Call me Nisreen, insists Her Royal Highness Dr Nisreen El-Hashemite at the start of this interview. At one point, the 48-year-old Iraqi princess animatedly mimics a child’s voice in Arabic to show us how she speaks to her 74-year-old mother.
As she sips her coffee, she reveals her hobby of creating paintings with the coffee stains from her cup. “Each cup has my feelings,” she reflects. “If it wasn’t my own cup of coffee, I wouldn’t know how to use it to paint.”
Though she is the granddaughter of the first King of Iraq, King Faisal (I) El-Sharif Hussein, and a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, she has a surprising way of making you look past her titles and focus on her humanity.
“I don’t know why everyone thinks a royal princess has to wear a tiara,” she cheerily jokes to a rapt audience at the recent Crib Summit to empower female entrepreneurs.
On this occasion, the statuesque Dr Nisreen is dressed in a sleek black shirt and pants and no headscarf, the paragon of an everyday, modern woman. She adds: “One of my colleagues (at the hospital I work in) asked me, ‘Are you a real princess? You wear jeans and no makeup.’”
Dr Nisreen was born in Kuwait. After the 1958 coup in Iraq that dissolved the Hashemite monarchy, her family lived in exile, and she grew up shuttling between London and the US.
“At the end of the day, it’s our personal achievements which speak about us.”
– Her Royal Highness Dr Nisreen El-Hashemite
Her values and character were shaped by her mother, Her Highness El-Sharifa Fatima El-Hashemite and a Professor of Islamic Law, who taught her that “God made everyone equal”.
She recalls an incident where her three elder brothers were punished, after they forgot to thank their housemaid for serving them a drink. “My mother said, ‘Who are you not to say thank you?’ She taught us that to be descendants of Prophet Muhammad doesn’t mean we have more privilege than others. Titles do not make people. At the end of the day, it’s our personal achievements which speak about us,” she states.
Dr Nisreen’s accomplishments span science, advocacy and humanitarian work. Iraqis hail her as the “Mother Teresa of Iraq” for her efforts to help disadvantaged women and children. She spearheaded research in genetics and now champions gender equality in science under non-governmental organisation the Royal Academy of Science International Trust.
As a girl, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. The straight-A student in science eventually became the first princess in the world to be qualifi ed in science and medicine, completing a medical degree and a PhD in human genetics.
However, to fulfil her childhood ambition, she had to break with royal protocol to convince society to “accept her as any other doctor and scientist”.
“When I said I wanted to be a doctor, I was always greeted by the same statement. ‘Science is not for royalty. Nobody will work for you,’” she says.
As a medical student, she took public transport, became “addicted to jeans” and cooked her own meals. Later on, while working at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, she learnt to set her colleagues at ease with addressing her by her first name.
“I would say to them: you can talk to me; talk, but don’t touch. I love you from a distance,” she remarks.
Would she have lived a life of ease if she hadn’t pursued medicine?
“I would just be doing charitable work,” she admits candidly. “But I wanted to become Dr Nisreen, the doctor and scientist.”
She proudly recalls receiving her first salary – 2,100 pounds – as a doctor at London’s Hammersmith Hospital. “Since that time, I’ve lived off my own salary. If I want to do luxury shopping, I call my brothers and ask them to pay for me,” she jests, taking a subtle dig at herself.
Dr Nisreen left her scientific career in 2007 to devote herself to fighting for gender equality in science on an international stage. In 2015, she presented a resolution at the United Nations which declared Feb 11 to be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating the achievements of women globally.
She’s unequivocal that women should not wait for others to give them their rights, but to find the courage to speak up for themselves.
Dr Nisreen credits her Islamic upbringing and heritage for empowering her to stand up for herself and for other women.
“When I was born, my father celebrated for 30 days, more than my brothers, whose celebrations lasted only seven days,” she shares. “From my mother, I learnt my rights, and how equal I am with my brothers. Education is a must for every Muslim woman, even more than for a man.”
If that sounds surprising, consider how her achievements underscore the wisdom of her words.
Her eyes light up as she says: “When a woman is educated, you educate generations and society. A mother always thinks about the future of her child. That’s why her work is always sustainable and for humanity. In all scientific achievements, you won’t find women being destructive, because women have a vision.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Tan Wei Te
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim