DUBAI // When the Dubai Medical College for Girls opened its doors 25 years ago, there was nothing like it, according to one of its first students.
The first medical school in the country pioneered the medical education of women and built the foundations for a new cohort of female doctors.
“We felt very aware that we were part of a new generation,” said Misbah Chaudhury, who was one of the first batch of 40 students.
“The idea of the college was to encourage women to take further steps in education and we were conscious of this.
“Twenty-five years ago, people weren’t used to women doing such practical work.”
Dr Chaudhury said the message spread quickly to the medical community, who welcomed the women during their time in the field and then snapped them up for residencies after they graduated.
Hers were at Dubai and Al Wasl hospitals, where she later found employment. “The college created opportunities which weren’t there before,” she said. “There was an enthusiasm to take us.”
Fatehia Bayoumi, the college’s chief academic officer, has been there for 19 years.
She recalled that when the first students graduated in the early 1990s, they went out into a much tougher market. There were fewer hospitals, and what jobs there were often went to men or those with far more advanced postgraduate qualifications that were not offered in the UAE.
Prospects have come a long way since then, she said, with many more government hospitals as well as private hospitals and clinics.
“These chances weren’t there before,” she said. The standard of applicants has also improved as schools have got better.
And it is now easier for women to move into the workplace, according to the college dean, Mohammed Galal El Din Ahmed. Parents are less inclined to oppose their daughters choosing careers that require them to work closely with men, or to work and be on call at odd hours.
“Most of the parents of our students have been educated themselves now,” he said. “They are encouraging their daughters to do things the other generations weren’t able to, such as taking part in exchange trips, which allows us to interact with other universities in the region.”
More than 400 girls now apply each year for the college’s 60 places. Although other institutions offer similar courses, including the private University of Sharjah and the federal UAE University, many still prefer to study only with other women.
“There has been a lot of research on the benefits of single-sex education for both men and women,” said Fatima Abdullah, an Emirati education consultant.
“It removes negative stereotypes, which allows women to excel. It provides a safe environment for women, and the families feel better.”
Segregation, she said, was largely behind women’s greater involvement in higher education. Some 70 per cent of Emirati women go to university, compared with 27 per cent of men, according to the National Admissions and Placement Office.
Russell Jones, the director of Fatima College of Health Science, said women’s education was still a cause to be fought for, especially in more remote areas such as Al Gharbia.
“These women we have are still very traditional,” he said. “In their first term we give them communication lessons, which will enable them to interact with patients. When they first come to us, they are still very shy and cannot even look people in the eye. After that first term, they’re so assertive and come back to the college with all that confidence, which enables their education to explode as well.”
Learning in an all-female environment, he said, eased the transition to the workplace, when students would be caring for both male and female, Emirati and expatriate patients.
Abrar Ali, 23, graduated last month. As the Kuwaiti medic was growing up, her friends told her she would never make it as a female doctor in the region unless she trained in another country. She has proved them all wrong.
But women’s battle to make it as doctors will continue, she said. “Twenty-five years from now, it will be the same as today. We’re still holding on to the same culture as 25 years ago.
“Even though we’re allowed to get our education, our husbands still expect us to be there for them, and for the kids.
“Even if he’s educated, even if he’s a doctor, he’ll still have expectations. Being a woman, we have to work twice as hard to get to the same place.”