Azzah Aldeghather was a pre-med student at the American University of Beirut in 1982 when she visited an exhibit of architecture students’ work. “I fell in love,” she says. From that moment, Aldeghather was determined to pursue architecture, even though it was a “forbidden” field of study for women in her home country of Saudi Arabia and her mother wanted her to become a doctor. But she was insistent, telling her parents, “If I am not going to study architecture, I am not going to study anything.”
Clearly, Aldeghather had found her passion, and she became a trailblazer in Saudi Arabia, recognized as its first licensed female architect and consultant. She is founder and principal at Mimaria Architectural Consultants in Riyadh.
The daughter of a diplomat, Aldeghather grew up traveling and living in different countries. When she decided to study architecture, her parents agreed they would allow her to if she gained acceptance to a top 10 program in the United States. “This was before the internet,” she remembers. “You just had to talk to people, to ask people.”
“I truly enjoyed each and every course. I remember all the professors with fondness, especially Werner Seligmann, with whom I bonded. His words of encouragement I hold dear.”—Azzah Aldeghather ’87
That is when Aldeghather learned about Syracuse as a leading architecture school and applied. She was accepted, stepped on campus, and immediately knew she had made the right choice. “My time at Syracuse was wonderful,” says Aldeghather, an enthusiastic and longtime supporter of the school. “I truly enjoyed each and every course. I remember all the professors with fondness, especially Werner Seligmann, with whom I bonded. His words of encouragement I hold dear.”
Upon graduation, Aldeghather headed to New York City with a solid job offer, but returned to Saudi Arabia when she learned her father was seriously ill. As time passed, he recovered. She stayed in Saudi Arabia, but was not officially allowed to practice architecture, though she did, with what she calls “amazing help” from the Arriyadh Development Authority. Her office was investigated by the mutawa , the Islamic religious police, a number of times, but she would move, set up shop elsewhere, and continue the work she loved, sometimes under immense pressure, including concerns about her father’s approval. “In the end, I realized my father had always been proud of me and had fully supported me,” she says.
In 2005, she wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explaining her problems and requesting legal status and licensing. “I wrote, ‘Islam does not say that women cannot work. Islam says men and women have the same rights for work.’” King Abdullah wrote back, “No objection.”
Unfortunately, the mutawa and some government officials still objected. Aldeghather fought for two more years and ultimately secured a royal decree allowing her to openly practice architecture professionally. The decree paved the way for other women in Saudi Arabia to earn professional licenses in engineering and architecture. Today, Mimaria employs two additional female architects and a female civil engineer, making it a leading visionary firm in Saudi Arabia, employing women in professional roles traditionally held only by men.
Mimaria focuses on whole systems design, an interdisciplinary approach to architecture that emphasizes a community’s particular needs and concerns regarding sustainability and social issues. Last spring, Mimaria was accepted into the Catalyst Program of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Each year, the San Francisco-based institute challenges companies, individuals, and institutions to submit innovative solutions to address humanity’s most pressing problems.
Aldeghather is hopeful the project will have a positive impact and serve as a model for similar projects. She’s also grateful to be a role model for young female architects. For Aldeghather, the difficult road was worth it, as overcoming the challenges helped her grow. “I had to be 10 times better than the men around me,” she says. “And this made me a better person than I may have been if everything was easy.”