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Dr. Rafia Ghubash, Economist.com

‘Don’t think the government or a man or your husband will give you a right. It’s inside you, just practise it.’

The profile of Arab women is rising, challenging the world’s preconceptions of a patriarchal Middle East. Some of the women are outsiders, like the headscarved protestors of the Arab Spring or Saudi Arabia’s Manal al-Sharif, who lost her job for driving a car and posting a video of it on Youtube. Some are insiders, like Qatari art patron Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani and globetrotting UAE Minister of Foreign Trade Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi. And now comes the Middle East’s first women’s museum.

The Women’s Museum of the United Arab Emirates is the creation of Dubai’s Professor Rafia Obaid Ghubash, an academic, psychiatrist and former President of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. Her aim is to educate visitors – both local and foreign – that Emirati women enjoyed more power and influence historically than is recognised, and to re-connect the modern Emirates with its past and tradition.

But the museum’s three airy storeys are determinedly contemporary: traditional jewellery hangs suspended in minimalist cases; material wraps a towering, stylised mannequin; worn housework tools juxtapose with work by modern female Emirati artists. Alongside the art and artefacts are permanent exhibitions about Sheikhas operating as peace makers and dynastic linchpins; the woman poet Ousha Bint Khalifa (“When you say Shakespeare, we would say Ousha Bint Khalifa” says Dr. Ghubash); women pioneers in education and business.

The museum’s location and financing are telling. Ghubash declined a free site in Bastakya, an official Dubai heritage district. Instead she bought one in Deira, Dubai’s old nexus of souks, selling off commercial property she owned to finance it, at a cost of around $4m. (She will seek sponsors for future projects and exhibitions.)

Ghubash’s ideas are rooted in personal history. Her mother divorced her husband, ran a shop in Deira from the 1950s and instilled in Ghubash the belief that womanhood need not equal subservience.

She spoke in the museum to the sound of saws and final touches, her i-phone earphones threading through her fingers like worry beads.

“My mother said ‘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’. We came from a neighbourhood where the women were involved in trading, property. So I want to show how our hidden women were so strong and empowered.”

Ghubash asks, particularly of Dubai’s near-famine years in World War Two, and the six months of every year when men sailed with the pearl-fishing fleet, “Who was running society? The man took one aspect, the financial. The woman took so many aspects. Just recently you can see us but we were behind the door all the time.”

For Dr. Ghubash the appreciation of history and tradition in rapidly developed societies like the UAE isn’t just good cross-generational manners, it’s mentally healthy. “That was my Phd. Those who keep their tradition in dealing with modernity, will be more healthy than those who take out their tradition. Globalisation is an umbrella to use in part of your life but not all of your life.”

She sees dual attitudes to women in the Arab tradition. “When I was running the University, journalists were asking me, ‘Is it difficult to be a woman and a President?’ I said ‘It is the easiest point because our culture appreciates strong women’. Part of the tradition is kind to women. But part is very negative. Those who are not educated just utilise the negative part.”

Female UAE graduates now outnumber males 2:1. Ghubash wants to reach those young women, arguing their sophistication can distances them from the once-hidden generation. “Most of them communicate in English. When you sit in a family where the grandmother can’t understand, it is hurting. OK, they are educated, they become powerful, you see them everywhere but there is something missing.”

Another distance Ghubash wants to close is 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.”

After visiting the museum, Ghubash hopes, “Tourists [and expats] will say, ‘O there were women in politics, there were women in education’. So we will change the attitude of people towards us. Then the young generation, ‘Well we have something to be proud of in our past’. It starts to give a message: everything from your past is important to you.”

July 2012

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