Hakeema Al-Rakhami, first woman as head of the Medical and Health Occupations Union in the region to YT:”Women have become more visible and their participation is not just valued but needed.” [Archives:2008/1193/Reportage]

September 25 2008
Yemeni society is slowly accepting women working in the public domains although traditionally the health sector is one of few fields where womens work is not frowned upon in Yemen. YT photo Archive
Yemeni society is slowly accepting women working in the public domains although traditionally the health sector is one of few fields where womens work is not frowned upon in Yemen. YT photo Archive
An extraordinary woman, with a strong conviction that she can do it, Hakeema Al-Rakhami is a woman not every Yemeni but every Arab should be proud of. As head of the Union of Medical and Health Occupations, she leads towards change and the betterment of society. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she is not just the first woman in Yemen to hold this position, but the first to do so in the entire Arab world. Salma Ismail of Yemen Times carried out an interview with her. Excerpts:

What made you want to get involved in the medical field?

Medicine is a sacred and humanitarian profession. It's always been my dream to be involved in helping others. I've been in this field for 12 years, nine of them I've been with the Union. Through the Union, I can further achieve my dreams for Yemeni society.

Tell me a little bit about your job. What do you to from day-to-day?

My job on a day to day to basis involves the planning and implementation of programs in several governorates and solving issues with the relevant ministries. In the past couple of years, we have held 30 workshops all with the aim to develop and raise awareness on a variety of issues for both women and children. We have programs to further develop women's capabilities and to fight child labor. At the Union, we also have a monthly newspaper called “Voice of Unions”.

How many other women are there in the Union and what is the ratio of women to men?

There is a large percentage of women in the Union -almost 50 percent, and they are in many governorates. Women have become more visible in this field and their participation is not just valued but needed.

What challenges have you faced in the medical field as a woman?

As a woman, I have faced many challenges, especially in the beginning. During elections, I found much opposition. Many men where asking “How can a woman lead men?” This disappointed me gravely. Even after I won, I had to cope with pressure-from men- to step down. But I did not let it hold me back or their negativity affect me. You have to have a strong personality to wither their criticism. On the other hand, I did have a lot of encouragement from male colleagues and of course my family.

What, if anything, do you feel you have you sacrificed to be where you are now?

I have made big sacrifices. The biggest would have to be the financial sacrifices. Even during the three-month period in which I was campaigning, I had no financial support, I was on my own. Nonetheless, I took this as a challenge and was determined to win.

And what, if any changes, have you seen in the medical field with regard to women?

I have witnessed big changes for women in the medical field. In 1992 there weren't even five percent of women in this field. Today, women have accomplished and more. To the extent that today, there aren't even enough jobs available for all the available women medical practitioners.

Do you think Yemeni society is changing as far as it's acceptance of women in visible positions?

There is change but unfortunately, it is slow. Changing people's mindsets isn't easy. Although there is more participation from women and they now hold several high-ranking positions, certain societies cannot accept this. I personally have no objection to working 24 hours a day as I love my job. Unfortunately, working late or traveling alone is often frowned upon in some of the governorates that I travel to and this restricts me. Some governorates don't even allow a girl to learn, they say its 'haram'. Imagine what they think when they see me.

Do you think it's the government or society that resists change with regard to women?

The government has paved the way by putting the laws in place. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has made it easy for women to achieve by putting the15 percent Women's Quota in place. Most governments don't even have that.

What is the most important factor that helped you get where you are today?

I come from a very encouraging home. My father is my number one supporter. I also give credit to my brothers. Without them, this wouldn't have been possible; they have always supported and cheered me on. Also, I was able to prove myself to the Union. I've represented Yemen on a number of assignments in Yemen, Jordan and Syria and I've made the Union proud. This has boosted their confidence in me.

What, in your opinion, is your most extraordinary accomplishment?

My most proud accomplishment is the heading of this Union. All though there's the daily pressure of trying to solve problems, traveling and the responsibilities I shoulder. I feel proud and I wake up each morning eager for work as I love my job.

Would you ever consider running for government positions, for example parliament?

In the past, I have. I was greatly discouraged. I took my hopes and dreams to the 'muHafiz' [governor] and he told me it wasn't a good idea. At that time I was a hundred percent sure that I would win. For the upcoming elections, women must be united otherwise there isn't a need for women candidates.

Do you have any motivating words to say to young women who aspire to be like you, to achieve like you?

Perseverance is the key to success. I encourage women to set themselves long-term goals. Map out your plan then work your plan. Unfortunately, in our society you need to have some kind of male support, be it brother, father, friend or partner. Take things one step at a time. I see a lot of girls who get discouraged and fall into depression at the first sign of failure. Know that failure is part of success, and have hope.