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Leading the way: Saudi architect pushes the boundaries

Being a woman in the construction industry automatically puts you in the minority. But for Nadia Bakhurji, board member, Saudi Council of Engineers, doing just that in her own country has forced her to challenge an entire social system. Monika Grzesik reports.

As women in the Middle East gain a greater foothold in the construction industry, for those in Saudi Arabia, some barriers are not so easy to break down. In a country where women make up only around 5% of the workforce (the lowest proportion in the world), have few legal rights, are forbidden to drive and have a minimal role in public life, a career in construction would seem out of the question for most.

But for Nadia Bakhurji, life in the Arab world's most conservative country was no barrier in pursuit of her chosen career. Bakhurji is president of her own company, Riwaq of the Kingdom, which has grown to become one of the country's top architecture firms.

And last year she won a historical victory for Saudi women by being the first female to be elected onto the Saudi Engineers Council.

Confident, articulate, ambitious and, above all, optimistic in her drive to defy the prejudices inherent in her chosen field, Bakhurji inadvertently took on an even greater challenge - that of reshaping the society around her in a mission to achieve greater rights for women.

"I was brought up in the UK and my parents taught me to see that men and women are equal," says Bakhurji. "They never told me that Islam had a prejudice against women and, if anything, they made me proud to be a Muslim, so that's where my struggles started.

"But I was very positive. I just accepted the fact that my country had this issue with women, and that it wasn't the 'be all and end all'. With time, the obstacles of being a woman became more and more clear to me. However, I had a mental attitude where I refused to see the negatives," she adds.

After graduating in 1989 from the College of Architecture and Planning, King Faisal University in Dammam, Bakhurji found that, as a young woman, she was greeted with constant scepticism in her battle to gain credibility as a practicing architect.

"When I graduated there was no precedence for women in this field. There were very minimal, almost non-existent examples. People have images of women and they don't believe you can be responsible for a project.

"The other problem is the opportunities - where do you get your first project? How do you expose yourself? It's like a chicken and egg situation. You have to find somebody out there who will trust you and then once you get your first project, you get the next one, and so on. You slowly build trust and that's how I did it. Painfully, slowly, you find yourself gaining a reputation."

Paradoxically, Bakhurji says it is her female status that has given her the edge in Saudi's segregated society. She believes that the employment market for women will expand as clients realise the benefits of dealing with a woman.

"Because there are so few women in the field, the arena is open. The competition is very much there; it's quite ruthless from the male side, but there is a niche for female architects, engineers and designers in Saudi Arabia. A lot of people want to deal with a woman. They want their families and wives to deal with women. So the demand for female professionals is growing."

Bakhurji is passionate about architecture and design and there is no doubt that her perception is tinged with an underlying female sensitivity. Her focus is on creating socially responsible, environmentally friendly projects that cater for the needs of the family. She advocates the use of renewable energy resources such as solar power, but says developers in oil-rich Saudi don't want to know. She is unenthusiastic about the cult of the shopping mall, believing that the region is in desperate need of more recreational, educational developments, which serve the community on a deeper level.

"Women tend to be a bit more about survival and nurturing. I think a lot about my children and what type of an environment they will be living in when they are my age or older. I don't want them to turn around and say to me: ‘mum, you were a decision-maker at that time, why didn't you put some influence into making sure that our environment could be safer and healthier today.'"

Bakhurji now chairs the Women's Engineering Committee in Saudi Arabia and works tirelessly to boost the presence of women in the construction industry, helping to increase job opportunities through education and training programmes. She has put together a strategic plan aimed at empowering women, which is focused on creating a cultural awareness of the need and relevance of professional women to positively participate in economy building. Her presence on the board paved the way for female architects and engineers to be, just last year, granted official licenses to practice their professions legally.

Bakhurji admits that despite these advancements, she still faces resistance from those unwilling to accept the essential role that women must play in the country's development. "I've had some resistance. It's been indirect but it has hindered me. I won't say where, who and how, as it's too politically volatile, but yes, it has pained me."

Another difficulty is gathering enthusiasm among those in the industry to make the push for change. "Trying to get the girls together to rally is not easy. Now it's a busy time for anybody in the field of construction - they don't have the time to scratch their heads let alone be involved in a committee. Taking time out of your busy schedule to dedicate to a cause takes a very special mentality," she says.

"You've got to believe in your country, and try to get people to be positive and think for the good of mankind. It's very idealistic and not everyone wants to take that onboard."

Ultimately, Bakhurji is positive that the situation in Saudi Arabia is improving and women like herself will continue to achieve landmark goals. "I believe things are moving forward. I have seen a major improvement in the past 10 years. Time has proved that, yes, people like myself are right, women should be put in their professional fields. They should be given equal access to jobs and careers, if anything it's a necessity, not a luxury. This is a time of wonderful growth for women, we shouldn't waste a day."

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