As a little girl growing up in Nabatieh, Lebanon, I was passionate about painting and wanted to be an artist. My mother did everything in her power to push me into science. I grew up under the impression that art or even literature were not for smart people. I was also very interested in nature, plants, and animals, especially the exquisite cell life visible through a microscope. So I decided to be a biologist.
In my first year of college at the Lebanese University, my drawing of the interior anatomy of a dissected shrimp caught the attention of all my classmates. My professor, who was parading it in all her classes, said it was better than textbook pictures. I still remember the note she wrote on my first report: "Meticulous drawing." Of course, I had to look up the meaning of "meticulous" before I could show off the achievement to my family. It didn't stop there. I finished my bachelor's degree and decided to go for a master's degree in Beirut. My mom was ecstatic. Our relatives were already calling me a doctor. I did my master's in cancer cell biology and immediately fell in love with research. Towards the end of my master's, I started applying for PhD programs in the United States. Little did my mother know that fostering my desire to be a scientist and spend my life seeking answers, was ultimately going to lead me somewhere outside Lebanon, where resources for scientific research are not negligible.
My older sister and I were the only girls from our huge family to travel from Lebanon to the United States on student visas. Nearly everyone we knew in Beirut blamed my mother for allowing our ambition in education to go too far—more than 6000 miles to be almost exact. It put an ocean between us and our potential eligible partners and thus our ultimate purpose in life. While the idea of arranged marriage was not common in our family, it definitely still exists, repackaged and redesigned to make it seem less like an outdated idea and more like a built-in necessity.
The reality is that at the moment in their lives when aspiring women are ready to expand their horizons and explore future career options (if not a lot sooner in many cases), they are expected to start building a family. Peers start to focus more on marriage and less on academic excellence. The scary part is that it's not just society and peer pressure; at some point the pressure seems to come from within. Even our bodies are biologically designed this way.
I decided to reject the traditional path to "happily ever after," as Middle Eastern society defines it, on the basis that it would tie me down to a geographical area where pursuing a career in science was limited. However, when faced with choice between education and family, most women in the Middle East choose family, unwillingly in some cases and uninformed in others. The idea of pursuing both a professional and a personal life ranges from difficult to impossible, even unacceptable in some cultures. For science majors, especially for young women, it's even harder. Ambitious scientists, men and women, often find themselves digging for opportunities in the United States and Europe, regions that are leaders in cutting-edge technology and have better funding for research. Having different backgrounds and different expectations from Western societies, women from the Middle East find themselves in a foreign culture, unable to blend in and unable to let go of the inherited traditions that seem to pull them back.
With the hope that a shift in current women's status in the Middle East will be more perceptible in the near future, I still can't help but ask, if we are expected to hit certain life targets at a certain age, can we have it all? Is it possible for anyone to have two fulltime jobs—scientist or wife and mother—and be perfect at both? How do we choose one or the other? Even worse, how can we choose not to be 110% in both? Can we accept the fact that at some point in our lives we might have to settle for less than a perfect fit in a relationship or a job or both?
As progressive as I like to think that my way of thinking is, I can't help but wonder: If we choose not to "kiss the good life goodbye," can we still live "happily ever after?"