Past Strength: Insights from the past, creating strength today

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Nouriya Shaya writes for Nina Magazine

Nouriya Shaya writes for Nina Magazine

Nouriya Shaya turns 90 this year. The first female bank manager, responsible for all Rafidain bank branches outside Baghdad, tells her story.

I come from a family of successful merchants, with high expectations for women to be educated. The majority of parents wanted their daughters to get married instead of going into employment.

In 1945, I decided to travel to Lebanon and study. I attended the American Junior College in Beirut. On graduating, I returned to Iraq. I applied to the Rafidain Bank and was interviewed amongst the men. I got the job, as I had the required skills for the position.

The Rafidain Bank was established in 1941; when I joined in the early 1950s, there were five or six branches. I specialized in the general management and then progressed to a lead position in ‘The Banking Facility’.

The Credit Department involved two divisions of banking facilities (for branches inside and outside Baghdad).

My responsibility was one of the biggest; I was the Banking Facility Manager for branches outside Baghdad. This included international branches: London, Beirut, Damascus and Halab, for example.

In the 1950s there were a few other banks who were competitors with the Rafidain Bank, such as British Bank of Middle East, Ottoman Bank, Eastern Bank Ltd and the Bank of Pakistan.

The Rafidain Bank, with their expertise, started to expand and open more branches, which I managed and led. The expansion was not limited to Baghdad, but spread to the other Iraqi provinces. Every governate has two or three branches, so I was responsible for more than 40 branches outside of Baghdad and the four branches outside of Iraq – in total, 50 branches.

Job opportunities in Iraq were not easy and being a woman was more difficult than a man. The percentage of women working in
the finance sector in Iraq in 1950 was just 10%!

The banking sector was seen as one of the most attractive sectors, viewed as a dream career, although the work can be demanding. It is rewarding financially, though, and therefore improves the quality of life for the family.

Most of the working contacts were 90% men (colleagues and customers). This was a challenge in managing my role. As a woman, to be able to succeed, I needed a strong personality, knowledge and creativity. I also needed to be confident, as well as helping others to progress. Good communication skills and credibility in every aspect of my work were essentials. I also always tried to be humble, which I hope inspired women in finance and beyond.

There was an occasion where a well-known businessman visited the bank to discuss a problem with his account and asked to see the manager. When he was directed to the manager’s office by the secretary, he was so surprised to see a woman sitting behind the desk that he turned to the secretary and asked to see the manager. I told him I was the manager. He left the office, but kept on insisting he needed to see the manager! My secretary ran after him, explaining that I was the expert in terms of what he needed. He returned, albeit reluctantly.

It wasn’t always glamorous as a wife and mother of three. I had to do a juggling act, which at times could be difficult.

My children were the most important thing in my life. My professional role helped to maintain their lives long term, giving them stability and a role model. Their values have been instilled from this, which has helped them to become strong individuals, able to deal with their own life experiences. When I look at my daughter, I see some of me in her, with her drive and what she has achieved.

You cannot have your cake and eat it, as the saying goes!

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  1. Jane Moon
    • Samar Whitticombe

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