A tribute to all the badass women out there – Including myself.
By Dyhia Belhabib, PhD
As female scientists, academics, and researchers, we get a lot of support from our peers, as in any environment. However, there is a big part of the iceberg, behind the diplomatic scenes, the hard load of research and ambitious goals, that is yet to be untabooed. I know the word does not exist, but allow me to fabricate it, for the purposes of this article.
I could never imagine, in my childhood, that I would be working on the ocean, fish, fishers, and studying the economics of their livelihoods and the issues they are exposed to. Don’t get me wrong, I watched Cousteau’s documentaries like everybody else. However, I watched them for different reasons. See, growing up in a war/terror torn country that had just not had the time to recover from a war against the notorious colonizer “France”, we had our own way of expressing grief. Whenever a famous person (for the lack of a better word) was killed – a journalist, a politician, a singer, the country’s unique TV channel would mourn. First they would put a black “belt” on the TV Channel’s logo, then they would stop all movies, concerts, etc., and show only the news and documentaries. Music cannot be played during mourning period, hence the documentaries… and Cousteau. Cousteau did not inspire me beauty, and the sense of adventure. On the contraire, we would always say “Hey, there is a chain of documentaries, somebody died”. We would not always guess who, but the story was always the same, either that person was decapitated, was the victim of a bomb, shot dead in the middle of the street, or was found in pieces in front of her/his home. Is this shocking to you? It is not to me, I grew up with these stories, and I am kind of numb to them. Horror movies have to be really good to scare me. I am a very bad horror movie customer. “Note of humour”. Yes we had to adapt by making jokes, how else would one survive 15 years of horrible images everywhere.
Now, you can imagine that as a little girl, growing up to be a woman, I had a lot of restrictions, way beyond the ones boys were subject to. Unlike my brother, who is going to publish this post (thanks Kamil), I was not allowed to have a boyfriend, while he could have as many girlfriends as he wanted, I was no longer allowed to play outside by the age of 12. They even made up a word for that translating to “hide the woman”. I was allowed to go to school, and since the odds of succeeding in society were really slim for women who do not go to school, I was strongly encouraged to study very hard. I actually did not need encouragement, I understood quickly that it was my only option. Women who don’t study – at least back in the time – had only one other option, get married, young, to the husband, his mother, his sisters, and his cousins. I obviously did not want that life. However, society can put a lot of restrictions on you. Even your dreams are limited by the realities therein. I did not dream to be a marine biologist, a resource economist, or anything of the sort. I was not inspired by tunas and did not want to dive with sharks. I did not even know how to swim. Our journeys to the beach were quit limited, thanks to checkpoints by terrorists. I wanted to study as hard as possible and fulfill the dream of my parents, well more of my dad, become a medical doctor. Everybody wants to become a medical doctor there, or per default, a pharmacist. Those were the options.
Obviously, the other option, and other life objective was to get married. I was engaged by the age of 12 or 13, promised to the partner of a lifetime, my cousin in France. Yes, you read well, don’t act shocked! It does not stop there, I was doomed to become a banker, as I grew up and as he chose his dream, I had to follow the same dream. Then I realized, out of the question. I will do the complete opposite. What thing would be the most shocking, the most unexpected, the most revolting in this society for a woman to do? Go on a boat with 40 men to sample plankton. My passion was driven by a lot of anger and frustration. I broke up the engagement, I started university as a marine biologist who did not know how to swim. I still don’t in case you wonder. I mean I can dive, but I can’t swim.
A few years later, as I studied the works of Rashid Sumaila and Daniel Pauly, I already knew that I will do my PhD with one of them. That was a dream. My passion for the issues related to fishing grew. I became a badass woman in my own village. I embraced the dream of becoming a researcher and professor. I was the first young woman to travel to another country on her own in my town, and that opened up a lot of doors for the girls in my immediate family, and the ones in our town.
I grew up in a village where women were not allowed to go buy bread on their own, I had the chance to have parents who were open minded and defied the standards of society as much as they could. I grew up to come to the western world and embrace its liberties and freedoms. I became a researcher. What are the odds? I am in the free world… and then:
“Your boobs are symmetrical”
“That is the way I like them, on their knees”
“You should get an abortion”
“Moms in science are not perceived seriously”
“We should write a paper together, let’s meet at my hotel room, we can be friends and more”
“You can’t get paid that much [but I fundraised for my salary], yes but you can’t”
“This is Dyhia, she has cancer, which is why she covers her hair”
“You are not fit to be a scientist”
“You will never publish 5 papers a year”
“You are a Muslim woman from a developing country, you have to work 3 times as hard”
“You are not smart enough, that is why you have to work as hard”
“You are beautiful, I want to kiss you” – in an academic setting
“Have you ever cheated? Cheating is ok” – at a conference
“What is your religion?” [With a sad face] – How many of us get asked this question right after “ what is your name?” during a conference.
“Life is not fair, you have to accept it”
“Remove your headscarf, you will get a job easily”
“If you get raped, you should just relax and enjoy”
“This is Dr. [Insert name of male with a PhD], Dr. [Insert name of male without PhD], and Miss Dyhia”. I don’t even get the status of Mrs. with my last name… let alone admitting I actually do have a PhD.
“You will never become a professor”
“There are the smart ones, and the other ones, people like you compensate by working harder”
Until, today, I have always assumed that most of these were actually just bad jokes, do you think they are? Some of these were shared with me by other female colleagues.
I always assumed I got through the worst already? Terror, stigma, social isolation, and heavy traditions against women… Needless to say, I am a minority in Algeria as well, through my Berber origins, and I had that too.
I know there are a lot of unspoken taboos, and gender bias and gender issues are still there. But for me, I have the double struggle of being a woman, and from a visible minority that is stigmatized all over the news. I was lucky enough that those biases are limited in my environment but they are still there, and if words are hidden, actions remain.
I am from a visible minority, it does not stop at being a woman. People often tell me: “you brought your traditions to a Western Country, what were you expecting?” Actually, the Western country brought me the freedom I was always looking for. I came here with mini-skirts, and a metal rock style, dreams, hopes, and inspiration by so many other badass scientists, academics, practitioners, and many others.
I wanted to give a tribute to all those woman badass researchers, practitioners out there, to the moms who supported us in our childhood to succeed, the ones who walked 10 miles to get us water, food, and work to pay for our education, to those who support gender equity and diversity in faculty settings and elsewhere, and to those who stand up against such biases.