The Struggle For Women’s Education

Meet Saudi Aramco’s first women’s training center principle, Samia Idreesi.

It’s not often one finds themselves in the presence of a catalyst for change. We can narrow down the odds further when the catalyst is a woman, fighting for equal higher education opportunities to be given to Saudi women, in the late ‘70s.

Our protagonist is none other than Samia Idreesi, who, upon getting employed by the oil giant Saudi Aramco in 1974, was unaware of the chain of events that would change lives of hundreds of young Saudi women of that time.

Though hired as a translator–the first Saudi translator employed by the company I should add–life had other plans for Idreesi. A few years down the line, she was assigned as principal of an all-new training center established by the company. The center trained graduates of middle school and high school to become keypunch operators and typists. In a time where very few Saudi women were hired as professionals to core businesses in the company, those jobs were as high as one could reach on a career ladder.

What Idreesi saw was something else. She encountered ambition and a hunger for more. Young women with bright minds and a desire to learn was all our protagonist needed to challenge the status-quo. While the training prepared those women to be typists and operators, their male counterparts were learning chemistry, math, physics, advanced English; levels of training where, when passed, the young men of that time were given the opportunity to join a “fast-track” that would make them eligible for a company-backed scholarship.samia-idreesi_khobar_2017_aa-1

Those scholarships would enable the male students to obtain a higher education abroad; a privilege the female students were denied until Idreesi fought, relentlessly, for her students to be given equal opportunity.

“Let them at least sit for the TOEFL exam”, she pleaded with her superiors. After countless of meetings, the top performers from the training center sat for the exam and the results were what Idreesi expected: her students had scored higher. With test scores and grades in one hand and uncompromising determination in the other, Idreesi had built her case and won.

However, correcting the system was just one aspect; there were still the cultural challenges of the time. Young Saudi women leaving not just their homes, but country, was a hard pill to swallow. But nothing could deter our protagonist. She knocked on doors and spoke to families. She explained and exclaimed and slowly, but surely, the number of women armed with a scholarship and their families’ blessing started to grow. For those who could not leave the country, she helped them enroll in universities that offered distance learning, such as King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.

Because of one woman’s belief in the power of education and the potential of her countrywomen, a generation equipped with the tools taught both in school and life returned to the Eastern Province and became the professional pioneers of our time. These very women became the role models we looked up to growing up.

After serving the company for 20 years, trying on different hats and continuing to learn something new with each role, Idreesi left Saudi Aramco to try something different.

“It’s never too late to learn new skills. But more importantly, don’t be afraid to start something new. Don’t let the safety of your comfort zone prevent you from realizing your ambitions. Learning never stops, for as long as you are breathing, you can learn.” Idreesi continues to forge her own path, shifting roles seamlessly; from translator and writer to advisor and educator, then later in her life a businesswoman, she is always ready for a challenge.

As I sat and listened to her calm voice tell me her life’s journey professionally and personally, I found myself brimming with admiration and awe.

While waxing philosophical on changing times and minds, it’s almost impossible to not get inspired. At the end of the day, of the multitude of hats she has worn throughout her life, the most complex, and ultimately most fulfilling role has been being true to the woman that she is: the heart of her home, wife to a husband who has cheered her on every step of the way, mother to children who grew up to be adults that fill her with pride and joy, and have made her a grandmother (and great grandmother, too!).

Here, before me, is a woman with a life lived. Here before me is a woman who has learned and taught and loved and made it her life to learn, teach, and love.

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