Glasgow to Guys- A Female Surgeon’s Story

by Safina Ali

Safina Ali, speaking at an interfaith conference.
Safina Ali, speaking at an interfaith conference.
Safina Ali is the surgical Head and Neck Fellow at Guys Hospital, London. She is an inspiration and role model to young Muslim women everywhere. 
The term “fellow” in the world of surgery is reserved for those undertaking specialist advanced training in particular area of surgery. She recently spoke at an interfaith delegation at the Scottish parliament as part of International Women’s day March 8, 2015. She was asked to share her journey as a focus on how a female from a minority background could reach far beyond societal expectations.
Safina grew up as a young Muslim girl in Glasgow, the first in her family to go to university, and here she shares her story from meagre beginnings in Ibrox, to becoming a surgeon in a major teaching hospital in the capital.  This speech was first posted on ‘Platform 505’


A Brief Family History

My grandfather had a profound effect on my life.

My grandfather was a Second World War veteran having fought in the Indian infantry.  After he arrived in Glasgow, he worked as a bus conductor, and took great pride in his role. His sense of purpose allowed him to work in a various sectors throughout his life and help raise a family. My mother is his eldest child. It was with great pride, several years later, that he then attended my university graduation and three years later my admission into the Royal College of Surgeons.

An arranged marriage in Pakistan beckons. 

After a few decades in the UK, there was nostalgic pull to the motherland, and my grandfather had a pipe dream that he would settle back in Pakistan in the early 70s.  Like many people of his generation, he feared his children would become too Anglicised so he sold his home and took his 6 children to Lahore and set up a bus company. This venture was unsuccessful, as he and his business associates were usurped, and were left with no choice but to migrate back to the UK. He initially left his family behind and then returned to collect them 3 months later after he had secured lodgings.

At this point the decision was taken to leave my mum and her younger sister behind. They were both teenagers and the fear of his daughters becoming too westernized was strong and besides which, they were of an age that they would be getting married soon (as per their cultural norm). My mum and aunt stayed back with their maternal grandfather in Lahore where they were home schooled in Urdu and Islamic studies. By the tender age of 16 a suitable partner had been chosen for my mum

Luckily for us all the match was a fortunate one. My father migrated to the UK after marriage. He started life here as a market trader, who arrived with the clothes on his back and a big dream in his heart. Like many other immigrants he had a steel will to succeed as failure was just not an option. I recall as a child being embarrassed by what my dad did, and the fact that we were six siblings in an era of 2.4 children! In primary school when asked about the size of my family, I lied and always said I had two siblings, as a family of 8 was just not the norm. However, now I would not change any of the enigmatic characters in my life for all the money in the world. Each of my siblings complements a facet to my persona.

How my interest in medicine was born

Having moved to Pakistan aged 14 my mum was married two years later very much a child herself. Prior to this she was at school and had dreamed of being a nurse and continued to educate herself despite having her first child at 17. She had 6 of us by the age of 28.

My early years were spent growing up in Ibrox, which may be regarded by some as one of the rougher ends of town. However, our top floor tenement flat was my haven and sanctuary. Fortuitously my maternal grandparents were to hand, being on the ground floor of the same tenement block. They would regularly babysit my younger siblings, so my mum could plan excursions. Going to museums or other cultural hotspots was as much for her as it was her children.

It was just by virtue of my mum’s many trips with her children to the Hunterian Museum that a passion for anatomy and by default medicine was born. The bell tower of the Glasgow University chapel as seen from our kitchen window became my goal, and there was nothing that was going to stop me.

My parents were however not keen for any of us to attend the local high school.  My primary school teacher was the last push of encouragement my parents needed to place me in a private school. It was not the smoothest of transitions for a child that had a very working class background.  My father’s big blue van with his company logo was a talking point for some of the other girls who arrived in executive cars.

My family has taught me that anything is possible when the circumstances in your life are favorable. I had a set of parents and grandparents that believed that the acquisition of knowledge and its execution were the makings of a perfect existence. They vociferously promoted gender equality by the true Islamic traditions, and not the tribalistic culture that they had been born into where woman were somehow regarded as second class citizens. My mum had 4 daughters, and in our cultural background that is sometimes perceived to be a burden, as you need to get them married off etc. My parent’s sole wish was that we were educated and self-sufficient.

On Being a British-Asian Muslim

I think my parents are actually very conservative Muslims, but they practice true Islamic traditions and not the Pakistani cultural norms. In doing so they have given us all equal opportunities. It seems “liberal” as this is a by-product of how my siblings and I have taken these opportunities. We are not moderated by my parents’ cultural background or identity. We see ourselves as Brit-Asian Muslims, a label which many of my generation can associate with. Although my siblings and I have the same core values we are very different in our interpretation of Islamic traditions and our cultural heritage. We have taken the best of what we see in both cultures from which we come, and implemented that into our daily routines. I guess I am more westernized in my dress sense, I tend to only wear Pakistani clothes at weddings or special celebrations. One of my sisters wears a head scarf (hijab) and again that was personal choice, nothing has been enforced.

Learning to be independent and other life’s lessons

Of course it’s not always plain sailing with the parents, and there have been times they had wished they had just a “normal” daughter. A very fond memory I have is my first challenge aged 21. I announced to my father I was off to work in South Africa for two months on my medical elective.

“Dad, Mandela is free! It’s all cool,” wouldn’t suffice to appease my father’s reservations about my travel plans to what he perceived to be one of the most dangerous places on earth. Obviously, then in a bid to keep me safe he declined the £3000 funds needed. My first taste of my newly found independence started with four letters and one outcome: HSBC and debt! But it was a lesson worth learning.

This trip was monumental to me in so many ways. It taught me valuable lessons, asides from having to fend for myself for the first time. Living amongst people of such diverse cultural mixes and religions, taught me the importance of cohesion. The world became a smaller place, and I saw the common thread of humanity, albeit thinly weaving us all together.

Training to achieve my goal

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Glasgow Medical School. After completing basic surgical training in Glasgow, I embarked on the Higher Surgical Trainee, East of Scotland rotation, this took me to Edinburgh and Aberdeen.  I also took a year out to do a research fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York.

Having trained in general ENT, and wanting to sub-specialize, I needed to do a further fellowship. I am now near finished my training as a head and neck cancer surgeon, and wish to be a consultant in an academic department. The fellowship at Guys is very prestigious and sought after. Unbeknown to myself when I started, I am the first female to do this fellowship since it was established 8-9 years ago.

Defying the odds

Being a surgeon to me has been nothing other than what I have trained to do on my chosen path. Although I have defied the odds somehow, I see it nothing out of the ordinary, however a recent interesting article in the British medical journal made me look over the profession rather than have the day-to-day perspective that I see (Ref 1).

Although 60% of doctors in training are women, we make up just 10% of surgeons on the specialist register. It also explored the psyche of women in the medical profession reporting that 50% of male medical students wanted to be surgeons compared with only 18% of females. The surgical arena was very much reported to be a male dominion with women feeling undermined and uninvited, despite having the expertise. With a lack of positive female role models, it just seems like an impenetrable place to many budding young female surgeons.

Whilst I have indeed defied the odds, women in surgery are STILL a rare breed. 

I am very much in a position that through my experiences both positive and negative, I can offer a unique insight into paving a clearer path for future generations. I am, after all, living in an era where for the first time in its nearly 200-year history, the Royal College of Surgeons of England elected its first female president. 


Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

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