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Sara Al Quwaini, première soprano des Emirats

Publié le par Kyradubai

Sara Al Quwaini, première soprano des Emirats

La musique pour passion

Elle a étudié la chimie, les relations internationales, s’intéresse au statut de la femme dans les pays arabes et est la première femme à chanter de l’opéra. Alors forcément Sara Al Quwaini méritait toute notre attention. PORTRAIT d’une jeune femme aussi ravissante que talentueuse qui intrigue et déstabilise.

Quand avez-vous commencé à chanter ?

J’ai commencé par le piano. C’était le seul instrument disponible dans ma première école. Puis j’ai changé d’école et il y avait une violoniste. J’ai donc commencé le violon. J’ai toujours aimé chanter mais je ne voyais pas vraiment cela comme un instrument. Chaque année nous avions des examens de musiques et une partie consistait en des exercices de chant. J’aimais bien ça. Je jouais aussi dans des pièces à l’école. C’est là que j’ai réalisé que j’aimais vraiment chanter. Mais je n’envisageais pas de formation. La directrice du département de musique de l’école était une chanteuse d’opéra américaine à la retraite. C’est elle qui a remarqué que j’avais une voix « intéressante ». Mais je n’avais que dix ans et il fallait voir comment le ton de ma voix se développerait. Lorsque j’ai eu mes 15 ans, elle a suggéré que je n’étudie plus seulement le violon mais le chant aussi. Et j’ai trouvé bien plus intéressant de chanter tous ces airs plutôt qu’étudier toutes ces gammes. C’était moins sérieux et discipliné que le violon ! Bien sûr ce sont tous deux des instruments mais je l’ai seulement compris lorsque je suis venue à Londres.

Comment votre professeur décrivait-elle votre voix ?

Elle garde cette image de moi à neuf ans, sortant du rang lors d’une audition en disant que je ne connais aucune chanson. Elle m’a répondu que je devais forcément connaître une chanson, au moins l’hymne national. Une petite voix s’est mise à le chanter (Sara chante l’hymne national). Une voix très claire, douce, légère. Mais je n’étais qu’une enfant. Elle a tout de même perçu la faculté émotionnelle, qu’on a ou qu’on n’a pas. Elle m’a demandé d’interpréter une petite comédie musicale « Sleeping mandolin » et elle a alors réalisé que j’avais la voix et la connexion émotionnelle, cette compétence en plus qui donne envie au public de vous écouter. Elle vous donne la possibilité d’exprimer les émotions complexes de notre genre de musique. Lorsque ma voix commençait à devenir mature, vers 15 ans, elle m’a conseillé d’étudier le chant. J’ai passé un examen international qui m’a semblé semble en comparaison du travail à fournir pour le violon. J’ai fini par arrêter le violon quand je suis entrée à l’université. Mon professeur de violon reste la personne qui m’a le plus inspirée dans ma musique mais tout le monde voulait m’entendre donc le chant a pris le dessus.

Comment vos parents ont-ils réagi ?

A l’école, cela ne les dérangeait pas. Ce n’était qu’un passe-temps. Ils voyaient que j’étais douée pour une enfant. Ils voyaient aussi que j’aim ais ça malgré que je détestais les représentations. Ils ne prenaient pas cela au sérieux. C’est seulement quand ma prof leur a dit que je devrais sérieusement songer à étudier le chant que c’est devenu un problème. Culturellement c’était difficile.

Pourquoi ?

Ce n’est pas une voie ordinaire pour une femme dans cette région du monde. Et dans le monde en général. Les gens ne comprennent pas vraiment en quoi consiste la vie d’une chanteuse d’opéra. Les gens pensent qu’il s’agit avant tout de performance et font des amalgames. Ma mère a pensé qu’en tant qu’artiste, il me faudrait lutter toute ma vie. Tous les parents sont comme ça, même les artistes selon le succès obtenu dans leur carrière. Ma mère m’a demandé si je serai la meilleure sinon je n’aurais pas une belle vie. Mon père, lui, avait des raisons plus traditionnelles et a juste dit que ce n’était pas une option. Chanter n’est pas considéré comme une profession dans cette partie du monde. Il comprend qu’en Europe il y ait de la place pour les meilleures chanteuses mais pas ici. Les gens ne comprennent pas ce que c’est. Il faut travailler à l’étranger. Bref, il y avait tant de « si ». A 17 ans on n’est pas sûr. Les parlent de désir brûlant de vouloir faire ce métier. Je n’ai pas ressenti cela. Je crois que je n’avais pas assez confiance en moi. J’avais ce feu dans mon ventre mais je ne savais pas très bine ce que c’était. Et si tout le monde vous dit que ce n’est pas une bon e idée, peut-être ne l’est-ce pas ? Alors je suis partie pour l’Imperial College de Londres étudier la chimie ! Mais il s’est trouvé qu’il est dos à dos avec le Royal College of Music !

Le destin vous appellait ?

Oui, c’est très drôle. Ma prof de musique leur a envoyé une lettre avec un enregistrement. Le directeur de chant a entendu la cassette et m’a obtenu une audition. J’y suis allée deux fois en disant que j’étais malade mais ils n’étaient pas dupes de ma nervosité. C’était vraiment angoissant. J’entendais les gens jouer de leur instrument, chanter. Cela me semblait naturel. Génial.

Mais en écho il y avait ce que vos parents vous avaient déconseillé ?

Oui et vous vous sentez d’autant plus amoindrie. Je me suis convaincue que c’était bien d’étudier cette horrible matière utile qu’est la chimie que je déteste. Mais j’ai obtenu ma licence en chimie d’une très bonne université même si je ne sais pas quoi en faire ! (Sara éclate de rire). Il a ensuite fallu que je prenne une décision car je n’avais pas les moyens de vivre à Londres sans travailler.

Qu’avez-vous décidé ?

Je suis rentrée à Dubaï et j’ai commencé à travailler dans une banque. Ma mère m’a proposé de financer mes études de musique si j’étais vraiment décidée mais j’avais 21 ans et je n’étais pas prête. Tous mes amis trouvaient du travail. Je n’avais pas fait de musique sérieusement depuis quatre ans. Mais mon job ici a fait le travail. J’y ai passé deux années détestable. Je m’intéressais aussi beaucoup à l’histoire et à la politique de la région. Et je me suis dit que je pourrais enfin étudier quelque chose qui me plaise et pour lequel j’aurais un soutien académique. J’ai fait un masters en relations internationales. Dans le même temps, je me suis dit que je ferai des auditions et que je verrais ce qu’il adviendrait du chant. Cela n’a jamais été une décision consciente. Cela s’est passé à un niveau subconscient. Je savais que je devais être là. Que je devais être formée avec les meilleurs.

Vous êtes allée jusqu’au doctorat donc ce n’était pas juste une excuse pour faire de la musique ?

Tout à fait. Je m’intéresse vraiment à mes études.

Quel est le sujet de votre thèse ?

L’histoire des femmes au Moyen-Orient mais plus spécifiquement en Egypte et en Iran ces cent dernières années. J’étudie le nationalisme, les révolutions et le rôle des femmes quand elles sont politisées comme groupe et pourquoi. Si un mouvement féministe authentique existe encore suite aux récents évènements et à leur développement.

Etes-vous critiquée ?

Certaines personnes soulignent que je défends les droits de la femme dans beaucoup de mes activités y compris comme performeuse. Cela dramatise plus les choses que la réalité ! Je ne crois pas qu’il y ait de lien entre mon étude des droits des femmes et mes performances. Il n’y est pas du tout question de déclaration politique. Mais lorsque quelqu’un est attiré par quelque chose qui n’est pas la norme, cela pose question, suscite des réactions, des opinions. C’est très bien dans une société qui se développe. Il est important que des gens jouent ce rôle.

Vous sentez-vous en opposition avec votre culture ? La bousculez-vous ?

Je ne crois pas que je la bouscule car notre culture évolue. C’est probablement bien pour moi. Mes parents que personne ne comprendraient ,que ce n’était pas une profession, même pas un semi profession. A cet stade, c’est tout à fait faisable. Peut être lorsque j’ai commencé il y a dix ans, les choses étaient différentes mais aujourd’hui cela a fait son chemin.

Cela évolue ?

Pas complètement. Mais je crois qu’il y a un vrai intérêt des Emiriens et surtout des femmes qui viennent à mes concerts. Elles aiment la musique et s’intéressent à l’histoire de la musique. Je ne savais même pas qu’il existait un groupe de femmes qui faisaient des compétitions avec leurs instruments à Abu Dhabi et aimaient faire des spectacles. C’est génial !

En quoi est-ce en contradiction avec votre culture ?

La musique fait partie de toutes les cultures ainsi que les performances. Il s’agit plutôt de comment les gens perçoivent les femmes qui se mettent en scène. Elles sont vues de façon très négatives et associées à du divertissement pur. A part quelques exceptions comme Oum Khaltoum, La représentation au Moyen-Orient consiste à divertir le public : chanter pour un événement culturel, une fête ou un mariage. Et cela n’a rien à voir avec ce que nous faisons. Les questions que les gens m’ont posées à la suite de mon spectacle sont hilarantes. C’était des questions très techniques sur la façon dont j’arrivais à reprendre ma respiration tout en continuant à chanter par exemple. On pose ce genre de questions quand on essaye de comprendre quelque chose et c’est super car ils comprennent même mieux que certains Européens.

Combien de temps consacrez-vous au chant ?

Avec ma thèse, pas tellement. Deux à trois fois par semaine au moins et en tous cas une séance technique.

Quel est votre plus souvenir de chant ?

Probablement lorsque, petite fille, j’ai interprété la bonne fée dans The Wizard of Oz. J’étais si heureuse. Je ne savais pas pourquoi ! Tous ces enfants déguisés dans des costumes si moches et j’avais une robe tellement laide ! Mais pour chaque interprète, il y a un tel moment peu importe la simplicité de la situation. Il y a quelque chose qui fait tilt dans votre tête et tout fait soudain sens.

Et comme professionnelle ?

Le dernier concert à la Sorbonne à Abu Dhabi avec Hugues Leclerc et l’Institut Français. J’ai chanté des chansons en français de Debussy et Fauré. Je ne m’attendais pas à un tel accueil du public. Ce ne sont pas de grands arias. Mais tant de gens sont venus et ont aimé. Une petite Emirienne de sept ans, qui s’appelle Sara comme moi, avait préparé toutes ces questions à me poser après le concert. Elle en a même fait une présentation devant sa classe.

Dans quelle langue préférez-vous chanter ?

Toutes. Elles sont toutes formidables pour des raisons différentes et représentent différents défis. On travaille avec des coaches pour nous assurer de bien prononcer les mots. Ensuite, vous le chantez. Chanter et parler sont deux choses très différentes. Car on ne peut pas compromettre la qualité sonore en chantant. Je travaille avec des coaches italiens et allemands.

Chantez-vous en arabe ?

Non. Il n’y a pas d’opéras et de compositeurs en arabe. Il m’est arrivé de chanter une chanson en arabe mais je ne m’entraîne pas et ce n’est pas mon répertoire.

Vous êtes devenue connue aux EAU. Vous avez même chanté pour le 39ème anniversaire du pays ?

A Burj Khalifa. C’était mes débuts avec le public des Emirats. J’étudiais à Londres et je ne donnais pas de représentation ici. C’était la première fois que je me retrouvais devant un énorme public ici. Ils cherchaient un artiste local pour la fête nationale. Ils cherchaient des musiciens et lorsque je leur ai dit que j’étais chanteuse d’opéra, ils ont sauté sur l’occasion et m’ont dit qu’ils écriraient un morceau pour moi ! Mon Dieu ! Un morceau pour Sheikh Khalifa qu’ils traduiraient en anglais. Le compositeur a fait du beau travail mais il ne savait pas vraiment comment écrire pour une voix. Il y avait des sauts d’octaves énormes ce qui n’est vraiment pas facile à chanter. Cela allait du plus aigu de mes possibilités aux plus basses. Cela a finalement fonctionné. Je chantais avec un chœur d’enfants. Ma mère m’a convaincue de chanter un air d’opéra afin que les gens sachent que c’est ce que je savais faire. On l’a incorporé au spectacle. Malheureusement j’avais une laryngite…

Et tout le pays vous regardait ?

Oui, enfin je n’y pensais pas… J’avais perdu ma capacité à chanter doucement car ma voix était abîmée par la toux. Mais cela s’est vraiment bien passé. J’étais sur scène et je me demandais ce que je faisais là ! Je portais notre abaaya traditionnelle et la shayla que je porte pas habituellement et je me demandais comment je réussirais à chanter dans ces vêtements. Mais une fois sur scène, la musique a démarré et c’était ok. Je ne planais pas mais j’étais présente. Je me souviens des applaudissements avant la fin de l’air et de leur force et je me suis dit : « Bon, c’est bien. Je me suis dis que ce devait être les expats… Les locaux doivent penser que c’est bizarre. Mais en descendant de la scène, tous les policiers en charge de la sécurité se sont levés pour applaudir. Ils ne savaient pas que j’étais arabe. C’était vraiment émouvant. De nombreuses jeunes femmes sont venues me féliciter. Puis une femme en niqab est arrivée et je me suis dit : « Ok, vas-y dis moi ce que tu as à me reprocher… »

Que pensiez-vous qu’elle vous dirait ?

« Que fais-tu ? Pourquoi te mets tu en scène ? Qu’est ce que c’était que ça ? C’était bizarre. Les filles ne doivent pas se comporter ainsi… » C’était très ignorant et étroit de ma part. Je ne pouvais qu’entendre sa voix. Elle avait la cinquantaine. Elle m’a félicitée, me disant combien elle était fière et n’avait jamais entendu quelque chose de similaire auparavant.

Les femmes semblent avoir dépassé la controverse sur le voile ici ?

Il fait partie de notre culture. C’est notre habit traditionnel et je pense que c’est un très beau vêtement. Je crois qu’envisager le voile comme une barrière a changé. Je pense plutôt à l’opinion internationale évidemment car les femmes elles-mêmes ne l’ont jamais envisagé comme un obstacle les empêchant de faire des choses. L’histoire de cette région, son exposition à autre chose, si on compare avec d’autres pays, cela a joué. Regardez le développement réalisé en quelques années. Les hommes et les femmes d’ici sont extraordinaires dans la rapidité à laquelle ils s’adaptent et la flexibilité dont ils ont fait preuve. Je ne connais pas d’autres exemples de peuples d’accord d’accepter toutes ces idées tout en essayant de conserver leur culture et leur héritage. Ils y accordent beaucoup d’importance. Et l’habillement a beaucoup à voir avec ça. C’est une vraie fierté : c’est notre abaaya et cela ne ressemble pas au reste. Et il y a aussi tous ces stylistes qui essayent de la moderniser. J’en ai porté quelques unes et je les aime beaucoup et je trouve cela très joli. Mais je n’ai jamais voulu non plus que cela devienne un gadget. Je ne le porte pas quotidiennement. Ma mère est iranienne et je n’ai pas grandi en voyant des abaaya dans la maison. On se promène en T-shirts et dans toutes sortes de vêtements. Je n’ai pas voulu donner l’impression que j’étais la première chanteuse d’opéra voilée car ce n’est pas le cas. La situation idéale serait que la prochaine fois que quelqu’un regarde une chanteuse chanter habillée en abaaya et en shayla, il oublie l’abaaya et la shayla pour ne plus remarquer que le chant. Voilà de quoi il s’agit. Mais nous n’en sommes pas encore là. Les choses vont se développer. Il faut des campagnes d’éducation.

Tout dépend du regard porté sur la femme ?

Cela n‘a rien à voir avec le vêtement. Cela dépend de la personne qui vous regarde et de sa mentalité. S’ils vous regardent de la bonne façon ou de la mauvaise. Ce que je trouve hors de propos c’est cette limite qui est imposée par la société et pas par les femmes elles-mêmes, surtout dans une société dominée par les hommes. C’est le problème. J’en fais aussi l’expérience dans la musique. Les femmes occupent tous les postes et il ne devrait même plus être question de qui ou quoi est sur scène. Il ne devrait y avoir aucune limite sur ce que les femmes font sur scène sinon vous aurez ce type de comportement tout du long : que vous soyez médecin, ministre, vous aurez aussi ces règles car c’est ce qui vous lie en tant que membre du même sexe. C’est la dernière frontière : regarder une femme dans un décor artistique, dans une mise en scène, qu’elle soit ballerine, actrice, chanteuse d’opéra, comme une artiste professionnelle et pas comme une femme. Oublier son sexe qui n’est pas l’essentiel et comprendre qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une attaque de quelque nature.

Y a–t-il plus de sacrifices à faire en tant que femme ?

En tant que femme dans cette région, nous avons plus de défis, à 100%. Nous partageons les défis habituels. Du fait de la présence d’une énorme communauté d’expatriés, notre société est très différente des autres. Nous sommes très patriotiques. Nous avons aussi des soucis au niveau social sur notre rôle et nous questionnons certaines idées traditionnelles au sujet de ce que nous sommes censées faire. Mais nous sommes aussi un peuple plus tourné vers les affaires domestiques. Quoi que vous fassiez, vous faites partie d’une famille, vous en êtes un membre. Sinon quelque chose ne va pas. Ce qui est positif c’est que cela s’applique aussi bien aux femmes qu’aux hommes. Dès un certain âge, vous êtes confronté à cette question : « Que fais-tu ? » qui s’applique d’ailleurs aussi aux femmes européennes. Dans les pays occidentaux, il y a encore plus un double standard : c’est un homme, il peut prendre son temps. A part ça, il s’agit de briser certains de ces stéréotypes. J’ai été d’ailleurs surprise par certains Emiriens qui ne pensent pas comme on s’y attend. On assume qu’n va être jugées parce qu’on ne porte pas l’abaaya et ce n’est pas le cas, etc. Cela dépend de la personne, de son éducation et de son milieu. Je n’ai pas cherché à bousculer délibérément des choses qui m’ont frustrées, je les ai gérées de façon personnelle. J’ai fait des choix. Je me suis battue contre les choses qui me déplaisaient.

Quelles étaient-elles ? Qu’est ce qui vous frustrait ?

Le fait que les femmes doivent se comporter d’une certaine façon. Que notre vie sociale doit être différente. Qu’être sur scène n’est pas considéré comme une chose respectable. Cela dépend de ce que vous y faites. Vous pouvez travailler dans une banque et manquer totalement de respect. Je l’ai constaté de la part de certaines filles lorsque j’y travaillais. Certaines étaient là pour les fréquentations. C’est la même chose dans toutes les professions : certaines personnes sont sérieuses et d’autres se cherchent un débouché.

Avez-vous l’impression d’ouvrir les portes pour d’autres ?

Je n’en ai jamais eu l’impression mais si cela permet de poser les bonnes questions et d’offrir plus d’opportunités, j’en serai extrêmement heureuse. Je n’ai pas ça pour ouvrir des possibilités aux autres femmes : j’aimerais être aussi importante !

Qu’avez-vous constaté au sujet des droits des femmes en travaillant sur votre thèse en Egypte et en Iran ?

J’avais un tas d’idées et soudain il y a les manifestations en Iran et j’ai du tout repenser. Le plus intéressant est de voir que les droits des femmes sont associés au nationalisme dans notre région. En Occident, il existe de vrais syndicats féministes basés sur les droits humains quoi qu’il arrive. Dans notre région, c’est lié au régime ou à l’idéologie politique. Une féministe associée à un groupe socialiste va se heurter à une féministe d’un groupe de droite qui se heurtera à une féministe d’un groupe conservateur/islamiste. Ils ne sont pas unis derrière la notion de droits de l’homme.

Certaines universitaires m’ont fait comprendre qu’elles n’étaient pas forcément favorables aux mêmes droits pour les femmes qu’en Occident. Ces droits ne sont-ils pas universels ?

C’est la norme de pensée que vous trouverez. A mon sens, peu importe différent si il y a beaucoup. Mais ne nous dites pas différent pour qu’on en aie finalement moins car sinon vous vous trompez. Elles disent qu’elles ne veulent pas de certains droits. Ok, alors ne l’exercez pas mais laissez les autres femmes l’avoir. Lorsqu’il y a des règles qui limitent ce que vous avez le droit de faire, vous avez un problème.

Quelles sont les choses à améliorer pour les femmes aux EAU ?

Je pense qu’elles s’améliorent. Nos dirigeants ont toujours vu ce dont les femmes étaient capables. Les femmes de cette région sont très concentrées, et capables de tout faire. Ce qu’elles ont accompli… Elles se consacrent et à leurs familles et à leurs professions. Elles sont ouvertes et solidaires. Il y a une énergie à s’entraider et cette unité, cette étincelle les aide à réussir. La famille ou certains comportements dictés par la société rend encore difficile l’accès à leur secteur d’activité à certaines d’entre elles. S j’avais décidé d’être violoniste, je ne pense pas qu’il y aurait eu une réponse aussi négative et une telle controverse. Le fait d’être publiquement regardée est un souci. Cachée derrière un piano ou un violon est toléré mais chanter sur le devant de la scène pose encore des problèmes à certains. C’est ce qui doit changer. Ne me regardez pas moi mais ce qui se passe. Si vous ne voyez que les jambes des athlètes féminines, alors rentrez chez vous et remettez vous en question. Ce sont les mêmes personnes.

Comment expliquez-vous ce succès si rapide des femmes ici ?

Historiquement, elles n’ont jamais été socialement complaisantes. Elles ne se sont jamais contentées de rester assises dans leur salon. Elles ont toujours été très impliquées dans leurs communautés. Elles avaient parfois des rôles très actifs et ce sont de très petites communautés donc il y avait beaucoup à faire- Ce n’est pas la même chose en Egypte où il y a une longue tradition de femmes dans les harems. Les femmes étaient impliquées ici et elles avaient des droits. Elles n’ont jamais été isolées. Elles ont toujours partagé les responsabilités et maintenant que la société change, c’est toujours le cas. Elles sont passées de partager à diriger et plus encore. Elles veulent les premières en ci et en ça. C’est une question d’ambition et je ne sais pas si cela vient de leur éducation, d’une inspiration sociale… On veut aussi contribuer.

Comment gérez-vous cette double vie entre le chant et votre PHD ?

C’est dur et il faudra que je fasse un choix à la fin de l’année.

Qu’est ce qui vous manque quand vous êtes à l’étranger ?

Ma famille et mes amis. Les endroits ne me manquent pas vraiment. Nous vivons dans une société capitaliste. Comment Starbucks peut-il vous manquer ?! Mais le voisinage, ma mère, mon père…

Vous êtes la seule fille ?

Oui et la plus âgée d’un an. Mon père a beaucoup plus accepté ce que je fis après ma performance au Carnegie Hall de New York. Il a réalisé que ce n’était pas qu’un passe temps. Il y avait de grands musiciens de partout. Les chanteurs d’opéra, les musiciens, l’orchestre étaient bons. Subitement, j’étais affiliée à eux. Mon dernier concert était à l’Opéra Garnier et il en connaît le prestige. C’est encore un peu difficile pour lui d’accepter que je soies chanteuse professionnelle. Il est à la retraite, il travaillait dans un ministère.

Le chant n’est pas une voie ordinaire pour une femme dans cette région du monde.

Le chant n’est pas une voie ordinaire pour une femme dans cette région du monde.

En tant que femme dans cette région, nous avons plus de défis, à 100%.

En tant que femme dans cette région, nous avons plus de défis, à 100%.

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Soprano Sara Al Quwaini, The Chemistry of Music

Publié le par Kyradubai

Soprano Sara Al Quwaini, The Chemistry of Music

« The ideal situation will be that next time someone sees a woman with an abaya and a shayla singing an opera, they don’t notice the abaya and the shayla but only the singing. »

Not only Sara Al Quwaini studied Chemistry, International Relations- focusing on women's rights in Egypt and Iran- but she is the first and only opera singer of the UAE. She indeed deserved all our attention. PORTRAIT of a young, beautiful, talented and intriguing lady.

When did you start singing ?

I started playing the piano. In my very first school, that was the only instrument available. Then in my next school, there was a violonist so I started violin. I always liked singing but I was not looking at it as an instrument really. Every year we had a general music exam and part was singing exercices. I enjoyed them and did school plays. That’s when I thought I really liked singing. But still not as an instrument I was going to train. The Head of the Music department happened to be a retired opera singer from the US. She was the one who noticed I had « an interesting voice ». I was 10 so she said we had to see how the tone of my voice developped. When I turned 15 she suggested I studied not only the violin but voice as well. I thought it would be much more interesting to sing all these songs than to study all these scales. It was much less serious and disciplined than violin ! Of course they are both instruments but this is something I only learnt when I came to London.

How did your music teacher describe your voice ?

She has this image of me, at 9, coming out of the chorus line for an audition saying « But I don’t know any song ! » « You have to know a song, she said. Well, at least you know the national anthem. » So a small voice started singing (Sara starts singing the anthem). A very clear, sweet, light voice. But I was only a child. Nevertheless, he spotted the emotional ability, that you either have or don’t. She asked me to sing in a tiny little musical called the « Sleeping mandolin ». I had to wake up the mandolin with my voice ! It’s around that time that she realized that I had this emotional connectivity and the voice. That extra ability that will make people really wanting to listen. It makes you able to express the complex emotions that are in our genre of music. Around 15, when I started to mature she said I should consider study voice. I passed an international exam. It seemed so easy in comparison with the amount of work we had to do for the violin. I ended up stopping the violin when I started university. Although my violin teacher is definitely the person who inspired me the most in my music. But everybody wanted to hear more of the singing so it took over.

How did it go with your parents ?

In school they did not care. It was just a hobby. They could see I was good as far as child goes. They also could see I really loved it despite the performing which I hated. They did not take it seriously. Only when the teacher told them I should really consider studying it, did it become an issue. The cultural thing was a big factor.

Why ?

It is not a common path for women in this part of the world but also in general. There’s not much understanding of what an opera singer’s life is. People only think of it as singing and performing and make associations that are wrong. My mother just thought that as an artist I was going to be struggling for the rest of my life. All parents are like that. Even artists depending how well their career went. My mother asked me if I was going to be the best singer in the world otherwise I would not have a nice life. My Dad came up with more traditional reasons and just said « No ». « This is not happening ». Singing is not considered a profession in this part of the world. He can understand that in Europe there can be a place for the best of these singers but here there just isn’t. People won’t understand what it actually is. So you will have to work abroad. there was not many « ifs »… At 17, you don’t really know. People talk about this burning desire of definitely wanting to do this ? I didn’t. I don’t think I was confident enough. I had that fire in my belly but I did not really know what it was. If every one says it’s not a good idea, maybe it’s not. So I went to study chemistry at Imperial College in London. The thing is this university is back to back with the Royal College of Music.

This is fate calling, isn’t it ?

Yes, it’s really funny. My music teacher sent them a letter with a recording. The Head of singing heard the cassette and got me an audition there. I checked in twice before telling them I was sick… I think he knew I was too nervous. It was really nerve breaking. I could hear people playing their instruments and singing. It seemed normal. Brilliant.

But there was the echo of what your parents had told you ?

Yes and you feel even more depleted. I persuaded myslef it as a good thing I was learning sensible, horrible chemistry which I totally despised. But I managed to get my Chemistry Degree from a very strong university even if I don’t know what to do with it ! (she burst into laughters). I then had to make a decision because I could not afford to stay on without work in London.

What did you do then ?

I came back to Dubai and started working in a bank. My mother offered to give me the money to learn music if I was really serious but I did not feel ready at 21. All my friends were getting jobs. I had not done music properly for four years. But work here probably did it. I spent two years here, hated the work. I was also doing a lot of history and political reading about the region, things I find interesting… So I figured I would go study something I actually like from which I would get academics’ support. So I went to do a Masters in International Relations. I thought that while I was doing that I would do some auditions and see what happens with the singing. It was never a conscious decision. Maybe on a subconscious level, I knew I had to be there. I had to train with the best.

You actually studied all the way to the Phd, so that was not a faint excuse to do music ?

Exactly. I am really interested in my studies.

What is the subject of your thesis ?

It is looking at women’s history in the Middle East but specifically in Egypt and Iran in the last hundred years. So I look at nationalism, revolutions and the role of women when they became politicised as a group and why. Whether or not a real feminist movement continues to exist after all these recent various events and development.

Do you get criticism ?

Some people underline the fact that a lot of what I do is based on defending feminine rights even as a performer. But it makes it sound more dramatic than it actually really is. I don’t think there is a link between me studying women’s rights and performing. It is not a question of trying to make any political statement at all. When somone is naturally drawn into something that isn’t the norm, it will naturally attract questions, different reactions and opinions. This is very good in a developping society. It is important that there are people who do that.

Do you feel in opposition with your culture ? Are you shaking it ?

I don’t think I am shaking it because our culture is evolving. That is probably the good thing for me. Whereas my parents said no one would understand this, that this was not a real profession, even a semi profession. At this stage, I think you absolutely could do. Maybe when I started of ten years ago, things were different but now, things have come along.

It’s evolving ?

Not completely. But I think there is a lot of genuine interest from Emiratis and especially women who come to my concerts. They like music and are interested in the history of music. I did not even know that there was a group of women who do competitions with their instruments in Abu Dhabi and like to peform. It’s great.

What is against the culture actually in that ?

Music has always been part of every culture and performing as well. But I think it’s the way performance women are perceived. There is a lot of negativity associated with women in performance as truly entertainment. For certain exceptions like Oum Khaltoum, performance in the Middle East is a lot more about entertaining an audience and singing at cultural events, a party, or a wedding. And that’s not what we do. The questions people came up when I started performing out here were hillarious. There were very technical questions like « how do keep your voice going without breathing », etc. That is the kind of questions you ask when you want to understand something and this is great because they understand it even better than some Europeans.

How much time do you dedicate to singing ?

Not much with my thesis. Two to three times a week. At least one technical session.

What was your most amazing singing memory ?

Probably when I sang the good witch as a child in the Wizard of Oz. I just remember being so happy. I have no idea why ! All these children dressed in munchkins : our costumes were so bad and I was in this awful dress. For every perfomer there is a moment like that no matter how simple the situation. It is just something that clicks in your head like everything seems to come together.

And as a professional ?

The last Sorbonne concert in Abu Dhabi with Hugues Leclerc and Institut Français singing French songs, Debussy mainly and Fauré. I was not expecting people to appreciate it so much. It is not big arias. But so many people came up and loved it. A 7 year old Emirati girl, also called Sara, prepared all these questions for me after the concert. She even gave a class presentation about it.

What language do like to sing in the most ?

All of them. They are all great for different things. They offer different challenges. You work with language coaches to make sure you can say those words and then you sing them. Singing and saying are two completely different things because you cannot compromise the sound quality in singing. I work with Italian and German coaching.

Do you sing in Arabic ?

No. We don’t train Arabic. There is no opera and composers. I might sing a song but I don’t train and it’s not my repertoire.

You became quite famous in the UAE. You actually sang for the country’s 39th birthday ?

At Burj Khalifa. It was kind of my public debut in the UAE. I was studying in London and not really performing here. It was my first time here in front of a massive audience. They were looking for an Emirati talent for the UAE national day and a friend of mine told me to go. They were actually looking for musicians but when I told them I was an opera singer, they took the opportunity and told me they would write an opera piece for me ! Oh dear ! A piece written for Sheikh Khalifa they were going to translate into english for me to sing. The composer made a great job but there was a lack of knowlegde about writing for a voice. There was massive octave jumps which is not particularly nice for a singer to make. He had litteraly written to the top of my range until the bottom of it. In the end it all worked out. We did this song with a children chorus. My mother insisted I sang an opera aria first so people would know I was trained to sing opera. We incoporated it in the show. Unfortunately I had a laryngitis.

And this is the whole country watching you ?

Yes, well I did not think about that… I lost the ability of singing very quietly because my voice was quite ratle from all the coughing. Anyway it went better than ok. I remember going on stage and thinking « what am I doing ? » I was wearing our traditional abaya and shayla that I don’t usually wear and I was wondering how I would sing with it on. But I came on stage and the music came on and it was ok. I was not gone with the fairies but I was there. I remember the applause before the aria finished. I remember the amount of sound and thinking « that’s good ». I thought « that must be the expats… Nationals must think it’s weird. » But when I came down the stage, all the Dubai Police who had been securing, got up and clapped. It was super moving. They were not sure I was Emirati when I came up on stage and after the show they started talking to me in Arabic. Then a lot of young women came to tell me lovely things. A traditonal women in nikab came and I thought « Here it is. Get it out… »

What criticisms did you expect from a traditional woman?

« What are you doing ? Why are you performing ? What was that ? That was wierd. This is not how our girls should be… » This was extremely ignorant and judgemental of me. I could only hear her voice. She was aroung 50. She congratulated me telling how proud she was and had never heard something like this before.

Are women here really beyond the veil controversy ?

It’s part of our culture. It’s our traditional dress and I think it’s a beautiful garment to wear. I just think that the association of it as a barrier has changed. I mean that in terms of the international community looking at it because I don’t think that women themselves ever felt it as a barrier to do things. The history of this region, our exposure to other things, in comparison to other countries… Look at the amount of development in the amount of time. Men and women in this country are just incredible in terms of how quickly they adapt and how flexible they’ve been. I don’t know of other exemples of people willing to incorporate all these ideas and at the same time they try not to lose their heritage and their culture. They put a lot of importance to that. And the dress has a lot to do with this. It’s a real pride : this is our abaya and it looks different than the rest. You’ve got all these designers trying to modernize it as well. I have worn quite a few of these and I really like it and think that they look very nice. I just never wanted that to become a guimick either. I am not somebody who wears it on a day to day basis. My mother is Iranian. I did not grew up seeing it in the house. We walk in T-shirts and all kind of clothes. I did not want to give the impression that I was the first veiled opera singer because that’s not the case. The ideal situation will be that next time someone sees a woman with an abaya and a shayla singing an opera, they don’t notice the abaya and the shayla but only the singing. That’s what it’s about. But it can’t be about that now and it has to develop. You need an education campaign.

It’s all a matter of what lenses you’re wearing ?

It has nothing to do with what you wear. It depends on the person looking at you, the mentallity they have. Whether they are going to look at you in the wrong or in the right way. The main thing that I found outputting is that there’s a limit placed not by women but by society, especially if society is men lead. That’s the issue. I experience it in music as well. Women are in all positions and there should not be an argument over who and what’s on stage. There should not be a limit regarding how women are doing on a stage otherwise the same will be applied all the way through. Whether you are a doctor, a cabinet minister, you still have these rules because that’s what you have in common as a gender group. This is the final frontier : look at a woman in an artistic setting, in a performing setting, whether she is a ballet dancer, an actress, an opera singer, from a serious strend of the art form and not see a woman. Forget about the gender which is not the key thing and understand that it’s not an attack on anything.

Are there things that you have to sacrifice as a woman more than a man ?

As women from this region I think you have got different challenges 100%. We share the usual challenges. Having this massive expat community here, our society is very different from other ones. We have the issue of nationalism that comes up that we are very passionate about. We also have social issues on our roles and questioning some more traditional ideas regarding what we are supposed to do. But we are more domestic oriented people. No matter what you do, at the end of the day, you still are a family person otherwise there is something not quite right there. But the good thing about it here at least it that it applies to both men and women. At a certain age you get the same question : « What are you doing ?» To a certain extent this applies to women in Europe as well… Sometimes there is even more of a double standard in Western countries : he’s a guy he can take his time… Other than that, it’s breaking a few of these stereotypes. I actually have been surprised at male Emiratis who don’t think the way you expect they will. You assume they judge you because you don’t wear abaya etc and they don’t at all. It depends on the person, his education and background. I did not delibarately wanted to shake things that frustrated me but I dealt with them personally. The personal choices I made. I fought the things I wasn’t happy with.

What were they ? What frustrated you ?

The fact that women should behave in a certain way or that our social life has to be different, that peforming is not seen as a respectable thing. It all depends what you do on stage… You can work in a bank and be totally disrespectable. I saw it when I worked at the bank some girls were there to work and others to socialize. It’s the same in any profession : some people are there because they’re serious and others because they just want an outlet.

Do you feel you are paving the way somehow ?

I never thought that was what I was doing but if somehow it allows people to ask the right questions and gives more opportunities I would be extremely happy. I never did that to open up possibilities to other women : I wish I was that great !

What did you discover on women’s rights in the region while working on your thesis based in Egypt and Iran ?

I had all these ideas and suddenly there was the revolution in Egypt and the protests in Iran and I had to rethink a lot of my ideas. But the most fascinating thing is to watch how women’s rights are associated with nationalism in our region more than in the Western world. In the West there are real feminist unions based on humans rights no matter what happens. In our region it’s linked to the regime or political ideology. If a feminist is associated with a socialist group and ideology she then clashes with a more rightist feminist who then clashes with a more traditional/islamist one. They don’t unifiy as easily under the pretext of human rights.

Some academic told me women here don’t necessarily want the same rights as women in the West ? It’s not necessarily universal. What do you think of that ?

It’s the standard of thought you will find. For me its : I don’t mind different as long as you have many. Don’t say diffreent and then have less because then you are just fooling yourselft. They say « I don’t want that right… ». Well, ok, then don’t exercize it but allow other women to have it. When there are rules that limit what you can do, you have a problem.

Are there things to improve for women in the UAE ?

I think they are improving. We have a leadership who immediately saw that women in this country are amazing. The women in this region, how they achieved. They are extremely focused and managed to do it all. They are dedicated to their families and profession. They are very open and warm to each other as well. There is an energy to help each other and that unity and spark helps women to achieve. Family or social dictated behavior is still difficult for certain women to join their sector of activity. If I had decided to become a professional violonist, I don’t think there would have been such a negative response and controversy. The fact of being out there to be looked at, is still an issue. Hidden behind a piano or a violin is tolerated but singing in front is still an issue for some people. And this is what I really think has to go. Don’t see me, but what is happening. If you can only see the legs of a female athlete at the Olympics, then go home and think about yourself. These are the same people.

How do you explain women achieved so quickly here ?

Historically they were not complaciant socially. They have never been sitting at home. They were very much involved in their communities. They sometimes had very active role and it was a very small community so you did see a lot more activity. It’s not the same in Egypt where you have a very long history of women accomodated in harems. Women have always been involved here and had rights. They’ve never been secluded. They always shared the responsibilities and now that things are changing, they continue to share them. They’ve come from sharing to leading and doing so much more. They want to be the very first this and that. This is a question of ambition and I don’t know whether it comes from education, social inspiration… You also want to contribute.

How is it to lead this double life between your Phd and the singing ?

It’s tough and I will eventuall have to make a choice at the end of this year.

What do you miss when you are abroad ?

Family and friends. I don’t really miss places that much. We live in a capitalist society, how can you miss Starbucks ?! But the feeling of the neighbourhood. I miss my Mum, Dad, Brother…

Are you the only girl ?

Yes I am the eldest by a year. My Dad came up to a lot more after I did my performance to the ensemble of Carnegie Hall in New York. He figured it was not just a hobby. It was all great musicians from all over the world. The opera singers, musicians and orchestra were coming out great. Suddenly I was affiliated with them. The latest one was in Opera Garnier and he knows what the venue is. He still struggles with the idea of me being a full time professional singer. He is retired he used to work for the Ministry.

Official Biography

Sara Al-Qaiwani is an Emirati national, Academic, and lyric-coloratura soprano, fluent in four languages. ?She is the only trained Emirati opera singer to date. ?She was discovered at school by an American opera singer and completed many international opera and music exams with record-breaking distinctions. ?Her Iranian mother and Emirati father on the other hand, encouraged her to pursue an academic career.

She received her BSc in chemistry from Imperial College London university, during which time she auditioned ?for the Royal College of Music. ?She was awarded her MSc History & International Relations with Distinction and the Academic Prize of Excellence from leading university The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). ?She expanded her thesis with a PhD in political history at LSE, assistant lecturer there between 2008-2009.

In the same year she began studying with renowned international conductor Bruno Cinquengrani and vocal coach Paula Anglin. ?Based in London, she has worked with highly reputed coaches in the UK and Europe, musicians and directors from the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy and Guildhall, performing roles in Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Massenet operas within post-graduate music programs and ?independent opera companies

She performed publicly for the first time in the UAE at Burj Khalifa on the 39th UAE National Day, in the presence of HRH, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. ?She performed with New York?s prestigious Carnegie Hall Ensemble in 2011, and with renowned French Pianist Hugues Leclere in October 2012 at the Sorbonne, leading to a documentary about her by French TV-France 24. ?In November 2012 she sang at the World Economic Forum Gala, and then at Opera Garnier in Paris (Opera Nationale de Paris) for the World Expo bid. ?In December 2012, on special request from HH Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, she performed for the Arab-Latin American Forum Gala (ARLA).

Sara is currently finishing her PhD at LSE, in History of women and politics in the Middle East, and learning additional ?languages. Whilst pursuing her academic studies abroad, she continues to work on her craft with leading musicians, conductors and directors.

"There is a lot of negativity associated with women in performance".

"There is a lot of negativity associated with women in performance".

"As women from this region, I think you have got different challenges 100%".

"As women from this region, I think you have got different challenges 100%".

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« Mama Sara », a heart beat away from her victims

Publié le par Kyradubai

« Mama Sara », a heart beat away from her victims

Sara Shuhail is in charge of EWA’A, a public initiative to protect and shelter women victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking. A former Headmistress, she hold back her tears and put all her energy into rescuing the victims, chasing the traffickers and raising awareness in the UAE. INTERVIEW followed by the testimony of a victim and a visit in the Abu Dhabi shelter.

What does EWA’A means ?

In Arabic it is a container to protect something ; like the uterus protects the fœtus. It’s a safe place. A place of value.

How did EWA’A started ?

It was a decision of Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008 to create it under the umbrella of the Red Crescent. The UAE government voted the first law –UAE Federal Law No. 51- fighting against human trafficking or modern-day slavery in the region in 2006.Our country signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN and we established the National Committee compacting human trafficking in 2007 and the EWA’A initiative to protect women and children against traffickers one year later.

How do you help the victims ?

We protect them by providing them with a safe place giving them assistance and rehabilitation, psychological support and activities. They stay between one to six months in our temporary shelters. We have 190 victims dispatched in three shelters : Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaima.

Where do they come from ?

There are different stories and different regions but of course they all come from poor countries ravaged by war, natural disasters and poverty. They are sent to us by the police, embassies, hospitals, mosques, churches and since 2011 we also receive calls through our helpline.

How do you rescue them ?

If they are trapped into places, the human rights department of the police helps us. Most of the time they have no idea where they are but with clues on their environment, we manage to locate them. Small details can be helpful.

What are their stories ?

In 99% of the cases, it is the same story. The traffickers promise them that they will get a good job coming here in a hotel, as secretary, waitresses, in a beauty saloon… But when they arrive in the UAE they find themselves trapped. Traffickers take all their official papers and make them sign a disclaimer. They threaten them : « We know your children, baby, family. If you don’t cooperate, there will be retaliation against you. This is how it works. » Some are even trafficked by their own parents who’ve lived here a long time. They sell them or force them to do nasty jobs, mostly prostitution.

How old are they ?

From 5 to 45. To teach them to become professional sex slaves, children are trained from a young age, even by their own parents sometimes. Half of them are adopted by people they then call mama and baba. Sometimes it is clients who end up calling anonymously because they feel guilty.

Why did you get involved in this ?

I am a mother of 6 (4 girls and 2 boys) and I worked as a High School Headmistress for the Minsitry of Education for 31 years. I had a lot of education with my students as an educator and being strict with them. The government thought I would be the right person.

I saw Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak’s message on your website. Is she involved ?

She is the head here. She came to the shelters. She sits with the victims and talks to them like a mother. « Don’t worry this is your second country. We will do whatever you need ». She is so kind and generous to them. She did so much for EWA’A, for the humanitarian victims in general. Without her it would not be the same. She really is the « mother of the nation ».

Who are the traffickers ?

It’s mafia. They come from the same country as the victim. They have their partners here from the same nationality. They come from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and recently Arab countries. They traffick women and children fleeing the war, natural hazard, people who have no more families and are easily kidnapped. They change their plan and are professionals. We arrest most of them but the difficult part is to nail the head in the country of origin.

How many did you arrest ?

In 2012, we arrested 50. They face three to 22 years prison. We are currently amending the law to enhance the victims’ rights.

How do you gain victims’ trust ?

We take them to the shelter where they take a rest for a few days, sleep and medical assistance, clothes. At first it’s survival. When they are ready to talk, we start step by step. If they have informations about the traffickers, we call the police who come to the shelters in civil clothes and talk to them in a private room. These men are human rights trained. They start to investigate with the victim.

Are you the only organization dealing with these abuses in the UAE ?

There is one in Dubai dealing with domestic violence, labor and human trafficking but EWA’A is the only organisation specialized in human trafficking.

I read on your website that some victims were trafficked for camel races ?

This is not happening anymore. Camel riding has been a traditional sport in the UAE for 200, 300 years. Every year there was a race. It was jockeys… When they realized it was against human rights, they stopped it. There was a very good handling of the issue.

Have you ever been threatened ? Do have a security system ?

We need to protect the victims from the traffickers. The shelters are equipped with cameras and security guards. Plus they don’t know where we are, the employees, the shelters… It is dangerous for everybody. Our office has an alarmed connected directly to the police department.

Is the subject of sexual trafficking and abuse taboo in the UAE ?

After five years there is a lot of progress. We jumped from one person aware of it to 70. In the past, people did not even want to speak about this issue. Even people in the education field. There was denial that we also have this problem in this country. The problem is not more developped than elsewhere but it exists. This is a problem rich countries encounters. It’s the price for wealth. But slowly people are talking about it. We needed a law even for one person.

So there is increased awareness ?

People understand the issue now. They know how to deal with us. They give help, donations. Step by step. With my team we make this difference in society.

How was it for you to be a pioneer ?

I felt they put me in a big and difficult responsibility. It was hard to believe that human beings were capable of such things. When I met the victims in the beginning I could not believe what I saw and heard. Traffickers sand clients tatoo their victims’ body with their names… How can human beings behave like that ? I was working in schools in a different environment. I was so shocked. My first reaction was to cry but I hold myself. I thought I would be of no use if I wasn’t strong. It changed my life. In the bright and in the dark side.

Are there only women working at EWA’A ?

Yes. About 30 staff. Because victims are suffering from men. That’s why I asked the police to come without their uniforms.

What happens to the victims after several months ?

If they want we help them fin a job here. We train them in bouquet making, wrapping, waitressing… We give them money to start a new life. But most of them want to go home. It’s such a bad experience to remain in the place where they’ve been traumatized.

Where do you get the budget ?

From Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikha Fatima and different organizations and private donations. Through campaigns and exhibitions like Silent Voices.

Why are women still more vulnerable in this world ?

They have more feelings. In this region, men are more in control. But it is changing step by step. The law is more and more in favor of women. When I see what can happen to them every day in my work, I truely thnk it’s a good thing. When I see women traffickers, it shocks me. To see how women can also become strong in the dark side…

They are as dangerous as men ?

Women can be especially dangerous. When they get aggressive you can’t stop them. Education, life, environment does it probably… But Inch Allah one day we can close EWA’A. It will mean that our country is free from this crime.

For more information

http://www.shwc.ae/Default.aspx

TESTIMONY : Tolin, a voice from the dark

Tolin came from Alep to Beiruth thinking she would get a tourist visa to enter the UAE and work in a hair saloon. Tolin had known the woman for a long time and when she told her that her husband would help get the papers, Tolin believed her. In Syria all the stores were closed, there was no work, Tolin, 28, was divorced with no kids. She thought this would be a good way out. It’s only when she entered the couple’s flat in Abu Dhabi that she started suspecting something was wrong. « All these girls –all from Syria except one from Irak- were dressed up to go out. There were seven in a two bedroom appartment. He was even using his wife, » she says. Tolin, « white flower » in Turkish, was sent to work as a prostitute like the others. « There was nothing I could do. We met clients in five stars hotels but they were escorting us all the time. And I was afraid that the staff and even the police were corrupted.» Traffickers play on the fact that prostitution is forbidden and the girls are afraid to end up in jail if they go out. Ten days. Ten long nightmare days when Tolin had to undergo what she never imagined she would : forced to work as a sex slave earning 800 dhs for 2 hours or 1500 dhs the night. The young women, daughter of a reknown doctor in Syria, had no idea she would end up be trafficked and sexually abused. « Two days later, after the first shock, I tried to find ways to escape. I started texting my friends in Sharjah and managed to give them the adress of the flat. They called the police who busted the place, » recalls Tolin. Low at the beginning, her voice is now higher as if the danger was finally a little further away. But Tolin still looks frightened, twisting her fingers nervoulsy and looking everywhere as she bravely tells her story. « He was very violent. He burst into rages, knocking down the table, shouting… When the police came, his wife begged me to remain silent but I just took my bag and left», she sighs. Today is the last day of investigation and the trial will start next week. She will be aloud to leave the country if she wishes to. This is something Sara Shuhail managed to negociate with the judicial system. The founder of EWA’A also obtained from the police that they question the victims after a few days wearing civil clothes. Tolin is not aware of that. She is more concerned with her shame wondering how she will hide all this from her father. He kept on calling her once a week naively asking « How’s work ? ». « I might approach UNHCR to go to a host country and study to become an English translator… ». Try to rebuild her self-esteem and a life for herself knowing that, at least, she managed to send a trafficker to jail.

VISIT : A day in Abu Dhabi’s shelter

Maitha Al Mazrui has been working for EWA’A for almost four years now as a Coordinator Officer. She has been offered two times her salary elsewhere but can’t do anything else. « It would feel like a betrayal to these girls, » she says. And I feel it is starting to pay. » It used to take one or two years before traffickers got busted but with the laws implemented, the tight collaboration with the police and the awareness among girls and people in general « they don’t feel they can do it so easily ». Maitha goes around the shelter situated in a secret secured residential area of Abu Dhabi, checking on the girls despite being just about to deliver. « It’s not like any other job, » she explains opening the arts and crafts room where the women and children work on creative projects. EWA’A organized for the second time an exhibition in Abu Dhabi showing expressive paintings, drawings or tapestries helping them to cope with their trauma. Silent Voices II was shown at the Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi last May. Pieces that are sometimes stronger and more revealing then any word. « These girls have been lied to. Because they trusted a friend or a relative, they came here to work as sex slaves. It is even hard to start a therapy. Why would they trust someone they don’t know ?» This room seems to be the container of all their sorrows and hopes. On the wall, a picture of some of them bears the face a 5 year old little girl. « Unfortunately, she was only a child, trafficked by her own parents, explains Maitha. They brought her here to be trained so she would be a perfect sex worker later. » The little girl attended adulthood parties, wearing unsuitable clothes and got beaten when she refused to cooperate. « It was not easy, recalled Maitha. We had to start from the base : hygiene, manners, education and the poor child had no role models. If her parents are not, who is ? » The child asked to go back to her jailed mother before Sara Shuhail gained her confidence. « She was so attached to her. She used to call her Mama Sara. The victims can feel when you are dealing with them with your heart. If they see in your eyes that you believe in them, it makes them safe. You cannot lie to them. » She finally went back home to her grand mother who lives in an Arab country. In most cases, the victims want to go back to their environment. Fortunately this five year old girl was an isolated case. Usually minor victims are between 14 and 18 years old. It is more or less always the same story : they come from a poor country ravaged by war or natural disaster, they are promised a job, they trust people they usually know, and arrive in the UAE to find themselves locked to work as sex workers. « It is organized rape. In most cases, clients come to the places where they are locked in. But some send them out to get clients. They don’t care how the girls get the money. They know they will come back because they threaten to hurt their families and kids if they don’t. » As of the clients they come from everywhere. « This is a multinational country. Poors, tourists… » And a lot of five stars hotels… The empty and silent shelter stresses the scope of the trauma the victims go through. The victims were recently sent to Ras al Khaima and Sharjah to be close to court. But when they return, they will all once again share this luxurious and spacious house dedicated to their rehabilitation. « We keep them as long as they want. Yes, it is nice here. We want to make up to them. But there’s no place like home, » says Maitha. In the meantime, until they gain a little confidence, they spend their time between the kitchen –cooking, watching TV and chatting together-, their rooms or the private caravans for the ones who have chidren. Because some of them got pregnant from their miserable experience. « But you should see them with their child. You can’t take it from them. No way ! » They all react differently : some stay mute, some become so hard, and some are « so broken ». « It is not easy to deal with young girls who went through such an experience. Some get very aggressive», explains Maitha. But at least, EWA’A shows them some people care and teach them the tough lesson of life : « what does not kill you, makes you stronger ».

Tolin in the shelter's kitchen. Nothing will ever be the same.

Tolin in the shelter's kitchen. Nothing will ever be the same.

Silent Voices II: a victim's piece of art

Silent Voices II: a victim's piece of art

"My first reaction was to cry but I hold myself. I thought I would be of no use if I wasn’t strong." Sara Shuhail

"My first reaction was to cry but I hold myself. I thought I would be of no use if I wasn’t strong." Sara Shuhail

One of the girls'room in the Abu Dhabi shelter

One of the girls'room in the Abu Dhabi shelter

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When light encounters vision : the story of a woman at the head of Noor Foundation

Publié le par Kyradubai

 When light encounters vision : the story of a woman at the head of Noor Foundation

Dc Manal Taryam, CEO of Noor Dubai Foundation and consultant Ophtalmologist at Dubai Hospital

One of the most resounding example of inspiring women of Dubai, Doctor Manal Omran Taryam tells about her mission to fight blindness around the world. Because if nothing was done, in 50 years, half the planet would be blind, she chose to become Dubai’s first female ophtalmologist and set up eye camps in developing countries for the Noor Foundation. INTERVIEW.

To reach become the first female ophtalmologist you had to study 15 years ?

Yes. I studied medicine at Dubai Medical College. Then I did one year internship at Dubai Hospital. I left for Cologne, Germany to do my residency program and fellowship in surgical retinology, nine years in total. I chose this specialty because there were no locals. I came back in 2006 to work as an ophtalmologist at the Dubai Hospital. I started to develop a new system for ophtalmology surgery with new machines and won an excellency award in 2007. I improved a lot the Ophtalmology Department. Then I joined for one year the National Committee for Preventing Blindness under the supervision of the Ministry of Health which was part of the initiative of the World Health Organization. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed wanted to contribute to the WHO Vision 2020 in a more personal way to fight blindness around the world so he created Noor Dubai, developing what was an initiative into an NGO. I was still working at the Dubai Hospital when they asked me to join the Advisory Team. I designed the Eye Camps and was then appointed Medical Director for those camps.

Where and how do you work ?

Initially, the patients were brought in, but we soon realized it would be too costly and heavy in terms of logistics. We decided to go abroad to treat the patients directly. That way we cure five times more people with half the budget. I was chosen as a Board Member and CEO. Between 2008 and 2012 we have been in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Togo, Yemen, Somalia… We train the local ophtalmologists and provide medicine, surgery and glasses. We helped 40 000 people in need in 2012. Another project with Qatar Foundation is to prevent river blindness, spread by the bite of black fly in Ethiopia, Cameroun, Mali and Ouganda. We also have a blind eye flying hospital, Orbis, a plane flying to provide training for medical staff and surgery at the same time.

What project did you set up in the UAE ?

Emiratis don’t need treatment from us because local people are given free medical care and expats are given treatments at very cheap rates. But we developped a program in UAE prisons : early detection of eye disease for prisoners. We conducted a study on diabetic prisoners. It is important to detect the disease early otherwise it makes irreversible damage. They get diagnosed every three months thanks to an electronical machine with a very accurate camera. This is a priority for them. It’s like having a doctor for 24 hours in the prison or a prison equiped with a five stars hospital. Our latest study shows that in Ajman only one patient needed treatment this year as well as Dubai. In Fujeirah and Sharjah, there were all taken care of. These excellent figures show how good the service is now in the prisons.

What other programms do you have in the UAE ?

We put out informative brochures but we add a fun element so people don’t throw them away. One of them is designed for diabetics : it has an eye test, the Amsler test, where you look with one eye to see whether the lines remain straight. It show how diabetes affects patients. The other one is for cataract : there is a pair of glasses in the brochure. By wearing them you experience how cataract patient see. We also have a new project with RTA (Road and Transport Authority) who donated a bus transformed into an eye hospital. It will travel around the UAE to give full treatment as a support for the preferral clinics. It is the same concept as the mobile eye clinics. To give a primary eye care support.

What visual impairment do you treat ?

It depends on the country. In Sudan we operate children because we have an anesthesist. But in Niger, we have to transport the children to the capital city to treat them. The majority of our patients are treated for cataract. It is the number one cause of blindness in the world and it’s easy : 10 minutes under anesthesia. But there are often no doctors and it’s expensive : 100 dollars. Unafoardable when your income is only 4 dollars a month. We also treat glaucoma, children blindness (1,4 million in the world), corneal opacities, diabetic retinopathy, river blindness, trochoma and refractive errors.

Are there countries which are more concerned ?

Pakistan accounts for 4% of the total blindness in the world. We go more then once a year. This is due to corruption, natural disasters… Pakistan is a 180 million population and there is 1,5 million blinds. Then Bangladesh has 800 000 blinds…

You just finished the Auction of Art4Sight, how did it go ?

We started this project three years ago : we use art to raise funds. Blinds can’t see the colors around and when we treat them suddenly they can see the art in the world. Pieces of arts are donated by artists. We auction them with Christies and the money raised is used to prevent blindness. To helping people who don’t have the chance to see art. It has been successfull the past three years. We raised 200 000 dhs in 2011 and 1,2 million this year. People are becoming more aware.

What does working for a charity brought to you ?

Every human being likes to help. It makes your life worth it. Each one of us has a career where he can help people. I could work as a physician and come back home at 2 :30, spend time with my cats and my family. But I use my job to help people. It makes you feel better : you are giving something back to the world. It’s not just a job. It’s giving a gift for no reason. The reward is bigger.

Are you going on the field ?

Yes. I sometimes operate but most of the time I manage to ensure the success of the eye camps. We treat between 6000 and 9000 patients in 10 days. When you remove the pad, the smile, the happiness… The reward is the self-satisfaction.

Do you inspire people to get involved into charity ?

We already do that by the On-Line Volunteer program. We have the youngest volunteer of the UAE. He started at 6. His name is Khaled. His father is an ophtalmologist and his mother a pediatrician. I studied with them in Germany. We were having our Ramadan breakfats when I had to leave for a program with students from Zayed University. He asked to join.

Do people take things too much for granted in this very materialistic society ?

Yes but it is improving. The first feedback we got from the public showed they were not aware of what is going on in the world. Some people were asking for cosmetic surgery! But because of our brochures, the awareness, they understand more the concepts of volunteering, giving back to society, inspiration and donations. The first year we did not receive much. In 2009 our main sponsor was still the Dubai Islamic Bank. But last year we raised around 5 millions dhs and a lot came from individual donations.

How is the scope of the blindness in the world ?

A person goes blind every 5 second and a child every minute. If nothing was done, in 50 years, half the planet would be blind. But 80% of the blindness is curable. There are so many causes you can work on but blindness is important. It’s not only about being blind, it’s not being able to go to school, to study, to work and have another member of the family to take care of you. In certain countries like Pakistan people think blindness is black magic : they lock up blinds, prevent them from taking care of their kids. So not only are they visually isolated but socially as well. In certain countries in Africa, treatment money is given to men because they think they are worth more than women.

You are saying that women have less chances to get treated then men ?

Yes. Actually there are only women in my team and this helps charity to be given equally.

Was that a choice to have only women in your team?

No, it just happened. But they want to stay and serve the cause. They love the camps. If you know how much burden it is to have a blind person in a community and how costly it is for the country… Our work is not only to give treatment but we are also improving the quality of life.

How much does this blindness cost as a country?

With the Vision 2020 initiative the world saves 2.1billion dollars annually through the treatment and prevention programs of blindness prevention. We are saving a lot of money by providing surgery. It helps the poorest communities to save money. It is much cheaper than to provide treatment.

Are women more driven to charity then men ?

The passion is equal but women find more time. We work as much but we are more persistent and better at managing our time. No matter how busy a woman is, she’ll find the time. She is multitasking. Women are also more emotional about it.

Do you still have time for your family life ?

I am not married but I live with my parents : my mother is Vice Chancellor at the American University in Sharjah and my father who worked at the Ministry of Interior is retired. I like family life, having all my nieces and nephews around me.

Why did you chose to study in Germany ?

I just had the opportunity. Originally I wanted to go to the US. I did not even know how to say hello when I arrived. I loved it. There was so much respect between people. I could wear my abaya and be respected as a person. My mother studied in the UK, so I had been abroad before. My sister is doing the FIFA master class in Switzerland. She wants to bring something new to football here. It’s a passion.

It’s like everyone wants to bring something special from abroad back here to enhance professionalism ?

Here, everything is constantly changing, improving. We are always given new opportunities. So it is our turn to expand, to help the country grow, bring a better lifestyle to the people in all possible fields.

Do you sincerely believe men and women are treated equally ?

People think because we are Arab women, that we don’t have the same rights. I actually do worry sometimes about men that we will take over one day. The other day, Sheikh Mohammed said the majority of his staff were women. It’s not about men or women, it’s about people who want to work in a better way. Everything takes place on the personal level : it’s about the effort you put in. If you are sitting at home waiting, things will not come to you. This is the spirit of the UAE : « Go out and get it ! » It’s a hub for successful people. You get opportunities but you need to respect the culture and the beliefs of the country. In some of our eye camps, they are all Christians but we receive a warm welcome because it’s all about respect. Respect leads to success.

For more info :

http://www.noordubai.ae/en/Default.aspx

Causes of blindness in the world

Cataract :

An opacity that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye

47,9% of total blindness

Glaucoma :

A group of disease of the optic nerve

Number of blind children in the world : 1,4 million

Refractive errors : 800 millions to 2,3 billions

Corneal opacities :

A condition in which the transparent cornea of an eye becomes opaque

5,1% of global blindness

River blindness (onchocerciasis) :

Parasite infection that spreads to humans through the bite of the black fly

18 millions infected and 270 000 cases of blindness related

Diabetic retinopathy : cause of 4,8% of blindness in the world

Trachoma :

An infectious disease cause by a baterium

40 millions and 8 millions visually impaired as a result

Source : Noor Dubai Foundation

Other interesting figures

Based on the latest estimates, a child goes blind every minute and an adult every 5 seconds.

The latest worldwide estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) state that over 285 million people are visually impaired.

Of those, 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision.

Visual disability is a growing threat

Visual Disability and Poverty:

Greater than 90% of the world's visually impaired live in developing countries.

Over 90% of blind individuals live in areas with no access to quality eye care at an affordable price.

Although 82% of blind people are aged 50 years or older,

Over 1.4 million children below the age of 15 are blind.

Vitamin A deficiency is a prevalent cause of preventable blindness in children.

Females are at significantly higher risk of being visually impaired than males.

Source : Noor Dubai Foundation

« It’s not just a job, it’s giving something back »

« It’s not just a job, it’s giving something back »

A child goes blind every minute and an adult every 5 seconds.

A child goes blind every minute and an adult every 5 seconds.

Greater than 90% of the world's visually impaired live in developing countries.

Greater than 90% of the world's visually impaired live in developing countries.

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A Lady Who Made a Difference

Publié le par Kyradubai

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.”

Nestel in  the old Dubai, close to the old souk: Dubai Women's Museum

Nestel in the old Dubai, close to the old souk: Dubai Women's Museum

The ground floor is dedicated to the story of women in the UAE

The ground floor is dedicated to the story of women in the UAE

The land's hardships helped to form their characters

The land's hardships helped to form their characters

A place dedicated to the ones who helped shape the UAE and a tribute to its culture

A place dedicated to the ones who helped shape the UAE and a tribute to its culture

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Hoor Al-Qasimi, a Sheikha engaged with her public

Publié le par Kyradubai

Master in the art of opening boundaries

Master in the art of opening boundaries

SHEIKHA HOOR AL-QASIMI is the Director of the Sharjah Biennal. She made it the leading exhibition of contemporary art of the region in a city which has become one of the cultural capital of the Arab world. She tells how she aims at reaching the viewer, tackling all subjects while staying both relevant and respectful, liberal but not offensive. INTERVIEW WITH AN ACCESSIBLE SHEIKHA.

Tell us about your journey to become a selecting member of the Biennial of Sharjah ?

I grew up with the Biennial. It started in 1993, I was 13 at the time and visited it every couple of years. After finishing my BA at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, I had a year gap between my bachelor and masters degree at the Royal Academy in London. I was traveling with my father in Germany. We were in Berlin, and from there I went to Kassel to see Documenta 11. It really inspired me and I thought about the Biennial in Sharjah and how it could develop. After discussions with the organisers I finally joined the committee and eventually became Director.

That was the first time you actually selected the artists ?

Yes that was in 2002-2003. It was an application process and some artists were also invited. It was at the Expo Centre in Sharjah and I decided to bring half of the exhibition here to the Arts Area where you had the Sharjah Art Museum, the Emirates Fine Art Society, the Arts Institute and artists' studios. An area where art has been happening since the 80’s. 2007 was the last time we used the Expo Centre because I wanted to move away from a space associated with trade and commerce since it is important to stress that what we do is non for profit. This location in the old part of Sharjah was more interesting for us to house our offices and our spaces as well as different spaces throughout the city with every biennial which changes with each session. Our new Sharjah Art Foundation spaces recently opened here in time for the Biennial this year.

The Sharjah Biennial is recognised as one of the leading exhibitions of contemporary art in the region ?

Everything that happened in Sharjah in terms of art and culture happened organically. I grew up with the Biennial, the theatre, the book fair and many cultural activities. At the Foundation we now have exhibitions all year round, a summer school, talks and workshops, conferences, a film club, residencies and publications.

How come Sharjah is so much orientated towards culture ? Is it something that comes as a mark of this Emirate ?

My father’s priorities are education and culture, he has invested so much in the universities and cultural institutions. In 1998, Unesco put Sharjah as Cultural Capital of the Arab world. Next year Sharjah will be the Islamic Capital.

How is contemporary art -which can be very provocative- received in a very traditional culture ?

People always think that Sharjah is very traditional but it is very liberal really. Artists often deal with political and social issues. For example Sarah Abu Abdallah from Saudi Arabia studied in the Art College of Sharjah and she did a project about women driving in Saoudi Arabia (Saoudi Automobile-see picture).

It’s quite amazing because it really takes a swipe at Saudi Arabia forbidding women from driving…

Yes and then, next to it, we have the photographs by Ahmed Mater of Mecca showing the fast development in the area (Desert of pharan/Room with a View- see pictures).

Can we takle every subject here ?

Everything is on the news and people discuss politics all the time. In what you show you can provoke a discussion but should not offend the pubic. If you offend people you don’t provoke a discussion and you actually fail in what you are trying to do. If you reach the viewer, that’s very important.

This 41 year old country of yours is experiencing a revolution but the way you do things in your field seems more like an evolution ?

When I think about the region I also think of the different communities who live here in Sharjah, people from different countries and generations. We also work with artists from these countries. Like the residency project we started two years ago with Egyptian artist Wael Shawky. It was called The Witness Programme where we invited an artist to witness the Biennial and produce a new work. Wael had our press conference from Sharjah Biennial 10 transcribed and translated into Urdu because most of our technicians speak Urdu. He then asked them to select their favorite sentences and worked with a lyricist in Pakistan to create a song in Qawali, Sufi music which was performed for three days by Pakistani musicians during the opening of the Biennial and then evolved into a sound piece. This work was part of the Biennial this year.

Contemporary art can be a bit impressive ?

It’s not for the elite. That’s the whole point : a lot of the work we do is very approachable. It's not necessarily for the museum goer but for the general public including children. Like the structure of Thilo Frank : the room inside is full of mirrors with a swing. Both children and adults love it.

It is as if you were given this heritage from your family and you have to pass it on to the next generation ?

I did this between my BA and my MA for a year but I just kept wanting to change the Biennial, make it more relevant and more engaged with its public. I am continuously researching, reading and learning.

How is it to be a Sheikha in this environment ?

I am not really Sheikha in this environment. We were never raised as Sheikhas.

Would you say Sharjah has become a regional hub for contemporary art ?

It always was on a small scale. In the summer we will host a summer school and film club as well as have works from our growing collection on show. My main focus is to work with communities and outreach in and outside the city.

What did your father transmit to you ?

Hard work and modesty.

And your mother is very involved in charity ?

Yes, she also set up the Children's Biennial and Children's Film Festival.

What do you wish for the next generation of girls ?

For both men and women to be ambitous and work hard. I noticed that people have ambitions because there are so many new opportunities here which did not exist when I was in school. Now they can study biochemistry or architecture because it is available here and the universities are of a high level. They don’t need to travel anymore.

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A court robe on top of the abaya

Publié le par Kyradubai

A court robe on top of the abaya

At 31 only, Ebtessam Al Badwawi is one the three first female judges of Dubai. She explains how it was such a responsibility to set an example for the next generation of female judges. She says how proud she is to be citizen of a country which developped women workforce in all fields, a real challenge in the Arab world. EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW.

« UAE proved it’s possible to empower women without compromising on Arabic heritage and culture »

‪Introduce yourself?

Name: Ebtessam Ali Rashid Al Badwawi

Age: 31 years old

Profession: Judge in Dubai Courts – Civil Court

‪Where did you study and what ?

Bachelor degree - Sharia & Law from UAE University

Master degree with distinction in private law – Dubai Police Academy.

‪How many years did you have to study and train?

10 years studying in training in law.

‪Since when are you judge ?

March, 2009.

How many female judges in Dubai ? In the UAE ?

3 female judges including me in Dubai, and I guess same number in Abu Dhabi.

You must be proud to live in a country where women reach such positions ?

Yes indeed. I’m proud to be a UAE citizen and to serve my country and to pay back as much as I can for the great support received from my leaders His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahayan “President of UAE” & His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President & Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai who is known to be a man who always inspired and empowered women to contribute to our society’s development, I really value his faith and trust on me to be the first Emarati’s Judge in history of Dubai.

Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that UAE government didn’t spare any efforts when it comes to developing UAE’s women workforce : starting from offering equal rights as males in education and employment. Eventually, that contributed for diversity of women’s skills and knowledge from almost all fields. We can see nowadays so many important posts and positions has been occupied by women “Ministers, Ambassadors, Parliament Members, Judges, Lawyers, Police Officers, Doctors, etc.”

It is a challenging exercise for an Arab country but UAE proved it’s possible to empower women without compromising on the main traditional Arabic heritage and culture.

‪How were you accepted by the men ?

People appreciate professionalism regardless of gender; especially in a well-educated working atmosphere. I have been welcomed from day one since I joined Dubai Courts; Justice was the main pillar of any court in the world so we don’t expect any gender discrimination in this sensitive area.

Any comments from male judges or male lawyers ?

Surprisingly, male judges and lawyers admire to see women in this field which was dominated by men.

‪Are things improving ?

Big time, especially at my work level, I have been acknowledged by Dubai Court for the great efforts and sincere dedication at my work. I was worried initially, because Government was expecting me to set a noble example for next generation of female Judges. As a result, we can see today three Judges in Dubai Courts and more are coming.

How did you change the way men look at you ?

Honestly, women are well respected in our society; she is the mother, the sister and the wife. Having her also at work is an added value for the prestigious positions she used to enjoy.

Why did you want to become a judge ?

My passion to study law and enthusiasm to work in legal field and the support from my father contributed to prepare me for this day, and of course the precious chance to prove myself and to fill this role by H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Vice President & Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Was it difficult to reach that position ?

I won’t call it difficult; I will call it a challenge for any ambitious person who is willing to dedicate a truthful effort and time to achieve his objective.

‪Is there a lot of competition among women in the legal world ?

I’d rather see it as a lot of cooperation among women in the legal world.

Did you have any role models ?

Yes. H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Vice President & Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

What is your mother doing as a profession ?

My Mum is an ordinary house wife. She devoted her life to ensure better education for her kids.

Your father ?

My father retried from army long time back, and dedicated his life to be close from his children, to ensure descent welfare and prosperity for his small family.

‪Do you have family members in the law field ?

No.

‪What is your ambition ?

My ambition is to be a pioneer in the legal field and to raise my country name on international level.

Are you paid the same salary as a male judge ?

Yes.

‪What was the reaction in your family and people around you when you said you wanted to become a judge ?

I wasn’t expecting to become a judge, my ambitious is limitless. To be a judge means you have accepted great responsibility that’s comes with this title.

‪What is the importance of religion in your life, in your work ?

Religion plays a very important role in everyone’s life, and the same applies to me.

‪Why do you like your job ?

I enjoy the fruit of my academic study in my current role.

Who is the most senior female judge ?

I believe Judge Kholoud Ahmed Juoan Al Dhaheri.

What criminal or civil actions women fight for ?

Men and women rights are equal in all laws with exception to inheritances, so there are no genuine reasons for women to fight for her rights, although UAE keep updating the laws whenever there are a need to do so.

Which criminal or civil actions are made against women ?

UAE Law punishes whoever abuse or prevent women from enjoying her freedom in UAE society. Our country always appreciates anyone who lives here irrespective of his/her nationality, religion or origin with continuously improving his/her welfare.

‪How is the implementation of Sharia evolving? Do you use other legal codes ?

UAE’s Law organizes all various transactions in the country, {Commercial, Civil, Criminal or personal related cases}. Bearing in mind, that legislation in UAE is constantly evolving to cater all new business deals and civil contemporary locally and internationally.

Is there a difference implementing sharia to men and women ?

It’s equal between men and women except in inheritance. Islamic regulations gave men twice the women rights in inheritance, a man being sole responsible to spend on his own home. Besides all women fall under his supervision and circle whether his mum, sisters, wife, daughters.. .etc. That’s doesn’t mean less rights granted for women but more respect for her by assigning men in her family to serve her

‪Do men and women have the same rights according to the law ?

Yes

How would you define women’s rights here ? As wide as in the West ? Different ?

Women’s have full rights : the right to speech, to express her thoughts and to enjoy her freedom without offending people surrounding her and in line with the cultural codes and ethics.

‪What are the prison conditions for women ?

I might not have a full picture about the prison condition for women, however I truly believe it’s compatible with her nature, as per the international standards and there is a training center for her different skills. There are prisons for women in each emirate.

What improvements society must do for women ?

More community centers with active programs to utilize women energies in a more effective and productive manner. We need continuous programs to guaranty women qualify for senior roles in the country.

What do you wish for the next generation of girls ?

I encourage them to focus on education, on subject related to their interests; they have no more excuses for not achieving their ambitions.

Describe your day in Court?

Preparation, attending law sessions, discussions, writing court decisions and meeting to improve our progress.

‪How do you dress as a judge?

Court Robe “On top of my abaya” is a must protocol before I attend any legal session.

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« Islam has granted women rights for 1100 years »

Publié le par Kyradubai

« 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.

Why ?

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.[1] 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

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« We don’t want to intimidate the male generation »

Publié le par Kyradubai

« We don’t want to intimidate the male generation »

AMEERA BINKARAM has chaired the Sharjah Women Business Council (SWBC) since 2009. She explains the dynamics of women in business over the past decades and pinpoints the starts of their golden age in 2006. She describes how they became organically empowered, gaining independance with all due respect for a male dominated culture. INTERVIEW.

More and more women are involved in business, the litteracy rate has risen. What you have witnessed ?

Sharjah operates under the supervision and guidance of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi. We have seen his dedication towards education. That is not limited to the city. The past three years, we witnessed universitis emerging in the rural areas of Sharjah like Rafa Khan, Kalba. They now have full fledged universities. You can imagine the domino effect for the families there. One of the major players for the past decade for the enhancement of women education and social and community wise is also the existence of the Sharjah Ladies Club (SLC). Its headquarters are in Sharjah but it has another 11 branches in smaller areas of the Emirate, where seven years ago were considered so remote. You could not even access one of them by car. There was no road. His Highness created a tunnel and asked for the SLC to go there. This is giving people from the rural areas access to knowledge without having the hassle of commuting back. This is part of a bigger strategy here.

So you saw the situation evolving for women with your own eyes ?

I accompanied Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher, in one of these rural areas not long ago. Behaviours have changed, education is there, the level of communication has grown. You don’t feel that you are commuting anymore. It goes to show you the organic growth and the constant support extended by His and Her Highness to universities, to municipalities, to the Sharjah’s Ladies Club and their branches. It goes to show you the effect it has created in these areas among women in the families.

I read that if women were involved as much as men in the economy, the GDP would grow by 12%...

I am not surprised at all.

What are the particular things women bring to business ?

I think a women’s perspective on a working environment is as important as a men’s perspective. It was difficult or challenging for a woman to be working in the past. Two years ago, with Sharjah becoming a baby friendly city and the laws passed on by government organizations to have nurseries accessible for the working mothers, it’s been a relief and it has increased the productivity of working mothers. It really added a lot on the long run.

What does a woman add to a professional environment?

I don’t see the difference between male and female because I believe that once you are given a task then you develop it 100%. A lady once came to us. She wanted to start a chocolate factory. Her husband was sort of against her doing it. He went ahead and started it with a Tunisian partner. She asked us how to overcome this challenge. We advised her to ask her husband to make her a partner. When the chocolate factory was created, in return we would give her benefits. The minute, the husband and the partner saw the benefits that’s when they made her a partner. When they came to venture into another business they immediately asked her if she would be part of it because the SBWC would give her benefits. In business it all comes down to the maths. But we have seen a breakthrough in the cultural restrictions. There are challenges but they are no longer tough as they used to be.

What are the remaining challenges ?

We see some from time to time. But in the last two years we hardly came accross these challenges.

When women start bringing an income, does the problem lessen ?

Economic empowerment brings about independance. It should be a natural process. We don’t want to intimidate the male generation. It should be organic, natural. Even if it’s happening from home. Some Arab and non Arab just want their wives at home and it’s perfectly acceptable. But she can be economically empowered from home.

Do you think men feel threaten by women’s independance and success ?

It depends from case to case. My biggest supporter is a male.

Your father ?

Yes. He is a business man in construction.

Where did you study ?

I went to school in Sharjah and in Dubai Women’s College. I graduated a sa mass communication, not even university degree and then I went to the family business here. I was managing construction. There is no restrictions at all. 2006 was the golden age of women, when our first minister Sheikha Lubna was appointed. Women have taken a toll. Women in the UAE have always been given independance but it officially happended when she was appointed first Emirati female minister.

Women seem very determined, even more then men. Because it’s been a battle ? They had to gain this independance ?

I don’t know because I was born in a house where there was no separation between male and female. You work hard, you get a pat on the shoulder. You are lazy, you get the boot camp. It differs. But in the UAE, the government has really supported women. Her Highness, visits every year the different regions of Sharjah. Not long ago, we visited Lekha, one of the rural areas. She is going there, listening to the women, their needs, their requirements, takes notes, is familiar with each of them. She is updated. They genuinelyy care about the concerns of Their people.

This is part of your culture as well ?

Yes this is the Emirates. This is the strength of the Emirates. The ruling family operates like an extended big family. Whenever a woman comes with a requirement, Her Highness does not respond to it as a single request. She takles it in a holistic approach thinking that other women probably have the same need.

This is real politics…

Yes and this is how women are important in terms of politics. One of them was in sports. She told Sheikha Jawaher how she had to comute few hours to go to the sports center. Her Highness saw the need for women to be fit as well and inchallah set up a sports complex for them. Every concern is a bigger concern bringing a solution to the community. This strengthens women. If the stakeholders can listen to you at certain times –an annual visit, Eid or Ramadan, through answers in the radio, twitter- if they are accessible, your mind is at peace.

You participated in the Women on Board Forum which led to a new quota decree ?

It was a an initiative of Sheikha Manal, Head of the Dubai Women Establishment and Mouna Al Marri along with their team. They have been working strongly with consutants in terms of reforms insuring women work in a safe environment, that working mothers can cope with the challenges of work and children. The last thing was Women on Board, a subject that was highlighted extensively in the Women’s Forum. They gathered women and men from different sectors, took their different points of views, measured each debate on stage to make sure their opinoon was not biased. That’s the beauty of the UAE. In the past two years, especially with the Arab Spring that has been happening accross the nations, you will see a policy put into effect. The policy makers are now taking the feedback of the people. Before it was put into effect. Now the people are part of the policy, the decision process.

This is what we call sustainable development… ?

Very sustainable. Corporate governance. I think the Women on Board initiative and the Forum. Is a good example. They asked the SBWC to be part of it. Because I sit on a few Boards, (Friends of Cancer Patients Society ; International World Girls’ Guide Fund ; Sharjah Tatweer Forum ; Sharjah’s Ladies Club). I was asked to be part of it. They wanted to showcase that women in the UAE are already part of Boards locally, regionally and internationaly. Two weeks after the Forum ended, a rule was put in place. But in Sharjah it’s a given. If you are a woman you are anchored and supported.

Well there are many countries without such a rule. Dubai will be one of the very few ?

Exactly. The quota issue is still not into effect. After measuring the polling response, they looked at the quotas. It was still too early to have X amount of females on Boards. This is sound. Because we should first get women on Boards. Then when we get that accepted, we enforce a quota. I think everything should work gradually especially in Arab countries and the Gulf State Countries. The women’s parents, brothers, husbands all have a say in a woman’s life. This is our culture and you can never detach from culture. You need to understand it and work within that. The Emirates have been successful because policy makers understand the parameters of our culture, how precious a woman is. It is a given, the father, the brother, the husband, the uncle, have a positive say in the woman’s life.

What about the role of the UAE in the region for that matter ?

In terms of women and the Gulf States, we have been benchmarked and in lot of case where we attend forums, in Lebanon, in Bahrein, Koweit, Oman we get to hear that they all know, the message is out there : women are supported. If you ask who is that woman who is really creating change in the UAE ? It is a group of women. There is so many and each one is working within her focus.

Tell me what the most successful women have in common ?

If you look at Sheikha Loubna, Sheikha Jawaher, Noura Al Noman, Dct Houriya Kazim, they all use humour to cope with stress.

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SHEIKHA LATEEFA, PRINCESS OF ARTS

Publié le par Kyradubai

SHEIKHA LATEEFA, PRINCESS OF ARTS

“You have to live on the edge of your comfort zone in order to grow”

Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum is the daughter of late Sheikh Maktoum and the niece of Sheikh Mohammed. Not only is she the Head and Founder of Tashkeel, an independent resource for artists and designers living and working in the United Arab Emirates, a practicing artist herself, but getting ready to get married to Abdallah bin Hamed bin Hamdan Al Nayan. Nevertheless she remains accessible and focused. INTERVIEW with a Lady.

Tall and slightly cold, SHEIKHA LATEEFA impressed me with her deep dark eyes and her low tone of voice, imposing a subtle distance befitting the royals. A tight sheila hiding her hair, a fully covering abaya only suggesting a colorful dress, she slowly starts revealing herself. Little by little, she expands, agrees to disclose. She shows a passionate deep and committed personality. In between two worlds, a traditional education within the Al Makhtoum royal family and a profession ahead of cultural changes, Sheikha Lateefa bint Makhtoum lives her 28 years of age like any Emiraty young lady of her generation… and not quite either.

When did you decide to become an artist?

I never stopped. As a child everyone draws, scribbles. I was always doing that and in the presence of my sister who gave me scraps of paper to draw on or art books to look through. I scribbled on any paper. I used to do a lot of sports as well at school, so it was between the two disciplines. At the time art was seen as a hobby, not a career path.

It was not seen as serious?

Art was not seen as a serious career path. When I was in high school, I was in a British system which taught art as serious as it taught maths or science, but you had to choose certain subjects as your main choice at an early stage which was 9th grade. It almost put in your mind that you were choosing the rest of your life. Now looking back, of course it is not, but it was a turning point in my life.

So this was almost a decisive choice?

Yes, choosing your GCSEs is a major decision. As my first choice I did not put down art. Before handing in my paper, I was in Art Class. My art teacher Mrs Dean picked it up and said, “What are you doing? You are not taking art?” I did not have an answer because I loved it so much but after grade 9 - which is when the choice of subjects is made - those are the years when it becomes even more serious, when you get into art history, and creating more of a body of work. She saw the potential in me, so I ticked the box then and there, and since then, I have been grateful to her for making me realize my potential. She gave me the push. She told me “You can do this”.

Were you lacking confidence?

I was second guessing. “Can I do this? Am I good enough to do this?” The fact that I wasn’t considering art was really shocking to Mrs Dean. I put the tick and that tick changed my journey.

Isn’t it incredible how destiny just happens in a moment?

I can almost pinpoint the moment. I know exactly the moment.

Decisive…

From then on, for the next four years of high school I did art. At university I was hesitating between visual arts and graphic or interior design – because those were seen as having a career attached to them, more serious, sort of - but I felt that through visual arts you develop your own creative personality, but through the other choices there would always be another person: in interior design you have a client, in graphic design as well. I am very independent and strong-minded; I like to do what I like to do and have my own voice in the work instead of someone else’s. A lot of the time, the professors could not influence me to do what they wanted because I had my own ideas I wanted to show. I had to do it and then they understood what I meant. I had to create it.

How was it received by your parents, your family?

My sister and my aunt are artists but I am the one who took it on professionally. My mother was trying to get me to look at other options before settling with a choice, but my father was behind any decision I made; but they were both supportive because they trusted that I would make good decisions. They always encouraged me. I felt that there was something pulling me towards fine art and I did not want to do it just as a hobby. It was only the final year after curating an exhibition of local artists that I realized the need for a place like Tashkeel.

You felt that such a place was missing here?

There were resident artists studios in the UAE. They started in Sharjah, at Sharjah Art Museum. In 2007, I did my internship there and saw the studios and the Biennale, where I worked for the technical and production team. I have great respect for them and I learned a lot from working in that environment which is thriving with creative people. Here in Dubai at the time there weren’t many serious public studios for artists to meet; many researched each other on on-line platforms where they interacted and exchanged ideas, but there was not a physical place that that could be done while witnessing the artwork being created. Sometimes you could stand next to a person in a gallery and not know that this is someone who you saw their work online and have perhaps left a comment on their work. I discovered this by curating the show.

Is this due to Arab society?

It was the culture in the past, it was difficult to find creative public meeting places, a creative environment, a place where you can interact and see each other’s work. I felt we had that critical environment at university, where we could challenge each other’s thinking and critique work. I realized that after graduating many of the students stopped producing which was sad.

There was not this energy anymore: meeting, sharing, discussing?

A challenging environment creates a place where artists can grow and not be stagnant. I discussed the idea for Tashkeel with Jill Hoyle, my supervisor at university at the time who now works for me as the manager of Tashkeel. I wanted to keep the same atmosphere without the pressure of academia. In university you are always answering to professors, who would give you assignments. I had a clear path in my mind, and I discovered the style of work I wanted to do. I liked the challenges of using different mediums such as photomontage, which now informs most of my work. I was working on complex pieces at the time that sometimes most of my professors themselves could not help because they were not too familiar with the software since it was so new that I had to learn from online forums, which helped me greatly. Through that I realized that there were more ways of learning besides from the person in the room teaching you.

Is the curriculum more up to date now?

I hope so. I believe in challenging students to the maximum and maybe even not accepting what they first give you and pushing them further to see what they will give you. Students will surprise you if you give them a little push.

You lived here? So you are in your comfort zone, back to your childhood in a way?

Yes born and raised in Dubai, I know the area really well and it has a great sentimental place in my heart that’s for sure.

So this is the whole idea of Tashkeel, freedom, energy, sharing techniques?

It’s a place where artists can come and interact with likeminded individuals of all ages and learn and grown from one another to be the best they can be in whatever field they chose.

But how was that welcomed - such a mixed environment in a society where

men and women are segregated ?

It was a little bit difficult to start with, especially because of the culture, male and females did not mix except in professional environment in most occasions. But the way I organized Tashkeel was very much sensitive to the culture and I tried to create a respectable environment where artists could work. I went to an all girls’ school (Latifa School for Girls) so I grew up and know first hand the sensitivities surrounding segregating male and females.

And how was that?

It was strange because it was all women and suddenly you enter university and you have male professors and even the sound of the voice of the male professor teaching you was strange at first. Learning from a male is quite different, a different energy and way of thinking. Men are methodical and follow a point like a thread from one point to another; women can go on tangents before getting back to the point. University was a healthy environment. The male energy in the space changes the dynamics, how the girls interact even. There was a sense of respect, the boundaries were clearer. So I thought a respectable studio environment can be created inspired by what I had experienced in university.

But you did it with respect?

I don’t want to offend the culture. I want to push it to a contemporary way of living a little bit, but I don’t want to offend.

It’s not a fight, just an evolution ?

It’s an evolution. Step by step. I always test ideas with my mother. She trusts me. She knows I will always create a respectful environment. She questioned how I was going to do it, how the studios would be, how the interactions would happen and I made it clear that it would be all open spaces. The space would be transparent everything was in large communal studios. In the beginning more women used the studios since in this culture we have more female artists than male but slowly male artists appeared and started to use the space and work seriously in the studios. It just happened naturally.

One of the problems is also that women artists often stop working when they get married?

I find that a lot. I have a few friends who that happened to but they still have the hunger for it. I try to push them for the better even if they are doing things at home. It is just about making time for yourself. Organize your time in order to nourish your soul, almost. If you do that, you will not be frustrated and be able to give more to your family since you fulfilled your own needs. Personal creative time is very important, even if it’s only for an hour a day.

What about the husbands?

I find that many encourage their wives to make art, I have a few married friends who have had successful work after marriage, it’s all about time management, and where some want to put their creative energy.

What inspires you in your work?

My work is inspired by conversations I had, or by watching and documenting how the landscape of Dubai has changed over the years and how that affects people and society as a whole, although my work is subtle you have to read into it.

And there’s a lot going on!

Yes. Sometimes the speed of it can be scary; it makes you think what impact this change is going to have on the identity of the place, but I realize that a lot of people know who they are. This is how my piece “The last Look” came about. The girl is holding a suitcase while she is walking across the sea. Behind her we see a faint line in the horizon showing the palm island appearing. The suitcase symbolizes her knowing who she is, her culture is within her no matter what change is going on around her. I will keep on taking pictures there whilst it gets built so it shows the evolution of things. My art follows the transition of what I witness.

Local artists seem to be drawn towards this search for identity?

Yes, some artists will take pictures of heritage, for example typical images of camels and women holding coffee pots. That to me is heritage to most who are photographing but not the culture they live on a day to day basis. Although to many it is. I question artists that do that: asking what their personal connection is to what they photograph. For the new generation same things from our heritage exist but in what context in contemporary society? To answer that question in art, takes it a step further than simply showing the surface. A lot of my friends have working farms which are in Marmoum and have a connection to this part of our heritage, its still exists but someone’s relationship to this part of society who is living in the city would be completely different.

Is it an anxiety as certain things are disappearing suddenly?

Yes for my mother’s generation they always stress the fact that this is not how it was done. Even the evolution of dance, for example, the way men hold the gun when they dance. The boys spin the guns and put it on their hands in a certain way. They say that move was not done before, almost judging it to the point of saying it shouldn’t exist. But evolution is necessary for any society to advance, the new generation adapts to what exists and add to it from their own point of view.

Here it is especially challenging for the older generation to adapt to the changes…

The young generation find it easier since there isn’t a language barrier, so that helps for understanding people from outside the culture, but sometimes for the older generation it’s hard to get people outside the culture close.

It’s almost an animal instinct when you are the minority of the population of your own country?

To some it can seem overwhelming, and they close in on themselves not to be a part of it because of fear.

But you were raised at the same time as the city developed?

I was born and raised in Dubai and have strong ties to the country for sure.

How is it working as an artist, being the daughter of HH the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the niece of Dubai’s Ruler, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum?

When I exhibit, I don’t use my title. I am simply Lateefa bint Maktoum as any other artist. Some people don’t make the connection, so I don’t make it obvious (she laughs). I just do what I need to do. I am Lateefa, that’s it. Even at openings, I just casually go, I don’t need to make an entrance. I take it in a relaxed sense and am accepted in the same way as I know the majority of the artists of the region. A lot of artists invite me to have critical discussions about their art on a casual yet serious level. I believe you teach people how to treat you and I always encourage open discussion and a relaxed environment. It’s the best way to grow and learn, not have formalities that hold people back. My friends who are artists especially don’t hold back from me; if they think that what I’ve made is rubbish they will tell me.

How come there are so passionate characters in your family? Where does it come from?

In our family it is ingrained in you when growing up and being raised that you have to have a purpose. All our family has that: you have to be doing something. Almost giving back. In our family, there is always the thought of what you are going to give back to society. How are you going to enrich your country in the philosophical sense. Sheikh Mohammed is always pushing for knowledge, for the young generation to work and give back. It’s in us. We can’t live selfishly. Art is selfish, but providing these studios for artists is giving back to them, creating this environment, enriching their work.

In a culture so protective of private life, do you feel the need to push the boundaries between private and public as an artist?

I realized that a lot of people won’t reveal the private in their artwork. And by that I don’t mean creating any work that will be offensive or vulgar, on the contrary, I mean work that is thought provoking and has a reflection of a personal perspective that would give insight into ones character and lifestyle. I understand it completely why this is not done much but sometimes I feel like “Give a window into how you live”. It’s not to offend but just an observation. We collaborated with the Dubai Women’s College in the first couple of years of Tashkeel, on an exhibition around this theme, but the students were still young and fresh. Some did not push it that much but others were really about “pushing the boundaries”, question, “reveal a little bit”. I am interested to see more of that digging beneath the surface. We see only the surface level still in many exhibitions; I feel its time to dig a little more. The audience is ready.

So it is part of the culture not to reveal?

Our culture is based on an oral tradition, sharing happens in script and poetry. People from the same culture here will discuss among themselves things that they will not with their Western friends, because there is an understanding of what they are discussing might not be understood. Between them, they understand the complexity or the simplest things in root dynamics that there doesn’t need to be too much explanation. But I am interested in seeing how artists would reveal this dynamic visually and how the story will unfold and be understood.

How is it to live and work in a city which is yours but where you are the minority?

For me it’s not a hindrance. I’m well traveled and have mixed with people from all over the world so its not intimidating to me. I know people who are not from the UAE but serve it and love it as if it were their own. I don’t like to separate people according to their background. You get the richness with this mix. You teach people how to treat you. You show them the limits within your culture if they are not understood and you move on from there. We learn from each other and this is how boundaries are set for respect and interactions.

What are the issues that you are working on in your artwork?

As always my work is influenced by change, internal and external. I put it in the context of the change happening around and that also reflects what is happening in my mind. I’m working on transition works at the moment and experimenting with shooting indoors, something I have not done for a long time.

You are inspired by different locations?

Yes. I find that I capture a lot of things while I travel with my camera. Then I compose them as stories. I always shoot outside. It is interesting: it is a safe environment. You are not in an intimate place, although that’s what I am trying to do now. I am working on a piece called ”Transition” It brings the indoor and outdoor together. I am sitting on a large day bed, writing in a book and it shows the landscape behind me.

How do you work?

Before creating work I stop and think and write and sketch. Thoughts wake me up at night and I keep a journal by my bed that I write in when I wake up so the thought does not escape, which I work on and develop when the time is right. To move from outdoor photography to indoor is uncomfortable but I need to do it, although bringing peoples eyes into indoor spaces which are your own is itself an intimate experience which I struggle with what to reveal and what not to. This is something yet to be resolved.

This is exactly what you ask from your peers: push boundaries?

Yes. I am comfortable now with shooting outside, but it’s too safe. I’ve said what I needed to say. I need to work on the edge of being uncomfortable; that’s the only way to grow. You have to live on the edge of your comfort zone in order to grow.

As free as you are, you will live with your mother until you get married, no discussion about that?

Yes (she laughs). No discussion. It’s fine. We all have our space in the house. This is common for both males and females of this society.

Do you plan to have children or are you dedicated to your work?

I am engaged at the moment so lets see if the future has children in it. I welcome them with open arms. I’ve helped my sister with all her children, the eldest is now 18 years old and the youngest is 4. I think I have enough practice J. I don’t think that I will stop making art or not be involved in art. It is a part of me, my plan is to have both a family and continue with my career within the arts.

Will it have an impact on your work?

I think so for sure. The question is will it add more boundaries or not? I am at the point of thinking about bringing people more towards the indoor spaces for a while now. Spaces give you different kind of thoughts; different environments create different dialogues. I have things in my sketchbook and I think people could read too much into things, which aren’t meant to be read into, this can be funny. Again I like to test my mother because she is a poet but doesn’t physically make art; she has a sensibility to it, and has a very raw reaction to my thoughts which I love. She will tell me honestly if an idea is too shocking or not. Sometimes what I say scares her (she laughs). So if I scare her too much, I pull back. I don’t know if being married will affect what I create. I’m sure it will, but it would be interesting to see where the journey takes me with my work.

To conclude this interview, can you just tell a memory about your father that is dear to you?

He was very sensitive. We are very similar, quiet, listen more, talk less, he had a quick smart sense of humor. We understood each other well. He used to call me “Sabah al khair “, which means “good morning” since I am the one who woke him up in the morning. He used to ask my mother when I did not come to wake him up “Where is Sabah al khair?” We had the same kind of habits: the way we lay in the bed and put the blanket in a certain way. We woke up early just to go out on the balcony and watch the sunrise, and had breakfast all together. To this day I have an affinity with watching light change. It will be with me forever. When he came home my sisters and I used to race who will get to him first to take off his shoes off. Breakfast was something we had to do together. The window was always open. There was a wild green parrot that used to come every morning to wake us up and have breakfast with us. This moment balanced us for the rest of the day.

More info :

http://www.tashkeel.org/En/Index.aspx

Her last project: a little bit of indoors on the outdoor

Her last project: a little bit of indoors on the outdoor

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