« Islam has granted women rights for 1100 years »
MARYAM SULTAN LOOTAH, a political science teacher at UAE university in Al Ain, walked in the steps of first female teacher in the field, Nasrin Murad, who paved the way in 1982. She came a long way from the days when « it was either teach or heal » for girls. She sheds the light on women evolution in UAE and the importance of culture in understanding their rights. INTERVIEW.
How did you decide to major in political science ?
I was born in 1954. When I was a baby, I was always with my father. Among men, they always talked about politics, especially in the Arab world. In the 60’s, he was working in Koweit for British Petroleum. Foreigners –English, Indians, Arabs- sat for hours talking about politics. When the war broke between Egypt and Israel in 1976, I was 6. They shot the schools down. In those days, teachers were Palestinan and Egyptian. A big car was wandering around the streets with a loudspeaker playing an Arab national song. It was as if the war was there. The tension was high. Suddenly, a bottle of Pepsi cola crashed on the street and everybody thought it was a bomb. I arrived home to find my father crying… (Maryam Lootah stops talking, her eyes full of tears). I cry for the Palestinian people who have been suffering all these years…
So politics entered you life as a hard fact?
My mother wanted me to become a teacher and my dad enviosionned my career as court soliciter. I wanted to be a doctor. But in High school, I chose art so I could not become a doctor. Then, I joined Al Ain University in 1978.
You were one the first university female student in the UAE ?
It was the second year that girls entered university, yes. My cousins were among the first. I was an average student at the time and I was not really keen to go. So my cousins told me to pick an easy subject. As I wanted to challenge them, I chose the most difficult subjects. I put a tick on politics, politics, politics and nothing else.
And that was the right choice ?
I felt that God had put me on the right track. I got grade A all over. I finished with 3.4 (3.5 is A). Then, I wanted to become a journalist but my mother said I should teach either in school or in a hospital. In those days, it was either teach or heal ! I figured God wanted the best for me and I started in the hospital. I stayed three days and came back home. I knew it would not give me any satisfaction and that I would not learn anything. My parents asked me what I was going to do : I read. My father offered me to open a private school for me or suggested I started a women’s club but I turned it down. I decided to study in Egypt and applied to Cairo University without telling them.
You went to Egypt without their approval ?
My father told my mother it would be wiser to let me go. He said I would do everything anyway. It was the best college in the Arab world in politics and economy. He did not want to geopardize my future. I lived in a hostel for Emirati girls. The first year was very difficult. I missed my family so much. Then I finished my Phd in seven years : I was the first student to finish so quickly.
What issues were you interested in ?
My thesis was on political stability in the UAE, the relationship between sheikhs and society. This good relation is the main factor of stability here. There is a high level of satisfaction among the people towards their regime. Since then, I have been teaching at UAE University in 17 different topics in politics.
How did you see the place of women evolve ?
Women have always been very active and involved in different fields. They have always participated in politics, economy, education, health and traditional handicrafts. Before education and oil… In 1953, formal education started. This was Nasser’s major contribution to the region. Koweit supported education in the UAE. At that time, teachers were not only teaching, there were prophets teaching from their hearts.
What did education change for women ?
This gave women a big push to participate in a different way : to be teachers, doctors. Day by day, it changed even society : women started to establish women’s associations like the one of Hessah Lootah and Aicha Captain in 1968 in Dubai.
What can you say about your female students today?
I think education was much better in the old days because of the teachers. Teaching was valued in society. Being a teacher was a respected profession. Nowadays, it is more important to be rich. That’s what matters. It started in 1991 with globalization and material thinking. And their salary is so low now that it is not attractive. They don’t get any satisfaction from their job. I am very sorry because I believe teaching is the most important thing for the next generation. And the majority of teachers are foreigners now. They are mostly interested in salary and then they leave. It’s not a passion. And they come from a different culture. Schools used to be a place where we get knowledgable. Today stduents get their knowledge from elsewhere : internet. The role of teachers is becoming narrow. If the source is good and rich it’s a good thing but most of the time youngsters only chat. It also affects the language. I think it is our right to learn in our language. When you don’t learn in your mother tongue, you get only shallow knowledge and you cannot be creative. Language is a tool but they treat it as a goal. It also affects our identity. This is an important issue especially due to the fact that we are a minority in the country. Schools should insist on Arabic to maintain our culture and identity.
What is typical of Emirati women ?
Women -especially in the past- always had strong personalities especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
My Great grand mother Rafia bint Thani bin Katami (Suwaidi family) for example, was the most famous traditonial healer. She was a strong religious lady. She wrote and read and wrote many books about healing and even treated men and women ! She healed the wounded from the war. Even the Sheikh of Ajman, Seikh Rashid bin Hamid, gave her respect. They were cousins. People think that men can marry any women. But when her husband wanted to take a second wife, he asked for her approval. He even offered to give her all the property, all the staff (slaves at the time, maybe 150 people), jewelery, money… She was wise and stayed not to affect her dignity. He kept a very good relation to her.
How do you explain that women in the UAE have managed to reach high positions ?
I think it is due to the fact that the we are a maliki* branch of Sunnis in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Not based on control but on mind, according to what my father taught me. My Grandmother, my Aunties were all strong personalities and my father tied it to the fact that we come from the maliki school of Sunna. Kuweit and Bahrein started before us to give education and freedom to women. Actually in 1953, Kuweit supported education for women here. But the government here played a very good role. Some families did not accept their daughters to go to school. So Sheikh Rashid said he would send his own daughter. When the Sheikh does something, people follow. He is an ideal for the people. So people started to send their girls to school. He gave a push for education. Sheikh Zayed always told publicly that it was a good thing to educate girls and women to work. He encouraged them. And Sheikha Fatma, His wife, supported and empowered women.
Sheikha Fatma bint Mubarak, the Mother of the Nation ?
Yes. She is the one who empowered all women here. In 1975, she established the Women Union and supported all the women’s associations both materially and morally. She gave the chance to women to meet with others from Europe, America or the Arab world and learn from them. This was major. Women’s association promoted cultural, intellectual, manual activies, and helped them to sell their products, learn foreign languages, IT. They empowered them and gave them a chance to become professional.
How did men react to women getting involved back then?
Men supported women especially in Sharjah where the first woman association started. They drove their wives and daughters there. Especially educated person gave time to support the others. In the 70’s, times were different. Everyone was concerned in society. So people started to support women and when the UAE were founded in 1971, the government supported with institutions, money etc.
What are the new challenges for women ?
One of the biggest one is identity. For women it is especially important because her main responsibility is to raise children and deal with globalization. I don’t mean we have to stop it but we have to remain strong when it affects our identity. And girls have to balance between their heritage (cultural and traditional values) and global influences. And they need to understand the rights that their culture and religion give them and maintain them. Our local values may suit them better then imported human rights. Islam has granted rights to women for 1100 years. Rights that makes us human being and don’t take us back to animal instincts. Men have the right to go to many women : do we really want the same right ?
You don’t believe women and men should have equal rights ?
It does not make sense and it can even take you back in terms of human evolution.
*The Mālikī (Arabic: مالكي) madhhab is one of the schools of Fiqh or religious law within Sunni Islam. It is one of the four schools, followed by approximately 35% of Muslims, mostly in North Africa, West Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, in parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman and many middle eastern countries, and parts of India. The Maliki school of jurisprudence forms the official state legal codes of Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The Murabitun World Movement also follows the Maliki school. Source Wikipedia