Iffat Mirza, Raynes Park
When we think of women and science the most well-known names that spring to mind are Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Ada Lovelace. Each was a pioneer of modern science and they have continued to serve as inspiration for generations of girls and women who have expressed interest in the sciences and have overcome many obstacles to achieve their aspirations. However, the issue remains that the male to female ratio of recognised scientists rests in the favour of men. It is surprising to note that of all the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, only 2.3 per cent are women, while in the field of physiology and medicine, only 5.3 per cent are women. (1)
The truth is that women have always been involved in the sciences but are only just beginning to be recognised for it. There is evidence of women in ancient civilisations contributing to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. The earliest noted female in a STEM profession is Merit Ptah, who lived between 2700–2500 BCE, during the Ancient Egyptian era. (2) She was known as ‘the Chief Physician’ and was greatly respected in the court, however, as one would expect, there are far more recorded instances of men’s contributions to science.
Since the Dark Ages, particularly in Europe, many women were excluded from higher education and therefore from scientific societies, yet continued to contribute where possible, and were indeed, pioneers in many theories and discoveries. Indeed, many fundamentalists in many parts of the world would wish to see a return to the Dark Ages where women are confined to the four walls of the home. Belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, I am grateful that I have always been encouraged to pursue an education. The fifth Caliph of the community, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, has reminded us that that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had placed great emphasis on the education of girls. However during the late 19th or early 20th century, girls and women had little access to education and particularly very few Muslim girls had the opportunity to pursue secular or religious education.
The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah (peace be upon him), revived the true teachings of Islam and encouraged the pursuit of secular and religious knowledge amongst all Ahmadi Muslims including women. Hence, Ahmadi Muslim girls have been excelling in education and outperforming boys in many countries. Indeed, many women of our community are pursuing higher education in the sciences.
Women such as Ms Naeema Ahmad are paving the way towards a number of breakthroughs in many areas of science. She is the Founder and CEO of Africa Alternative Energy Initiative (AAEI). She is also the winner of the continental-wide Gathering of Africa’s Best Award in 2017. It is so encouraging to not only see women such as Ms Ahmad leading projects such as alternative energy, but also being recognised and appreciated for their works. This is what inspiration looks like.
One is inclined to ask, ‘how do we improve this?’ Steps have indeed been taken, for example the UN have declared 11th February as International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Furthermore, there are plenty of organisations conducting admirable work in offering bursaries, scholarships, and training for women who wish to pursue the sciences. However, the fact of the matter is that this can be too late for many girls.
Particularly in the British educational system, children are made to think about their career paths from about the ages of 14-16, whilst they are choosing and completing their GCSE qualifications. Therefore, young girls must be inspired and supported before they reach this age. It is imperative that primary and secondary students be taught about the many women that have led scientific research – not only in previous centuries, but those leading the disciplines in modern society. Serving as inspirations from a young age, girls will grow knowing that ‘scientist’ is not a profession reserved for men, which unfortunately is a stereotype which is consistently reinforced. As a young British woman, who has only just left the British school system, I cannot remember being taught about any female scientists in my GCSE curriculum, three year ago. This confused me. I knew that there were plenty of accomplished women in science throughout history, so why did I only ever hear of the men?
As with any problem, it must always be tackled at the root. In this case that means portraying the sciences as a realistic and achievable dream to young girls. To do this, they must be taught about the fascinating breakthroughs that women have achieved through the years: from Merit Ptah to Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman in space.