Saturday, May 1, 2010

60: The Self-Empowered Woman: Qatar

Dear Followers,

Today's post is part of my never-ending quest to share stories about women's lives from all around the world. In the past 58 blogs, we've met amazing achievers from Cambodia, Chile, Cuba, England, Kenya, Nigeria, Yemen, and the U.S. among others.

The story of Hayat Khalil Hassan Nazar Heji is remarkable for a number of reasons. She is a 34 year old blind woman who lives in the conservative Muslim city of Doha, Qatar. Because of the woman pictured above (Sheikha Moza Bin Nasser Al-Mesnad, the wife of the ruler of Qatar), she has managed to change the way people in her country cope with (and treat) blindness.

Geography plays a major role in this story because in Qatar (a small Arab country in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate) marriage between very close relatives (heritage) is often the norm, especially first cousins. In most countries outside Africa and the Middle East this is considered a taboo, but not in Qatar. The result is that genetic disorders are often passed within families, many of whom have multiple blind children.

Dr. Heji suddenly lost her vision in the fifth grade. Her family sent her to London for surgery, but none of the three operations were successful. When she came home to Qatar (an oil and gas rich nation with the highest GDP per capita in the world with a population of around one million), she returned to a society that had no services for the blind.

Her father (unlike many other parents in Qatar) refused to keep his daughter separated from the rest of society (4: Supportive Someone). He and her sisters read books and lessons onto cassettes for her so she could do daily homework and study for exams. When she graduated from high school, she was ranked tenth nationally and enrolled at Qatar University in 1984.

Her father hired a special teacher to train her in Braille, and in two months she was able to read and write Braille in English, Arabic, Math and shorthand. When she graduated from college in 1998, she met Sheikha Moza Bin Nasser Al-Mesnad, who encouraged her to continue her education. It was the same year that the ruler's wife established the Al-Noor Institute for People with Visual Impairments. Dr. Heji worked there for two years and wrote the Arabic textbook for teaching Braille to young children and their parents.

In 2001, she moved to the U.S. and earned her Masters Degree from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and in 2007, received her doctorate in Education. Immediately afterwards she was named the director of the Al-Noor Institute. Her life has been dedicated to helping blind children overcome the challenges they face (7: Magnificent Obsession). Her school has developed a special tool to help teach Braille, as well as one to convey Math concepts. Vocational and independent living programs are part of the curriculum.

Dr. Heji's life is a perfect example of accomplishing far more than observers would have predicted (13: More Than Meets the Eye). While she was lucky to have the financial support of her country's government and emotional encouragement from her family, it was her own belief that problems "almost always have a solution" that helped her achieve her goals.

Thanks to Dr. Heji (who is single), 430 children - from preschool through sixth grade - are receiving an excellent education. In Qatar (where dogs, for cultural reasons, are not allowed in homes) Seeing Eye Dogs are impractical, but blind children are receiving Dr. Heji's best efforts to "instill independence."

Looking forward to your comments...

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