my face.

In addition, there is poverty. Sometimes the patient is really in need to be cured as fast as possible, but because he is poor he asks for any thing to stop his pain temporarily.

Is this a common complaint by all those working at the center, or just you because you are a female?

It is mostly the Yemeni female health workers such as myself who get the bad treatment. Even the Indian nurses get more respect than us. In many cases, the Indian nurses shout at the patients and it works. But we can not be very vocal mainly because it is our nature as Yemeni women, but also because our environment requires us to be soft spoken and docile.

What are your ambitions for yourself personally and career wise?

My first priority now is to get my degree and develop my professional skills further. I believe that is the most important thing I should focus on and everything else would follow.

I also hope that at some point of time I would not have to work so hard and that I would have more time for myself and to visit friends and socialize more.

I want to minimize my work time. I prefer to work in the morning later. I have to see my friends and go to parties.

I also hope that a day would come when females in my area and everywhere would be treated with respect and as equal to men. That we would not get harassed simply because we put ourselves out there in the public life. I dream that our contribution to society would be acknowledged and appreciated.

Don't you hope to get married and start a family of your own?

I am not very optimistic on that front because I have seen how men treat their women when they come to the center for treatment. They are rough and uncaring even if the women is sick. They don't respect their opinions and think that they are ignorant and don't know anything. I think to myself if this is how they treat their wives in public, how would they be treating them behind closed doors. I just dread the thought of it.