Working as a female expert in a largely male-dominated sector as nature conservation can present challenges. This is especially the case in cultures where women in charge are often perceived negatively, such as in the Arab region. Haifaa Abdulhalim is one of those brave ladies who dares to show all others that women not only deserve equal opportunities, they also have an essential role for effective conservation work on the ground.
Working as IUCN’s World Heritage Coordinator for the Arab States and West Asia in the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in Bahrain, a so-called ‘category II centre’ under the auspices of UNESCO, Haifaa has gathered over 10 years’ experience in World Heritage conservation. While writing her thesis on the natural heritage of Jordan in 2006, she realised the potential for better representation of her region on the World Heritage List and in 2008 got involved with IUCN, the advisory body on nature to the World Heritage Committee.
“I became fascinated with the World Heritage Convention, as it covers so many aspects, from local communities to international decision-making, and is always evolving. Because of its prestige, the Convention is also a useful tool to motivate states parties to invest in conservation.”
As part of her work, Haifaa sometimes joins field missions to World Heritage sites. “I am often the only lady in a group. Women work in nature, but seldom in the field. It is not that women are not allowed to work in this area, but culturally it is perceived as not acceptable, so women never try.”
However, according to her observations, it can be crucial for a female expert to be present during a mission, especially when interacting with local communities who live close to World Heritage sites.
“In my experience, working with local communities is the most efficient way to implement conservation, because they take care of their World Heritage sites. And women are often more influential at the community level than men. They are powerful women who manage resources and interact closely with nature – they harvest and feed their animals. For example, men ask women if it is the right time or right place to cut a tree,” explains Haifaa.
“But some communities simply would not accept that a male expert speaks with a local woman. Discussion is very important to understand the challenges that exist at the site level and women are a lot more aware than men of the needs of the community. So having a female expert there can make things a lot easier.”
Despite this, Haifaa has met a lot of resistance along her career path because of cultural mind-sets. Some institutions have refused her participation in field work purely on the basis of her gender, “because they thought I needed special treatment”. Others would dismiss her authority as programme coordinator, only to accept it in time, since “they won’t find anybody else to deal with”.
Experience taught her that “patience can conquer every challenge” and her advice to other women who hope to work in nature conservation in the Arab region is to “make your actions speak. Changing culture is not easy, you will be tested. But with time, little by little, you will see a change.”
Certainly, Haifaa’s actions speak for themselves. Since she joined IUCN in 2008, natural World Heritage sites in the Arab region have served as pilots for the IUCN World Heritage Outlook – the first global assessment of all natural World Heritage sites launched in 2014. Two related ‘Tabe’a’ reports produced in 2011 and 2015 respectively (Tabe’a means nature in Arabic) were very well received by the conservation community and regional decision-makers, as guiding documents identifying priorities and capacity needs.
Her involvement in IUCN has been pivotal in establishing the Tabe’a Programme for natural World Heritage in the Arab region in 2011, and in 2012 the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in Bahrain was created. She now works there as part of a partnership agreement between the Centre and IUCN to implement the Tabe’a Programme. “We think it’s better to create synergies and work in partnership than separately,” she says.
Her vision is not only for the wonders of the Arab region to be better represented on the World Heritage List, but also for existing sites to avail of adequate capacities to ensure effective management. “The ultimate goal is to empower each country so that one day hopefully they will be able to manage all processes related to World Heritage by themselves.”