Fahmia Al Fotih was at the University of Westminster studying an MA in International Relations.
I was born in a very tiny mountainous village in Yemen. I was the first daughter for my parents but third child among eight siblings. Before I went to school, I had my “kindergarten” under a tree where an old man used to teach us Arabic alphabets and memorize Qur’an verses. I still remember vividly the one-hour walk to the only school on top of a mountain, which students from different villages attended. In that school, there were no chairs or tables, we used to sit on cold bare floor.
Despite the fact that I was still five years old, I had to contribute to fetching water, grazing animals, harvesting, helping my mother with different work in house. Girls traditionally had to focus on their “natural and main duties” that would prepare them to be good housewives. Therefore, as a child, I have never imagined a world existed beyond my small village or that one day I would go beyond the borders of my country!
In a society where girls are deprived from enrolling into schools, my high school was really exceptional as I used to be the only girl in a boys' school (the maximum education a lucky girl could obtain was up to the 6th grade). I thank God that my dad was a very supportive, exceptionally different and open-minded. My father, who was student when he had us, struggled a lot to educate us and insisted that we go to school, work hard and do our very best. Coming from uneducated parents, fortunately dad appreciated education and believed in the remarkable power of education for girls and boys equally. He instilled that in all of us. So, throughout high school I maintained a high level of academic achievements. I’ve thirsted for knowledge since childhood, and when I finally finished high school, my craving was further whetted.
The girls, who used to study with me in first grade, are now mothers of five or six kids! It is unbelievable but it is normal and acceptable here in Yemen. I believe that I was the luckiest girl to escape that fate.
Going to university was not easy either, I wanted to go to Media school but I was not welcomed in a male-dominated society where they demeaned women. I had to study English literature instead, to be a teacher, and I had to commute one hour and half each day to the university. While I was at the university, I started to contribute to the first English newspaper in Yemen. Upon graduation, I became officially a journalist, the only female reporter in the newsroom. Journalism was like a shelter through which I could freely and openly express my opinions, trying to change and make a difference in people's lives, to bridge the gap and spread understanding, and to correct stereotypes and stagnant traditions. In addition to journalistic activities I taught young girls and boys and it was an excellent combination.
During high school and university, I did not recall a day without harassment or insults for being in public domain, for not covering my face and for going against social norms. The hardships I faced made me grow into a strong woman, questioning the status quo and doing all I could to change the injustices I find. I had a dream and I have striven for academic excellence, always wishing to make the most of my education.
Winning the MBI AL Jaber Foundation scholarship was a turning point of my life. For three years, I kept trying to apply for MBI scholarships but I always missed the deadlines. The third time, I was so determined that I kept my eyes on MBI website. Then I applied the first time I saw the announcement and submitted my application, 2 months before the deadline, and I shared the announcement with friends. The selecting process took much time to the extent that I started to lose hope. Yet, a call from London reassured me and cheered me up, telling me I was among the shortlisted candidates and then it was followed by tele-interview. I always recite this process to the people who frequently asked about MBI. Yet, I feel always obliged to tell them about how transparent and fair the MBI is. There is no need for nepotism or to be well-connected or to bribe.
Among the seven luckiest selected scholars, I chose London and University of Westminster to do my MA and I was the luckiest. I have chose an education in international relations because I strongly would like to be a part of this mobile world, part of dialogue and part of decision and policy making.
My course in International Relations was really a challenge because I did not have a previous degree in political science, which required me to double my efforts. However, it was a new experience and interesting in all means. I was engulfed by the educational system that was far different from the traditional one back home and I was overwhelmed by the diversity of cosmopolitan London, gender equality, by freedom and human rights; things that do not exist in my culture. I studied with rainbow-color classmates from different parts of the world which enriched my understanding of other cultures as well. I had a chance to live with a very lovely British family and experience the British culture genuinely and closely. Studying in London at University of Westminster has liberated me and allowed me to not only explore a wider array of subjects, including media, gender and politics, but also explore myself. I learnt how I think globally and act locally. The amazing thing was that I had been appointed as Westminster Ambassador for the academic year and I really felt that I could be ambassador for real in Yemen. Not only was I involved with academic and extracurricular activities, I had a part-time job at the IELTS center at my university. It was an invaluable experience.
The blessings of the MBI scholarship were overwhelming and are continuous. MBI Foundation helped me to attend a conference in London where I met and networked with many marvellous people that fruitfully helped me to further develop my career. Upon my return, a lady who is a founder of Women Without Borders, and whom I met in London, contacted me which resulted in launching a chapter of SAVE-Yemen (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) which is the first anti-terrorism female platform. I ran the Yemen SAVE chapter and represented it at a number of international platforms but due to the popular uprising and the deteriorating security in the region and Yemen, we had to halt our activities.
Nevertheless, armed with my MA degree, it definitely has opened many doors and opportunities for me and I have been offered many work proposals from very esteemed international organizations. London was the right place and IR was the right course and I believe it has been extremely gratifying both on a personal and professional level. The whole experience has made me a world citizen.
Currently, I am working with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as a communication analyst, promoting and raising awareness about reproductive health, reproductive rights, gender and population issues in order to help reduce maternal mortality in Yemen (which is one of the highest in the region) as well as helping the UNFPA country office to improve communication and information processes and activities. As we are working on a range of issues, I also promote UNFPA’s policy, program implementation and work among partners, civil society, international and local media and the public. It is a challenging job as the mandate of UNFPA is culturally-sensitive so communication plays a vital role here to address the above issues culturally appropriately.
In the midst of unrest and popular uprising in the region, I have had a chance to take the youth portfolio within UNFPA as well, through which I had opportunity to work with young people and design projects and programs for them, and I have been tremendously inspired and learnt a lot.
Lately, I have been nominated by US Department to participate in the prestigious “International Visitor” program under the theme of “Education and Activism for Young Women”. It is a multi-regional program in which more than 17 countries take part. I am super glad that I have the chance to represent my country in such high-level programs. It has been a golden opportunity to get to know the US culture, education system, politics, civic society and much more. Honestly, whenever I go, I keep comparing the place to London and to UK. (I believe that London has been my first love). It has been an invaluable experience - it has inspired me greatly and I have learnt a great deal. I picked up some ideas for my work which I encountered in US and which I plan to implement.
I truly hope that all the work and efforts will come together for the way ahead, for a better life for women, men, children and young people all over Yemen. I hope to continue serving my people in Yemen trying to make a difference in their lives so I can one day return the favour bestowed on me.