Emirati women have many heroes to look up to. Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, Speaker of the Federal National Council and the first woman in the Arab World to preside over a consultative body, is one.
Others include Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs and the world’s youngest government minister; and Dr Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of State for FNC Affairs and chairwoman of the Media Zone Authority and twofour54 … the list goes on.
In this special report we go further back in history to the trailblazers, the ceiling breakers, the forgotten women who were the first to travel abroad for education.
Some of these women faced pressure from their parents and stigma for travelling abroad to pursue higher education at a time when it was considered taboo for a woman to travel without a male guardian.
These are the women who made it possible for Emirati women today to be anything they want to be: ministers, pilots, engineers, scientists.
In the mid 1960s, two Emiratis from Sharjah travelled to Egypt to study at a university – Sheikha Aisha bint Saqr Al Qasimi and Dr Aisha Al Sayar.
Shortly after, six women – also from Sharjah – enrolled in Kuwait University. By the early 1970s, 15 women from Dubai travelled to study abroad, and in 1976 the first woman from Abu Dhabi followed suit.
Today thousands of Emirati women travel across the globe to study – and they have those pioneering women to thank.
Mahfoudah Al Junnibi was the first Emirati woman from Abu Dhabi to seek an education abroad.
A few other girls would eventually join Ms Al Junnibi the same year, but the next batch to travel to Kuwait would be from the Northern Emirates.
In 1976, she was part of what she calls the “spoilt and pampered” generation.
Receiving 100 Kuwaiti dinars in allowance, with an entire building rented out for Emirati students and their own driver, she says she and her peers were inspired to work harder because of the Government’s support.
“We were pampered and had our own housing,” Ms Al Junnibi says. “The support of the Government was encouraging. We were well known at university as the girls from the UAE.
“We had our own bus with a designated driver, taking us to and from the campus and waiting for us until we finished classes. Every month someone from the embassy came to personally give us our allowance.
“We were so pampered and this support encouraged us to work as hard as we could.”
But like other young women, convincing her father to allow her to go was difficult.
“I was 16,” Ms Al Junnibi says. “It was a challenge. I’ll never forget my father’s face when he first took me to the university and he saw that it was co-ed.
“He met our cultural attache there and I’ll always remember my father telling him, ‘I’m entrusting you with my daughter. Take good care of her’.”
On her first day, Ms Al Junnibi overslept. “I was used to being woken up in the morning so I missed the exam that was responsible for determining my level and whether I’d be accepted into the programme or not. I woke up, quickly dressed and kept running all the way from the university to the college.”
She made it to the exam on time and scored one of the top marks, but, she says, “it was a challenge for my father in allowing his daughter to travel alone at such a young age, with our culture and traditions that frown on women even leaving the house without a guardian.
“We used to only go from the school to the house and vice versa. I had to prove myself to my father and family and to make them all proud for their trust in me.”
Ms Al Junnibi graduated with honours and was the first Emirati social worker from Abu Dhabi. She worked at the Ministry of Education and was in charge of social workers for more than a decade.
She was also the first woman in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“Women’s progression is not new but is a result of a strong foundation that took decades to form,” she says. “The building didn’t grow before the foundations were set.
“Our time was the hardest but while we were hearing about haram and taboos, our leadership was pushing us forwards and told us to go ahead.
“Support of the leadership is what let our parents approve that we move forward.
“What women have achieved in the West, Emirati women achieved a long time ago but it wasn’t easy and was a bigger struggle in our time than today.”
On Emirati Women’s Day, Ms Al Junnibi asks that women recognise each other’s efforts.
“I ask women today that when they are appointed or promoted to recognise that this is not the result of their achievements as individuals, but as a result of teamwork,” she says.
“Her success is not hers alone but the work of a team – whether it is the older generation or the younger. Without teamwork, she will not progress.”
As a pupil, Dr Shafiqa Abbas was at the very roots of the UAE’s education system.
“Every time we finished a grade they opened another class for us until we reached high school,” Dr Abbas says.
After high school, her options were to settle for the degree she had achieved or travel for higher education. She was determined to continue her education – but her family was not so keen.
“It was so difficult to convince my father,” Dr Abbas says. “Every time I opened the subject with him, he said, ‘What? Why? You want to work? You want money? I don’t give you enough money? You want to work for the money?’
“I said, ‘No, I want to learn and all my friends are going. Please allow me to go. I want to learn’.”
She had wanted to study interior design but the subject was not then available at Kuwait University, so she majored in English literature.
“I insisted on going and when I came back with honours, the Minister of Education and family friend, Abdullah Taryam, encouraged me to go for my postgraduate degree,” Dr Abbas says.
“I told him that my father wouldn’t agree. He told me to tell him anyway. As I expected, my father didn’t agree and told me to reply to Abdullah Taryam and tell him that I was the one who wasn’t interested.
“So I went and told Abdullah Taryam, ‘My father told me to tell you that I am not interested’.”
The late Minister of Education took matters into his own hands and called Dr Abbas’s father, convincing him to grant her permission to travel to the US for her postgraduate studies.
“Until this day I don’t know what he told him to convince him. My father was stubborn and strong, so I’ve always wondered how he managed to convince him.”
Her father died before she ever found out what was said.
Dr Abbas graduated to become the first PhD holder from Dubai and joined UAE University as its first teaching assistant.
“I was one of the pioneers. Dr Aisha Al Sayar was the first PhD in the UAE and she was from Sharjah,” she says. “Dr Noora Al Nidfa was the second PhD and I was the first PhD from Dubai.
When I came back from the US, they gave me a house and I lived alone in Al Ain. When slowly the others came back, I opened the door for them.”
In a sense, Dr Abbas started a rebellion. More and more women demanded to travel abroad for their education and live apart from their families.
“They were all saying, ‘Look at her, look at what she’s doing. Why should she be allowed to live alone and we are not? Allow us’.”
Dr Abbas taught from 1986 to 1995 and was later seconded by Emirates airlines to lead its training college.
“I really enjoyed it, it was a challenge,” she says. “Teaching wasn’t my field and I was supposed to be in administration at the university, but it was all men and they were intimidated by me.”
Kuwait was a turning point for these pioneering women, and provided some of the best years of their lives. It has been more than 40 years since they graduated but they still remember every detail.
The UAE Government would give them a monthly allowance – first 30 Kuwaiti dinars, then 100.
“With the pocket money we used to buy food because we didn’t like the food in the canteen,” Dr Abbas says. “We were in the best dormitories – Al Khalidiya, which was next to the campus.
“The other girls in the fancy building, they used to have to be driven everywhere, but we had everything next to us and could just walk to the campus because it was near by.”
On Emirati Women’s Day, Dr Abbas says she is proof of what Emirati women have achieved but says that these days they “have it easy”.
“I am so proud of Emirati women today, seeing that they are in every field,” she says. “But our time was a time where you had to push and fight to get through.
“When I first came with a PhD, everyone came to us for all sorts of problems, from psychological to medical problems. We had to be a jack of all trades. We never had the heart to let them down and came up with all sorts of answers.
“They would say, ‘Come on tell us, you are a doctor, what do I do for stomach pain?’”
Hessa Al Ossaily graduated from Fatima Al Zahra high school, one of the first girl’s schools in Sharjah, and went on to become the first female Emirati journalist.
Known as the “mother of media”, Ms Al Ossaily has recorded many firsts in her life. She hosts a Dubai radio show aptly named The First for the First.
“We were the group of students from Sharjah,” she says. “The first group was Dr Aisha Al Qasimi and Aisha Al Sayar’s.”
But after a year in Kuwait, the woman known by many as Mother Hessa decided to complete her degree in Egypt.
“I wanted to change the environment and the society from a Khaleeji one to a different one,” she says.
Unlike most, she did not struggle to convince her father.
“My biggest challenge was that I was a radio presenter in 1965 while I was still a student,” Ms Al Ossaily says. “I was the first radio presenter in the UAE at a radio station aired from an RAF British camp – Sawat Al Sahel.”
British soldiers in an armoured lorry would pick up 15-year-old Hessa from school and take her to the camp, where she would remain on air until 11pm every day.
“I was then dropped back home where I would sleep and then wake up to get ready for school,” she says.
Her hometown was very supportive.
“Society in Sharjah was very understanding and open,” Ms Al Ossaily says. “They were very progressive and the majority were educated and up to date with current affairs. Our first Ruler and the following Ruler are highly educated.
“That is Sharjah. The first PhD holder is from Sharjah. In 1971, I worked in Abu Dhabi TV and Radio.”
Ms Al Ossaily earned her bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature and Islamic studies from Egypt. She is the first Emirati woman to represent the UAE in worldwide Expos.
“Emirati society was never against women’s education,” she says. “This is a totally wrong idea. Maybe a few families were against it, but that was never the majority. Women began getting an education in the ’50s and in Sharjah.
“Dr Aisha Al Sayar was the first undersecretary. I was the first Arab woman to be commissioner general at a worldwide Expo, in 1992 in Spain.”
Of Emirati Women’s Day, Ms Al Ossaily says: “During the hardest of times, we reached the top.”
Dr Moza Ghobash began her education in the 1964 at the first semi-regular school established in Dubai – Al Ahmadiya, which has since been turned into a museum.
“We were a small group of girls studying at the school, not more than six or seven,” Dr Ghobash says. “Then we moved to Khansa school in the ’70s and the number of students increased to about 20 girls.”
In 1973, she graduated from high school, ranking first across the country.
Afterwards her real struggle started, one she shared with the most ambitious women of her generation. She had to convince her family to let her travel abroad to continue her education. She was one of only 15 girls allowed to go to Kuwait University for their bachelor’s degree.
“It took me three months to convince my mother to allow me to go abroad to study,” Dr Ghobash says. “The geography played a strong part in determining where we went and it was an obstacle.”
The further the country, the more reluctant families were to allow their daughters to travel.
Dr Ghobash’s parents were intellectuals and often hosted poets, politicians and philosophers at their home.
“We had newspapers from Iraq and Syria come to us as gifts and an extensive library,” she says.
But still her parents were fearful of sending her abroad. “They finally agreed but my mother kept visiting for the entire year.”
Dr Ghobash calls her years in Kuwait a “new dawn”.
“It was daunting for all of 15 of us,” she says. “Our upbringing was very conservative and Kuwait University was very liberal. They had student unions and political groups as opposed to our completely closed society.
“We were careful and scared, with words like haram, your reputation and your family’s reputation ringing in our ears.”
The women also went on university-organised trips. One of Dr Ghobash’s most significant was to Kenya, which was not only the first time she and her fellow students had visited an African country but was also the first co-ed trip in which any of the girls had taken part.
Dr Ghobash and the 14 other Emiratis were placed in student dorms but the following year, the UAE rented out an entire building exclusively for young national women.
In 1977, she completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy. When she returned, Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, had ordered the establishment of the country’s first university, UAE University in Al Ain.
Dr Ghobash was immediately hired as a teaching assistant but was soon packing her bags to travel for further education.
“I participated in the establishment of the university and was honoured to be tasked with supervising the female dorms,” she says. “In its first year, there were only 170 girls – now it’s almost 5,000.
“The speed of development of education in the UAE is astounding.
“Sheikh Zayed’s personal visits to the university showed families that he supported the education of girls.”
For her master’s degree Dr Ghobash chose to test her parents again but this time she chose a country further from home than Kuwait.
“When I came back to the UAE and wanted to study my master’s, my mother allowed me to go immediately to the US,” she says.
“So the choice of countries we were allowed to travel to reflected on how developed and accepting society was to an Emirati girl.
“I chose to travel and continue my education because I grew up knowing the importance of education and that the UAE’s development depended on it.”
She moved to Egypt, where she remained for seven years to complete her master’s and PhD. When she returned Dr Ghobash joined UAE University again, where she taught for 13 years. She wrote about 10 books and more than 50 research papers on the UAE.
She says that while she and her peers were viewed as trailblazers at the time, they were building on a long history of women’s education in the country.
“There are many great examples of educated women in the history of the UAE throughout the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s,” Dr Ghobash says.
“Sheikha Salama, mother of Sheikh Zayed, had an influential political role and Sheikha Latifa bint Hamdan, wife of Sheikh Rashid [bin Saeed Al Maktoum, then Ruler of Dubai] and my mother, and so many others.
“We had women in the ’40s who had educational majlises and judiciaries. They would open their majlis to resolve conflicts and offer counselling.”
Dr Ghobash laments the lack of media coverage over the roles of the first Emirati women who shaped the future of the country, saying they deserved recognition for their achievements.
“When Dr Amal [Al Qubaisi, President of the FNC] and the young ministers were first appointed, many believed it symbolised development of Emirati women,” she says.
“They never acknowledged our role in making this possible. There is no tree without roots and this fruitful tree you see today, where do you think it came from?
“Nothing is created out of a vacuum. When I came from Kuwait, my main goal was to call for women’s education and after a while I started to call for women in the workforce, and later we called for women to be leaders.
“Who introduced these values other than my generation?”
On Emirati Women’s Day, while they are proud of the achievements of women today, Dr Ghobash and her peers want one thing – acknowledgment.
“This day was chosen two years ago,” she says. “It’s a beautiful day but let’s celebrate all the different women who have contributed to the women who have taken over the reins of leadership. Let’s celebrate those who have paved the way.
“While some saw the importance of the younger generation in being the new face of Emirati women, it should not be the face that covers the truth which is that this would not have been possible without my generation and the generation before me from as early as the 1950s.”
Words: Shireena Al Nowais
Photographs: Antonie Robertson, Satish Kumar, Dr Shafiqa Abbas, Dr Moza Ghobash, Paulo Vecina, Aysha Al Abusmait, Hessa Al Ossaily
Video: Andrew Scott
Editor: Juman Jarallah
Copyright: The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017