Lama Younis

Lama Younis, who is one of the first female criminologists and forensic psychologists qualified in the GCC, is the founder of Hissah Enrichment Center as well as the Lama Campaign, a non-profit that works to create awareness about children’s rights and safety in the Middle East.

As a Saudi Arabia-trained psychologist, Younis has sought to understand her culture, society and bring awareness and support where they are most needed. In 2005 Lama Younis was among the first women to graduate with a degree in psychology from Saudi Arabia’s Effat University, the first private women university in the kingdom to offer this degree to undergraduates.

Now Lama Younis has an established wellness center in Dubai, where her work focuses on raising awareness about physical safety, emotional well-being and dispelling myths around seeking help.

What motivated you to establish Hissah Enrichment Center?

Lama Younis: I was always wondering why there is a taboo in the Middle East around the topic of well-being. Why do individuals worry about what others might think about them or how they might perceive them? That’s when I started studying my society in order to understand how can one help them and offer the right services for my clients.

I believe individuals from the older generation are very much stronger than today’s generation, they tolerate things more. My mother, and women from her generation, are not very open to seeking help when it comes to well-being, unlike my generation, where some women will read about it and others might actually seek help.

Today individuals are much open and you see a lot more psychology graduates because a lot of the universities in the Middle East have made it available for women and men.

Why did you choose psychology?

LY: I always knew I wanted to be in the medical field. So I applied to medical school and got the approval from my family in Saudi Arabia and the university to go the girls’ college here in the U.A.E. yet then I shifted to psychology because I wanted to understand myself better. When you know yourself, you’re able to help others. My aim was always to find peace within. When you’re happy, you naturally make others happy around you.

Can you tell me more about the Lama Campaign?

LY:The Lama Campaign is a not-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the protection and well-being of children and youth through education and awareness. The organization is fully licensed in the U.K. with the goal of educating children and adults on child abuse in all its forms through prevention programs, public awareness, training and advocacy worldwide. The organization aspires to forge, guide and support a commitment by families, communities and nations to prevent child abuse so as to ensure that every child grows up in a secure and healthy environment.

 What about cases of domestic violence or marital rape – it must be difficult to operate in an environment with few legal protections?

LY: There is always difficulty in finding evidence in domestic cases in our region. In cases when women are raped by their husbands, it’s very difficult to prove. Marital rape is not recognized, no. People get away with it. I face difficulties in cases of rape and abuse because I need a guardian’s permission to take action (in Saudi Arabia), and we have has cases in the past where the guardians are the actual offenders. Not even a policeman can come in between family at times in Saudi Arabia. I also have difficulties finding proper evidence, because some family members cover up others’ mistakes, not wanting for society to look down at them for their wrongful behavior. Yet I still believe the (guardianship system) is the biggest obstacle I face.

Many do not distinguish between punishment, discipline and abuse. I believe many take discipline to another level that is clearly abusive behavior. I had a case once where a mother would actually rub fresh chili on her child’s body and make him stand under the son for any prayer he would miss, or any low grades at school, this is an issue with honor and shame. We are clearly a collectivist culture, where an individual’s behavior will represent the whole family.

Another challenge we face is the definition of emotional abuse, many are not very aware of it as this awful act is carried out in some kind of discipline form ‘its viewed as a lesson or some kind of push for children to correct the unwanted behavior, they actually do not realize the scars that are left behind for life’.

What other obstacles do you face when practicing in Saudi Arabia?

LY: When I just graduated, I was the first woman to graduate with a forensic psychology degree in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But in Saudi Arabia, they refused to issue credentials to me to practice and work in the government, I was only allowed to do so in private sector.

How does it impact your work now?

LY: It doesn’t affect me. The way I practice is that I focus on the lack of knowledge and information. I focus on behavioral training and consultation. After three years of our center, we proved this hypothesis about the need for education and awareness. The clients come to me seeking answers rather then declaring they need help right away. We are the first door they open.

Many avoid the truth behind their issues, believing living in silence is much better, when they actually lack a peace of mind. I only pray for legal protections to be implemented, for awareness and education to be a part of the government movement to see long-term change.

What is the best biggest obstacle you’re facing right now?

LY: In the beginning I was frustrated, but after four years I found my way through. My business goals shifted. My focus shifted from adults to children, students, and younger generation after two years of opening the business. Younger generation is more open to knowledge. It’s nice to see them stand up for what they believe in. They are willing to implement positive change in their lives and society.

So there is a shift happening. What do you think needs to happen next, from the legal perspective and wider society to confront these issues?

LY: Education and awareness are my main goals. I have helped in many cases with children’s rights and other cases due to the lack of knowledge and clarity in the system. If we can have things clarified and information out in the public, then I believe many victims will come out to speak. The lack of knowledge keeps many in the dark and in silence. That is why I am on a mission to empower, to guide and to educate because that is the best way to move forward.

Our Aims at The Lama Campaign is to educate people across a range of sectors to increase knowledge, child protection training programs for professionals working with children and community education through seminars and so much more.

Originally Published on Ella