She’s a Breast Surgeon & the first female Surgeon in the UAE. She made the word “Breast” more acceptable.
“Ignore the noise. Know for yourself what you really want to do and why you want to do it and then prioritize that. Yes, there is going to be give and take, but everything is possible.”
– Dr. Houriya Kazim
In this article, she shares what inspired her to pursue a career in medicine, challenges and stereotypes she had to overcome on becoming the first female surgeon in the UAE, starting a family, and so much more.
What inspired you to want to study Medicine?
One of the things I realized is that the battle I didn’t have to fight was my parents. I came from a family where education was number 1 above everything. If I said to my parents “I’m never getting married, I’m never having children” it wouldn’t bother them. But the day that I said to them “I’m not feeling like going to school today” that was like the world ended. Everything was about education, and it didn’t matter that I was a girl. And not just going to university to get a degree, but going the step further to study a career like Medicine and going on to specialize.
In my part of the world we get married very young, it is expected to get married very young. Anything over 21 is considered geriatric (laughs). The fear was that when the journey to a career like Medicine is ended, you’ll be at an age where you’ll be considered Geriatric and nobody is going to want to marry you but that didn’t really matter to me.
I really had the drive, I had the goal in front of me and I had my parents to support me.
You trained as a Surgeon at a time when it was not only very difficult for women, but also mostly uncommon for women in the UAE. How did you deal with the pressure of the stereotype that women in surgery are faced with? What motivated you to keep going?
The stereotyping and the negativity started in Medical School (1982-1988). At the time, you almost felt like an imposter when you said out loud “I want to be a Surgeon”. I remember being asked by one of the consultant surgeons what I wanted to be, and I said to him that I wanted to be a surgeon. He looked at me and said “You’re very aggressive” and I said to him “Strange, if I was a guy you would have probably said I was ambitious”. Things like that made you get more into that imposter feeling. But for me it was like being a child you know, when somebody says you cannot do something, you think “I am going to do exactly that” (laughs).
Besides all of this, during my surgical rotation as an intern in Dubai, I realized that women in that part of the world really needed a female surgeon. We have issues with exposing any part of our bodies to a male surgeon. So although I was the most junior on the team, the patients will let me examine them and I would have to be the one to describe my findings to the consultant.
And then I started seeing cases of Breast cancer that were very advanced, and purely because of modesty these women didn’t feel comfortable enough going to a male surgeon and showing them their breasts. That is what made me think in general that I would contribute to this specialty. Breast Surgery at the time wasn’t really a specialty.
I remember being asked by one of the consultant surgeons what I wanted to be, and I said to him that I wanted to be a surgeon. He looked at me and said “You’re very aggressive” and I said to him “Strange, if I was a guy you would have probably said I was ambitious”.
What was the reality of being a Breast Surgeon 25 years ago in a conservative country such as Dubai?
When I got back home to Dubai, somebody sent me a box of awareness videos on teaching women how to examine themselves for signs of breast cancer and some pamphlets that went with that. That was all confiscated by the Ministry of Interior as Pornography, so certainly at the time, you weren’t allowed to show anything near to what the breast looked like, even if you were trying to save lives by educating people.
After my training in the UK, I returned home again and wanted to call myself a Breast Surgeon because that is what I do, but the Department of Health wouldn’t let me call myself a Breast Surgeon, even with my license. Most people in the country wouldn’t use the word “Breast”, they’ll say “Chest” instead, and that’s the same even if you went to KFC to order a chicken breast (laughs). And it’s not because Breast is a bad word, it was just considered very personal.
But of course in Medicine, there is a Chest surgeon who operates on the Hearts and Lungs and I’m not that person. So that was a little bit of a fight to get that done, but in the end, they settled for ‘General Surgeon (Breast diseases)’.
A good number of women are concerned about the prospects of starting a family while training as a Surgeon. What did you as a female surgeon have to sacrifice to get to the top?
A lot (laughs). I had my children very late in life (My 40’s) and usually what that means is that you limit the size of your family and less energy to look after kids when you’re working. And most female surgeons I know did the same thing. They all had their children late or didn’t have children at all, and that is a big sacrifice.
I don’t have any particular regrets, but if I had started younger to have children I would have wanted another child.
I thought about if I could have done what I do while at the same time having children, and being honest I don’t think I could have. It was so time-consuming and I know now the hours have gotten better but it wasn’t like this back then, it was so tiring and then you had to study so much to get all your exams done.
It’s, of course, possible to have a child but if you want to be a parent to a child it is more difficult in surgery just because the hours are longer and it is physically more tasking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with starting your family first before starting your surgical training.
In addition to being a leading female surgeon in the UAE, you are a mum to 2 beautiful girls. Tell us more about managing a great work/life balance.
Well now that my kids are a lot older, it’s a different kind of parenting. In terms of the balance, I’m not sure I’ve actually achieved it. I feel like I’m always fighting for time. I try to do spreadsheets for everybody, I make lists all the time and I manage everybody’s time. A lot of the balance comes down to time management, if you’re able to do this you can put a lot into a small amount of time. Time is elastic and 10 minutes can be very powerful. For example, I can make 2 or 3 calls to my patients while waiting outside my daughter’s ballet class, and those are calls I won’t have to worry about later.
The other thing that I heard somebody else say is that there are 5 major things you spend your time doing: Work, Family, Sleep, Exercise & Social life and at any given time you can only do 3. For me right now the 3 I’m able to do is Family, Sleep & Work. I have zero social life at the moment and exercise for me will be going for a walk. The reason is that right now I just don’t have the time, and these 3 are my priority. It’s all about what your priority is at any given time and as you know, priorities change.
…there are 5 major things you spend your time doing: Work, Family, Sleep, Exercise & Social life and at any given time you can only do 3…
What advice would you give any ambitious woman looking to pursue a career in surgery but is worried about the challenges?
Firstly I think any high achieving person in any field is going to have challenges, so I think you’re just going to have to face those challenges. It doesn’t get easier but you definitely get better at facing them and you don’t fall apart so much. But ultimately challenges are always going to be there.
When it comes to career planning, what I tell the young people is that you have to ignore the noise. There will always be noise. Whether it’s your aunties telling you that you need to get married or your parents telling you that you need to be doing something else. There’ll be your consultants telling you that you’re aggressive, not ambitious. Ignore the noise and know for yourself what you really want to do and why you want to do it, and then prioritize that. And those priorities change, so it doesn’t mean “I’m making a decision today and this is my life plan”, you can always reassess your priorities as you go. Yes, there is going to be give and take, but everything is possible.
*image sources: www.medicsabroad.net; www.nytimes.com; www.thenational.ae
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