A Lady Who Made a Difference
RAFIA GHUBASH dedicated all her time and her savings to open the first museum devoted to women in the region. A tribute to the strong and powerful ladies who always worked in front or behind. If the highest tower in the world was raised here, it did not appear by magic. Women have their part and it was urgent to pay them tribute. INTERVIEW.
Prof. Rafia Obaid Saeed Ghubash
« A role model and a leader in the empowerment of women in this society speaks for itself. The awards and honors that she has received are too numerous to enumerate, suffice to say that whether as President of the Arab Network for Women in Science and Technology or as member of any number of international think tanks, she is sure to speak her mind. (…) Unlike many of her peers, who also obtained their specialist training in the west, she chose to return home at a time of a phenomenal transformation of her homelandscape: in every facet of its physical, socio-economic, socio-cultural, and geo-political appearance. She had long understood what ailed her society. The external ideological/military threats of domination or internal inequities had resulted from ‘a gradual loss of values’. Restoration of those values and promoting self-confidence was to be her job. » Professor Fazal Karim Dar
Dubai Women’s Museum opened end of 2012. Who are the visitors ?
Students, tourists, locals. Today, we had students from the Higher College of Technology. They gave me a very good feeling and positive energy. For the first time, I felt how the young generation highly appreciate the museum. They also shared historical anecdotes I did not know about. So I asked them to contribute as we are preparing the Encyclopedia of Women of the UAE which will be released any time.
Why such a project ?
I have always enjoyed art, culture and history. A while ago, I came accross my diary as a child : I wished one day I would have a coffee shop next to a library… This was my childhood’sdream. Before university, I was known as a writer. Then, I got preoccupied with other things.
What did you study ?
I went to medical school which came as a shock for my family and friends. They thought I would be a journalist, a writer or a politician. Becoming a doctor was not at all a dream but I chose science in High School. At that time, we had to choose between art and science. The teachers’s attitude towards the latter gave me the impression we were a priority to them. Sponteanously, I followed the science group. This choice shaped all my journey in life. Becoming a doctor broadened my mind. Medicine is something you cannot learn by yourself. I studied in Cairo University.
How did you come back to your initial dream ?
I first had the idea in 75 but I went to London University to do my Phd in Epidemiological Psychiatry. Then, Sheikh Zayed appointed me Assistant Dean for Female Students Affairs at the Minister of Higher Education in Al Ain. I was the first female Assistant Dean. After few years, I became the first local female Dean of Medical School in Al Ain when 95% of the Academics were foreigners. It was a big jump.
It must have been an amazing challenge ?
Yes and I was only 37, without much experience in administration. Sheikh Zayed was following my career. He had a bigger plan for me : to become President of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. I was appointed in 2001 until 2009.
Explain how did you reform the University?
First of all, being away from my country, medicine, the clinic came as a big change in my life. I was in charge of an important university but at large. I had to report to six Ministers of Education as the university belongs to the 6 GCC countries but their presence was remote. I made a revolution in the university. My corrective measures were both clinical and forthright. Some would argue that in a male dominated society, that was the only approach for exercising meaningful authority. I wanted to send a message : this lady coming from nowhere was going to make a change. Changing everything from the interior design to the policies was a huge challenge. I was even dragged to court for removing senior teachers.
How did this experience inspire you ?
I was lucky to be in touch with Sheikha Mey Al Khalifa, today’s Bahrein’s Minister of Culture. She made an extraordinary work turning her great grand father’s house - famous intellectual and Ruler before the British over-ruled him - into a cultural center.
She was a role model and inspiration for you ?
A great one. It inspired me to do the same in my country. We worked together : I made myself available to support her projects. This is how the idea of a museum came back to me in 2005. As I was in Bahrein, I asked a cousin if she could find me a house for sale in this area. I wanted to entice people to this old part of Dubai. This was the heart of the city. My family house was situated here in the middle of the Gold souk. My first school was here. Fatima bin Tazina, the lady who taught me the Quran lived nearby. The school was in a tent. When Dct Maryam Lootah’s brother found this traditional house from the 30’s, I asked him to book it for me ! I came back a few days later to visit it. I immediately remembered this house ! As a child I came here ! It was called Beit Al Banat, « the girls’ house ». I sold a property I owned to pay for the place (around 3 million dollars).
Why is it important to tell the story of local women ?
I grew up observing how strong women were around me. I was more often referred as my mother’s name than my father’s (Osha Hussein Loootah). This was the case of all my neighbours. I thought that if our mothers and grand mothers were that strong, why wasn’t there a tribute to them ? Men were raised at the flag of the community. It’s not a gender issue but just a recognition of their role as figures from our history, Plus when my mother’s generation disapperas, nobody will be able to tell their story anymore. My mother already died twenty years ago. My aunts have Alzheimer. Memory fades away. Most of the ladies born in the 40’s don’t remember much of what happened. UAE society went through massive modernization in no time which means most of the people forget about history. Very few wrote down information.
This is also one of the aim of the museum : lure people to testify, share their knowledge ?
I wish that the students visiting the museum study history and can work as a team to interview the old ones.
You come from an oral tradition, yet writing down history seems a matter of urgency ?
According to Unesco, everyday an old man dies, a library disppears. This is so true. I try to sit every week with one of these ladies once a week just to listen to their stories. I feel threatened that in twenty years time this society might not speak Arabic anymore. That people will forget about their history. Do we all want to wear jeans and eat Kentucky ? Do we want to be all the same ? We should not loose the taste for local things. We enjoy our culture. One day we will not recognize where from people are and this is not right.
You feel your society is threatened ?
The way universities work, the teachers, the curriculum is changing us every day very fast.
Tell me more about local women’s evolution ?
Women of my generation grew up with a huge respect for this culture. We re not trying to break obstacles. We don’t want to break every thing. We want to overcome some of the challenges but by tolerance, patience, and respect. If my mother does not believe in sending me to school, I cannot fight her. I will talk to her and use all the tools to persuade her. Today you can see women on the first page of the newspapers, in good positions.
So your mother was the real boss?
I felt that my father was a friend or a visitor in the house. He was very quiet. My mother was very powerful.
What was your mother story ?
She empowered other women in her time. Like I always want my friends to read books, to attend specific programmes, attend lectures. She did not enjoy ecomonical activity if other’s did not. She was always asking women if they had an income. And when they did not, she helped them, to get a licence, a company… She was also a volunteer to help. She was very silent but knew how to empoweer people and direct them to the right persons. She was that kind of lady. One of the sentence I remember from her is that « you have to learn that your rights are born with you. Don’t think the government or a man or your husband will give you a right. It’s inside you, just practice it ».
There are very strong female figures in the UAE, how do you explain that ?
I lived here, in Al Ain, in Egypt, Bahrein and honestly I did not meet women as strong as in Dubai. Maybe because it has always been an open country, because men left to work abroad so women were in charge. They had the chance to learn early even if this was limited and modest knowledge. But it was enough to make them think and broaden their minds. One important reason is that women in Dubai have been working and contributing to the economy. Even if this was a simple type of work… It’s the fact of being independent. During the 2WW or when men went pearl fishing for six months, who was running society ? You have seen us forward recently but we have always been behind the door.
How did you choose the women you portray in this museum ?
For the museum and the encyclopedia, I chose women who effected a real change and actually took part in shaping the history of the country based on the scientific criteria. First, challenge: the woman’s ability to overcome the challenges dictated by the time, place, and societal culture. Second, impact: the depth of the impact the woman had on society. Third, specificity: the extent to which the woman made a unique achievement in a specific field. Fourth, diversity: the variety of the fields in which the woman excelled. Fifth, originality: the way the woman was a pioneer in the achievement she made. And women who are not pioneers nor have they make substantial changes in a given field but who have contributed to the overall empowerment of women in the UAE.
Who of these figures do you admire the most ?
My mother. I haven’t yet met someone like her. Also Sheikha San’at Bint Mane’ Al Maktoum. She was a poet, successful in economy. Ousha Bint Khalifa, the peot, our Shakespeare « The girl of the Arabs ». From our times, Sheikha Mey Al Khalifa from Bahrein and Sheikha Sabika, first lady of Bahrein with all due respect to all the first ladies who are all doing an amazing job. But I closely witnessed their achievements.
What was a typical day for a woman before modern times?
She cooked, prepared the house for her husband and his guests who would show up without notice. She was responsible for children. Only 5% of the community lived in big houses with slaves. People usually lived in small houses lives with their extended family : grandmother, aunts etc. They also looked after the children. Very few worked in different markets.
What are the challenges for women today ?
Women are much better off today because they are able to go to school and work and be independent financially. This is the legacy of Sheikh Zayed. Women are also under sever pressure of modern and western way of life. They want to follow it. I wish that they appreciated more our culture. We should be proud of it. The challenge today is how to get money to buy Chanel, Louis Vuitton and possibly ten of them. I hate that. I feel they are becoming slaves of consumption.
How can they be influenced to appreciate more their traditional culture ?
It is difficult because of the ads in the media, because all the economic activity is driven towards it. I even get comments from women in my own family which make me angry : « Habibi, why do you carry this bag, there’s a new Chanel ? » What to do ? If you see someone become like this, you just feel sorry for her. Mothers should teach their children the values of life. If we become slaves of consumption, we will be very weak.
8 March 2011: Women Deliver organization announced that Prof. Rafia Obaid Ghubash had been chosen as one of the “The most inspiring individuals delivering for women"among Women Deliver 100.”