2023 Women of Discovery: Q&A with Alifa Bintha Haque

On October 12th, WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new Fellows during our 2023 Women of Discovery Awards Gala in New York City. In a special Q&A series, we are sharing a little bit about each honoree. Alifa Bintha Haque, a marine biologist, an assistant professor, and a DPhil researcher for the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, focuses on conserving sharks and rays in the global south context. Her research emphasizes relationships with local fishers and traders, empowering them to innovate and create sustainable approaches to conserve threatened sharks and rays in the Bay of Bengal.

WINGS: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and your field specifically?

ALIFA BINTHA HAQUE: My journey studying Zoology was a love-hate relationship with the subject. In Bangladesh, studying natural sciences with subjects like Zoology and Botany is less attractive than studying Medicine, Law, or Engineering. So, when I got the subject Zoology in my undergrad and the basis of the admission test result, everyone told me that it wasn’t a good decision for me to pursue this. However, I started studying Zoology with many apprehensions and fear of failure in life, until I had the chance to visit the fields, the coasts, and the forests of Bangladesh. Suddenly, it became one of the best decisions I’d ever made. I had the chance to visit the most beautiful places in Bangladesh as a part of my work. I had this fantastic opportunity to work with local communities and learn from them to understand the world from an entirely different perspective, and that’s a blessing.

My journey as an ethno-conservationist and marine biologist started on one monsoon morning while visiting Cox’s Bazaar, a coastal region in Bangladesh. I was standing at a fish landing site, and in front of me with thousands of specimens of sharks that Reese I never knew were present in Bangladesh, and we were caught on that scale. The same day I was also sitting on the coast, standing in front of the vast ocean, feeling so insignificant in the realms of the world yet pondering about our capacity to overuse all our resources. I was very privileged to get an education and the ability to work where I work, unlike the coastal communities who had to deal with many problems to earn their livelihoods. I was standing in the cross-section of the desire to save sharks and with the realization of supporting this community to be able to do so. I believe my journey started that day. However, standing today, I realize it wasn’t only my journey. This journey was created by hundreds of hours of fisheries, helping me understand these fisheries, the ocean, and about their lives. This journey is standing on the experiences of my mentors and the help of my colleagues and enthusiastic young teammates.

WINGS: What is something you would like people to understand about your work?

ABH: I want everyone to know so much about my field of work. However, three elements concerning marine conservation or community-based conservation in marine spaces are crucial to realize. First, know the species as they are in their habitats. Sharks are infamous for various factors, including how they are portrayed in the media as being vicious or menacing. The only way to combat the misunderstanding is via research, information, and top-notch educational initiatives. Second, conservation is about people. Animal conservation directly results from how humans act, what they choose to do, and what norms predominate in a community or society. More significantly, it’s crucial to know who has the power to make these decisions. While we want everyone to engage pro-socially and in an environmentally conscious way, best practices at sea are frequently determined by communities struggling to make ends meet in the global south. Therefore, it is crucial to comprehend these complexities while engaging in the conservation sector, particularly regarding shark science. Last but not least, conserving sharks is a team effort. Each individual has a role to perform, and so does each country individually and collectively.

WINGS: What are the greatest barriers to more women working in science?

ABH: It differs, I believe, in different places. However, some common things hold women back no matter where they are when they decide to enter the field of academia or science. One thing is the pre-existing social discrimination. It starts from the expected labor distributions amongst males and females. It is decided in many societies what a female needs to do and what a male will do. And where there is a lot of liberty for a male to determine what they would do in the future, the options for females are always narrower. Most alarmingly, you could find socially accepted justification for this. For example, why can’t a female go to the field or a remote island to work? You will have readily-available answers – that it is dangerous for a female to travel that long, there are safety issues, who would go with her, etc. Instead of discussing how to improve those conditions or actively include ways of mitigating any risks, we ask women not to take on something challenging.

Furthermore, we have a long way to go to understand the true meaning of equal opportunity in deciding what someone can do. There is always systemic discrimination in workplaces. When you have to fight more than a male to reach the same destination and earn the same amount of money or respect, many women decide not to take the path, and many are just stopped.

I have been so privileged with my opportunities, yet I had to answer questions doubting my legitimacy and ability to do what I do.

WINGS: What gets you up in the morning? 

ABH: My goals and my partner.

WINGS: What’s your next challenge? 

ABH: To create the proof of concept (in Bangladesh) that increased social safety-nets and equity facilitates conservation more than punitive regulations.

WINGS: Describe yourself in three words. 

ABH: Passionate, Grit, Altruistic, and Impatient (sometimes).

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