IN THE patriarchal societies of the Arab world, quite a few women are getting noticed for flouting conventional gender norms. There’s Saudi Arabia’s Manal al-Sharif, who lost her job and came under great pressure for driving a car and putting a video of it on YouTube; Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, a powerful art patron in Qatar; and Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, a globe-trotting minister of foreign trade for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And later this year the region will see its first museum dedicated to the accomplishments of women.
The Women’s Museum of the United Arab Emirates is the creation of Rafia Obaid Ghubash, an academic, psychiatrist and former president of the Arabian Gulf University, who campaigns for women’s education. Her aim is to educate visitors—locals, expats and tourists—that Emirati women have enjoyed more power and influence than is recognised. She also wants to re-connect the fast-moving modern Emirates with its history and tradition. The three-storey museum is determinedly contemporary: traditional jewellery hangs suspended in minimalist cases; material wraps a stylised mannequin; worn housework tools are displayed alongside artwork by modern female Emirati artists.
Dr Ghubash declined a free site in Bastakya (an official Dubai heritage district), preferring to buy one in Deira, Dubai’s old nexus of souks. She sold off some commercial property she owned to finance the museum herself, at a cost of around $4m, and plans to seek sponsors for its projects and exhibitions. She explains that her mother taught her that womanhood need not equal subservience. Speaking in the museum to the sounds of saws and final touches, her iPhone headphones threading through her fingers like worry beads, Dr Ghubash recalls her mother telling her: “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 practise it.”
This belief emanates from the art and artefacts on permanent display, from photographs to literature, mosaics, paintings and objects. They tell the stories of Sheikhas operating as peacemakers and dynastic linchpins, women who became pioneers in education and business, and also poets (“When you say Shakespeare, we would say Ousha Bint Khalifa”, says Dr Ghubash). Emirati women today are much better off, she adds, because many of them are now able to go to school and work, which enables financial independence. Dr Ghubash sees these changes as the legacy of Sheikh Zayeed of Abu Dhabi, who was president of the UAE from its foundation in 1971 to his death in 2004.
For Dr Ghubash the appreciation of history and tradition in rapidly developed societies like the UAE isn’t just good cross-generational manners, but mentally healthy. “Those who keep their tradition in dealing with modernity will be healthier than those who take out their tradition,” she explains. “Globalisation is an umbrella to use in part of your life but not all of your life.” When talking of Dubai’s near-famine years during the second world war and the six months of every year the men spent away pearl fishing, she asks, “Who was running society? Just recently you can see us but we were behind the door all the time.”
She accepts that there is a dual attitude to Arab women. “Part of the tradition is kind to women. But part is very negative. Those who are not educated just utilise the negative part.” Now female UAE graduates outnumber males two to one. Dr Ghubash wants to reach those young women, and help them appreciate the achievements of earlier female generations. “They are educated, they become powerful, you see them everywhere but there is something missing.” She also wants to close the distance between non-Arabs and locals. “Foreigners are the majority here. They know nothing about our society. You live with us and you don’t know us.”
Dr Ghubash hopes locals will feel a sense of pride, and visitors will have a richer understanding of the Emirates as a place where women have played important roles in politics, business and education. The message of the museum, she says, is that “everything from your past is important to you.”
source: the Economist July 30 2012