By Sally Kennedy
As we go forward into a new year in Saudi Arabia, each month bringing more and more freedoms and opportunities to women, we are inspired this month by a lady who has been pushing boundaries and being “Liberated” by her own sheer will for a long time – opening doors for herself and others to work and be professional.
Azzah Al Deghather is a Saudi lady, born in Rome to a diplomatic family. She lived the expat life as she travelled with her parents to Ethiopia, New York City (seven years), Somalia, Lebanon and the UK being educated, exposed and growing up elite. From a family who greatly valued education (her two paternal aunts were educated in Iraq as engineer and chemist), there was no question that she would be a professional.
However, life has never been stable in the middle east and she was in multiple schools due to travel, changing political situations and “life.” Between Connecticut , Beirut, a very conservative school in Berkshire, UK; she excelled and eventually graduated secondary school.
Starting in the American University in Beirut as a pre-med, she discovered after a year and a half that her passion was not medicine……..having friends studying architecture exposed her to design courses and a whole new creative future. Women were not allowed to be licensed architects in Saudi Arabia…….her family did not approve……and once again war started in Lebanon. She went to Somalia and Kenya where her father was stationed and needed to change universities. Her parents agreed to allow her to study architecture if she could get accepted to one of the top ten architecture schools……a challenge not to be lost. She gained acceptance to Syracuse University, New York and graduated with a five year Bachelor of Architecture Degree. After graduating, she had a choice between a Master’s degree and a job in New York City.
However, life interfered…..her father was ill and mother had passed during her university days……coming back to check on her father……life’s responsibilities kept her in Riyadh……
But women were not allowed to be licensed as architects then……no one would train or hire her due to restrictions in the workplace, especially as a Saudi female. Qualified, passionate about her profession, how could she go forward? Perseverance and determination led her to working and connecting any way she could, with support from the Arriyadh Development Authority, (called “the test-tube baby”), …….she was able to grow; from giving workshops for philanthropic societies to women’s groups to advising women on interior design……..and if you get out and get active, people will notice…….! People started to hire her to advise on design……still not licensed she would have to work with a male-owned organisation to sign off on her work. She did what she had to do to continue…….finally she sent a letter to King Abdullah (GRHS), explained her situation (by then expat women could be licensed but not Saudi) and eventually got a reply of “no objection.” Bureaucracy kept her application going around in circles…….she kept pushing……contacting people……determined to get her license. Eventually, due to her insistence, in 2006 there was a royal decree allowing Saudi women professionals in all fields related to Engineering, Architecture and Interior Design to be licensed!!!
Azzah changed the world! She was the first licensed female Architect and consultant in Saudi Arabia.
She has her own consulting firm Mimaria Architectural Consultants who have worked consistently, placed in National and International Competitions, trained and certified in Earth Block and Rammed Earth Construction, she also has been researching theories on the relationship of Islamic Principles to Modern Urban Planning.
Saudi woman……expat life…….surely proving that determination, perseverance and strength of belief in yourself and your inherent rights can prevail.