Job: Founder of the African Women's Health Practice at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston
Born: Sudan, 1966
Arrived in America: 1984 Nawal Nour was born in Khartoum, in the startlingly lush area where the Blue Nile meets, and calms, the rapids of the White Nile. Her family lived in a low stone house amid acacia trees, surrounded by the bone-whitening heat of the Sudanese desert.
That heat slowed and gentled people, made them kind. Nour's mother, born in Rochester, New York, noticed the difference the day her fiancé—a Sudanese PhD candidate she'd met in London—brought her to his home to live with him. She learned Arabic, and by the time her husband had become the country's minister of agriculture, she was a professor of plant pathology at the University of Khartoum. When Nour was three, the family moved north to Egypt for nine years. As soon as they returned to Khartoum, Nour ran to the Nile at sunset, flopped down on the hot yellow sand, and watched the kites stitch up the sky. She was 12 and looked forward to wearing a uniform—pale blue, with a white belt and shoes—at her new, all-girls school. She didn't mind the British-colonial formality; what she couldn't adjust to was her Sudanese classmates' constrained lives. "You mean you can't go?" she'd repeat, bemused, thinking how her parents let her attend parties, take trips, explore.
The following Autumn, Nour listened to a handful of classmates talking about how they'd been circumcised that summer and how much it had hurt. "When was she going to be circumcised?" they asked. "I'm not!" she blurted. They shrugged. Nour had an American mother and dual citizenship; she lived outside their rules.
Her father also was different from most Muslim-raised Sudanese: He believed passionately in higher education, especially for his daughters. He said it would set them free. When Nour turned 14, the family moved again, this time to London, where she enrolled in the American School. Sitting on damp park benches, reading The Hidden Face of Eve and The Second Sex, she remembered the pain her Sudanese classmates had undergone. The most common form of female circumcision in Sudan was the most severe, during which the clitoris and labia are removed and the vagina is sewn nearly closed. She began to question why women had to suffer so. The search for that answer would set her life's course.
At 18, she came to the United States to become a student at Brown University. She went on to Harvard Medical School, receiving her degree in 1994 and a master's in public health in 1999. As a resident in ob/gyn at Harvard's acclaimed Brigham and Women's Hospital, she watched Western colleagues jot "normal external genitalia" in the charts of Ethiopian women, not even realizing they'd had their clitorises removed. Disturbed, Nour started doing research and applying for grants, and discovered that Massachusetts alone has about 7,000 immigrants and refugees who have been circumcised.