There were 156 people on the Zoom conference call. There was a host of esteemed women from Tokyo. There were scholars from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were Noor Abushammalah’s parents in Saudi Arabia. Then there was Noor herself, speaking before the virtual crowd from her home in Kanagawa.

“My lifelong dream of becoming an effective agent of change in society is moving forward,” said Abushammalah, with a steady gaze, wearing a neatly tucked hijab. “I am committed to empowering other Arab women.”

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone at home this year, the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) took their annual scholarship banquet online. Seven graduate students studying in Japan were awarded scholarships, including Abushammalah, one of two recipients of the ¥2 million CWAJ Graduate Scholarship for Non-Japanese Women to Study in Japan.

“The whole idea of the CWAJ is to empower women through education. This is exactly the core of my heart,” says Abushammalah later in a one-on-one Zoom interview. “It’s also about building a great and a strong community between women from different parts of the world, from different walks of interests, to empower each other, to value each other, to support each other no matter what. I believe it’s a really great association that we need to see everywhere in the world.”

A Global Effort

Abushammalah earned the scholarship to support her PhD efforts in the field of international cooperation, security and safety at the Graduate School of Integrated Sciences for Global Society (ISGS) at Kyushu University. Her research focuses on Arab women between reform and repression and their role in the ongoing geo-strategic rivalries in the region. She says her goal is to work as a professor in her home country or elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We need to represent our needs and demands and take it globally”

“We have so many researchers about gender in the Middle East, but it is really from anthropologists and historians. If we are talking about women studies scholars and political scientists and sociologists, we lack in these fields,” she says. “And to represent that from an Arab voice. To represent it from the Arab world. Not from outside the world or from a Western perspective. Not that they don’t know the issues, but because we need to represent our needs and demands ourselves and take it globally.”

When Abushammalah says educating women is at the core of her heart, it is not hyperbole. In elementary school she recruited female students to voice their demands and needs by creating a magazine that was hung on the school wall.

Abushammalah’s father is a psychiatrist and she grew up in a medical compound in a small city four hours away from the holy city of Mecca. While her friends and fellow students within the compound were of many nationalities and cultures, whenever she ventured out into the city local custom implored her to be completely veiled in a burka.

At home her parents exposed their children to news from around the world, which was then discussed and critically analyzed over dinner. The kids were expected to obtain a master’s degree. The field was their choice.

“Some people are not only poor in terms of money, but they lack basic rights”

“That shaped my love for political science and even understanding from a young age that there are people that are less fortunate in this world. Some people are not only poor in terms of money, but they lack basic rights including education, healthcare and also the ability to choose for themselves, what they want to be, where to travel, who to marry, and even divorce and custody,” says Abushammalah. “That really helped me develop that sense to voice out for other women in Arab countries.”

Choosing a university proved difficult. Both of her parents are native to Gaza City, Palestine, and Abushamallah only has a Palestinian passport, making it nearly impossible to gain admittance to a public university in Saudi Arabia. For her undergraduate degree, in 2012 she enrolled at International Islamic University Malaysia where her older brother was attending. Initially her chosen field was science as she wanted to become a psychiatrist. However, the university didn’t have the proper program, so Abushammalah followed her passion – political science.

Why Japan?

She met and married her husband in Malaysia and after graduation she sought out a new experience and a new system of education. She was drawn to the holistic approach at the ISGS program at Kyushu University. The day she found out she was accepted to ISGS was the same day she found out she was pregnant with her daughter (now 2).

At ISGS she says she has the opportunity to enroll in multiple courses in common, including politics, sociology, psychology, public speaking and even biology. Her classmates are from around the world, study different fields and offer feedback from a variety of viewpoints.

Abushammalah also says she appreciates being able to study the issues in the Middle East from the outside looking in, as she doesn’t feel influenced by certain information or pressures.

“That allows you to dig deeper into your research and find answers”

“Also my day to day life really benefited me in my research. When I send my daughter to hoikuen I really try to look at what is happening around me. Perceiving women around me. I am not comparing Japan to the Middle East, but it helps show what we lack in the Middle East – or do we have similarities?” says Abushammalah. “That allows you to dig deeper into your research and find answers.”

Her husband has already completed his PhD, so Abushamallah and her daughter followed him to Kanagawa where he took a job. Since she doesn’t need to attend classes, she is able to conduct her research remotely, returning to Kyushu once or twice a month.

She says her ultimate goal is to become a university professor and in order to educate the coming generations and have a larger-scale impact.

“My experience in Japan really enforced my goal that I want to make an impact. I really want to make a change,” says Abushammalah. “Because women in the Middle East, we deserve to be treated equally, to be respected and valued and to be seen as a human being – not as a super hero and not as a victim.”