Before she became a successful doctor in Europe, Iraqi woman Madiha al-Birmani was forced to attend an all-male school in Hilla, a large city in the province of Babel. She went there because at the time girls’ schools were not teaching the subjects she required for a career in medicine.
After graduating from medical school in Baghdad and working as a doctor in Iraq, al-Birmani eventually immigrated to Europe in the 1980s, working in Swedish and Norwegian hospitals until her retirement in 2009.
Last year a girls-only school for 600 students opened in Hilla, the result of around US$2 million worth of donations from al-Birmani. Her money also helped build classroom extensions at another school. She talked to NIQASH about the project, the status of Iraqi women in her hometown and overseas and how she feels about the situation in Iraq today.
NIQASH: In your book, you said that you were the only female doing science in a boys' high school. Is that part of why you later had the courage to travel to Britain to study medicine?
Madiha al-Birmani: I lived a unique and challenging experience at that time. It wasn't only challenging for me, but also for my family and for my father in particular, who allowed his young daughter to be the only female among a thousand male students. My father's encouragement and his support were decisive.
The two years I spent at the boys' school had a huge impact on my personality. But I consider the way I was raised by my family the cornerstone of everything that I was able to accomplish later on.
Despite all this, I still respect many of the traditions of Eastern women and follow them.
NIQASH: How do you account for your success in Norway and Sweden? At the age of 40, you went there, learned the language and studied medicine.
Al-Birmani: I did not go to Sweden as a refugee. I went there as a student and it wasn't the first time that I went to a European country. I put lots of effort into understanding the people of Norway and Sweden especially when I learned their languages and became proficient in them. After staying for a while in Norway, and getting to know the beauty of the country and the nature of its people, I decided to settle there.
I am very thankful for the luck that allowed me to become part of the people of this country. I urge everybody who left Iraq willingly, or forcibly, not to forget his country and to work for its interests. I urge everybody to plant the seeds of love of Iraq in the hearts of their children.
NIQASH: Some wealthy Iraqis have entered into other areas with their investments, such as the media or politics. Why did you decide to invest in a school?
Al-Birmani: I consider my country part of my identity and my roots. It had made me what I am now. I was born and raised in Iraq and I studied there. I wish I could do more to pay my debts to this country. I opened the school because I thought this would be the best way to pay that debt and to contribute to the education of our young girls.
You mentioned wealthy Iraqis. Yes, I wish that any Iraqi, who has the ability and the capacity to return and do something good for the country, does it - instead of simply talking about their love for their country. This country can only be built back up by its sons and not only by beautiful words. It needs deeds.
NIQASH: Did you insist on this being a school for girls because you felt that Iraqi women are discriminated against?
Al-Birmani: This could be true. On the other hand I have noticed that Iraqi women excel in all fields inside and outside the country, so it is important to encourage them. They are more efficient and active than men, despite the social pressures and those pressures justified by fictitious religious reasons.
Iraqi women have proven their ability in all fields of work and they are performing much better than men. Young Iraqi women are doing better in school and various statistics in Iraq prove this. The Iraqi women who live outside Iraq have shown that they are capable of carrying the responsibility.
In my opinion, they do better than men in learning host countries' languages and in everyday life. They try to integrate in their host society without sacrificing their traditions. More importantly, they take pride in their Iraqi identity.
NIQASH: Will the school introduce a new curriculum that fosters a spirit of tolerance and peace and concern for the environment?
Al-Birmani: My mission ended when I handed the school over to the Ministry of Education in Babel. However, I was able to contribute to the selection of the teaching staff. When it was the time to hand the school over, I had a short list with the names of the best teachers in Babel and I also suggested the name of the school principal.
When I returned to Norway, I kept up contact with officials until we reached a final agreement on the teaching staff. Some considered this a violation of the law but time has proven that the principal I had chosen was the best to handle this position. She is a very active person, well-educated and well cultured; she loves her work and she has lots of ideas to develop the school. I am still in contact with her and we exchange ideas, and I listen to her advice.
I think that Iraq needs a professional cadre. We need those who can develop our agricultural wealth and who can improve the use of the country's resources. Iraq suffers from a significant lack of professional competency, especially among its women.
NIQASH: Civil society organizations perform an important task in the West and their work leads to significant social changes. Shouldn't the Iraqis to pay attention to this issue as well, to achieve certain goals, which the successive Iraqi governments have failed in achieving?
Al-Birmani: In developed countries and in many developing countries there are charities. Most of the workers are retired, unemployed or volunteers who consider their work a duty towards their society. Everybody is a winner in voluntary work.
I sincerely call upon Iraqis abroad to actively participate in saving our young people from becoming lost, from extremism or from heading down the wrong path. I wish I could find people who would help me establish a voluntary society.
NIQASH: You left Iraq in a hurry and you left everything behind. You stayed away 30 years and now you’ve came back to contribute to a project which serves the public interest. Do you have a message which you want to relay to the Iraqi people?
Al-Birmani: Homelands cannot be built by governments. It is the people who build them and they put their governments there to serve them.
It is for this reason that I pray that the Iraqi people become aware of their responsibility towards their country; they should participate in its construction. Iraqis can participate and improve things without depending on the government.
It is true that the Iraqi people have suffered a lot but the suffering of the Norwegian people or other nations hit by disasters and wars are not trivial or easy either. There were cities in Norway and other European countries which were completely destroyed. Those people did not stand idle after the end of the war.
Each citizen joined hands and efforts with his neighbour and colleague, even if they were enemies before the war, and they began to build their country together, taking a path to heal wounds, building a momentum and forgetting their own personal and factional interests. We must also reject the culture of indifference because we are all responsible for what is happening in our country.