From a distance I caught the aromas of coriander, cinnamon and something.. freshly fried?
As I awaited, sitting a on a comfy, brown chair, she entered the room with a sunny smile, graciously bearing a tray laden with Arabic coffee, cinnamon rolls, South Asian spicy,coriander chutney to compliment the Arabic samboosas stuffed with Halloumi cheese. It was all lip smacking!
Her unusual combination of trans-global dishes reflected her diverse background and her constant eagerness to challenge the status quo.
Dr. Chaman Rahim is a Bangladeshi-French citizen,an expat,who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 36 years.
She is an educationist, a cultural ambassador, a sports coach, a mentor, and mother to all!
She grew up in Dhaka, Bangldesh. She studied in both Bangladesh and India, completing her first MSc degree in economics in Dhaka. She was then awarded a merit scholarship by the French Government to pursue a second master’s degree in geography at the renowned Paul Valery University, France. She also completed her Phd in urban planning at Paul.
Dr. Chaman immigrated to Saudi Arabia with her family in the 70’s but her family’s association with the Kingdom started long before. "My father served as a British diplomat in Jeddah back in 1946," she said. A friend of hers suggested she visit King Abdul Aziz University located in the city of Jeddah. Initially a private university, it was converted into a state university in1971. In 1975 she began teaching at KAU when there were only a scant handful of female lecturers.
"During my schooling,I enjoyed playing sports!"She says. She was surprised to find zero physical activities available to her female students. Without complaining or arguing, she took matters into her own hands, convincing the vice dean to let her students engage in badminton, tennis, and skating. At a time when even whispering about female sports was considered immoral, Dr. Chaman’s verve and persistence made the impossible, possible.
Her happiness blossomed when the vice dean decided to build an indoor stadium and allocate $13,331 to buy sports equipment,"Oh,in those days, that amount was huge. Not to mention the area of investment: female sports!" she uttered with disbelief. She introduced, encouraged and trained many girls over the years and still continue to do so despite being in her late 50’s
Her position in life is to be a pioneer,to do the extraordinary, the inconceivable for women in her community. Logically her work did not pause with sports. She ventured into other areas where she saw a considerable absence of women - culture and politics. She wanted to offer young women an opportunity to develop diplomatic skills, igniting interest in world politics and culture, inspiring girls to become diplomats or politicians in a country where a patriarchal monarchy is the political system.
Dr. Chaman arranged the first ever Model United Nations Conference in KSA on April 2010 where 30 young women participated.“To convey the concept of MUN and an MUN society was very difficult," she said,"but thank God! It was very successful. I’m very pleased that so many had the opportunity to engage in this unique experience.”
Dr. Chaman is currently a lecturer at Dar-Al-Hekma Women’s Univ. where she teaches sociology, human geography and her own course entitled Muslim Contributions to Civilization. "The course is hugely popular’ she said with eager excitement."Every term the course is over subscribed; students just love it."
She feels students love this course because they feel pride learning about their own history and cultural identity, something they don’t get to explore in more conventional courses. As Muslim women, they feel inspired to fulfill their responsibility to their own and to the global community.
Back in the 80’s she was offered a job at the UN in New York which she declined."My dad wanted me to go but I was very involved with my work and family in this country. I didn’t want to leave my parents. I used to take care of my grandparents as well. "
Her parents were always supportive. "Especially my deceased father,"she said with a sad smile. "He was an easy going and religious man who strongly emphasized on our education. My mother, on the contrary, was more demanding; so we had a good balance in our upbringing. My mom always encouraged us to study and play sports.”
She’s been successful in conveying new ideas but she feels it’s still a challenge,“I want do more!” While she likes to get things done but she’s not a perfectionist."I will modify the methods and try to achieve the same goal in another way. Getting stressed gets you nowhere! I like to meditate and pray if something isn’t working out, but I hardly ever get stressed or moan or groan over something."
She has authored the first series of geography books on Saudi Arabia in English. Currently, she’s working on Heritage of the Hejaz :a book which she hopes will open new perspectives about the culture of the Western Province. She finds Saudi culture remarkably rich and diverse. "Many people are not aware of the wealth of Saudi culture, including Saudis themselves! I have studied a lot about this country and I am thrilled to put it all on paper," she continued.
As I savored the interview, her food and her story – I couldn’t help but wonder which one was the most nutritious; the treats or her narrative! I wasn’t surprised to find students and colleagues flocking around her. As one of her student’s claimed,"She builds castles in the air, literally and figuratively! She exposes a whole new side of us."
Dr.Chaman feels young women of Saudi Arabia should actively try out new things. "You should all be open to exploring new things and not dismiss something because it’s not fashionable. Try to explore yourselves and find out your interests; take cooking classes, play sports, learn languages, learn about your religion. There’s so much to do!’ She advises women to look ahead, to work harder and to show greater honesty and sincerity. "You are the future leaders of our country; you have to do this."
N.B. Dr.Chaman was a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Education and Planning (IIEP) at UNESCO, her research focused on female education in Saudi Arabia (2009), She was also selected for the Islamic Development Bank(IDB) award “Women’s Contribution to Society”. This award shortlists women from 65 countries. She was the only member from SA belonging to a five-member committee to which the award was presented.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Profiles