International Women’s Day 2015 is on March 8th. In the run-up to the Day, the Pulse has been telling the inspiring, touching and enlightening stories of women around the world working hard for better healthcare and education for women everywhere.
Today we turn our attention to the Middle East and bring you the fascinating story of Dr Fatina Al Tahan, experienced breast radiologist and Director of the National Early Detection Breast Screening Program for the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health.
Dr. Al Tahan is a senior breast imaging consultant and has vast experience in conducting awareness and screening campaigns, having done so since 1997. Her devotion to programs for prevention and early detection is an essential principle in her personal and professional life and has earned her her reputation as a champion for Women’s Health Awareness in Saudi Arabia.
In a country where women’s rights and equality in healthcare are fought for tooth and nail, Dr Al Tahan has seen monumental change, especially in recent years.
“I used to work with breast cancer awareness and education groups for more than eighteen years,” said Dr Al Tahan. “But I can say that the most change I have seen has been in the last four to five years. Ladies are now more educated than ever before, and more willing to come to a screening clinic even if they don’t feel any symptoms.”
However, Dr Al Tahan sees a persistent, acute lack of awareness surrounding women’s health issues.
“There is a special culture in the Kingdom,” she added. “There is something of a taboo [around women’s health]. When some women come [for screening] they think we are going to tell them they have cancer, so they come very anxious and afraid.”
The way to appeasing patient’s fears, according to Dr Al Tahan, is to provide as much care as possible in one place, with as comprehensive and unified a screening procedure as possible. “We do our best to calm them and give the results quickly and easily. We try to do everything as quickly as possible.”
As a woman who has climbed the ranks of the Saudi Arabian healthcare system, Dr Al Tahan shared the story of her inspirational parents, who acted as role models for the whole family, all of whom went into rewarding scientific careers.
“My mother was always my role model,” she said. “She was one of the first ladies [in Saudi Arabia] to receive [higher] education, and as a result was very highly respected. But my father was also one of the first [in the Kingdom] to get a PhD, in 1924 from the Sorbonne in France. He was always very supportive. He had a big character but was always very democratic, which at that time wasn’t so common.”
International Women’s day is as much about getting women and girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers as it is about raising awareness. In a typically male-dominated society, Dr Al Tahan said that women are finding ways to reach job equality, although there is still some way to go.
“It’s difficult for women to get into medicine [here]. We are still in a very much male-dominated society where women are expected to do all the housework, even if they have just come home from a full-time job. We are now seeing women asking for different working hours, say 8am to 3pm, so they can balance a job with work in the home. This is especially hard for medical professions. If we can make it easier for girls to be educated and accepted maybe it will help them get back into medicine.”
“That is why International Women’s Day is fantastic,” she added. “It will remind us all to fight for our equality and arm women with the skills and confidence to be secure in their lives and their jobs.”
“We have social media, internet, satellite TV… this all gives women a lot of information and that is what we need for change. We still have some obstacles, this is still a male-dominated society where we don’t yet have all our rights. So there are definitely struggles ahead, but things are going towards progress.”