From her quiet home in Dubai, Dr Rafia Ghubash sits and works methodically. The calm atmosphere of her desert villa is conducive to the different projects she’s working on at the same time all of which aim to document and preserve the cultural heritage of UAE.
Ghubash is in the process of setting up the first Women’s Museum in the Emirates, which will showcase many of the extraordinary, empowered women of this country. When she started to formulate the idea, she found a lot of Emirati people she came across were willing to donate items of interest – books, clothing, jewellery, paintings and other artefacts which informed about the history of women in the UAE.
Besides providing information about the history of women here, she also hoped by setting up the museum to attract Emiratis to the area in which she grew up.
She still reminisces about her childhood and growing up in Deira, just metres from the sea. As a child she used go fishing everyday and even tried sometimes to catch seagulls. She had three sisters, two brothers and three half-brothers. “I always enjoy going back to the place where I was born and in which I grew up, which is near the gold market in Deira,” she says. “Call it nostalgia, but I feel the need to go there regularly. But every time I return I meet fewer and fewer local people. I decided that I would do something in the area to bring the people back.”
Searching for and finding the ideal location for the museum in Deira, Ghubash realised the premises she had found had once been called the ‘Bayt Al Bannat’, or ‘The Girls’ House’. This started her thinking and soon the idea for the Women’s Museum was born.
Dr Rafia Ghubash is very definitely a highachieving woman herself. She has an impressive list of academic achievements.
She studied medicine at the University of Cairo, going on to specialise in psychiatry and gaining a PhD in Community and Epidemiological Psychiatry from the University of London in 1992. Not content with earning a doctorate however, she has since completed six academic degrees. And while she hasn’t practiced psychiatry in a clinic for 10 years, she does still see patients occasionally, in their own homes.
Appointed Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the UAE University in Al Ain in 2000, she became the President of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain shortly afterwards and held this position for eight years. She was the first woman to hold both these roles.
What’s more she has written a number of books, including Historical Papers from the Life of the Poet Hussein Bin Nasser Al Lootah about her grandfather – the Emirati poet Hussein Bin Nasser Al Lootah. This was published in 2007 and made her realise she says that history needs to be preserved.
“I feel it’s my obligation to document parts of history, in a different way than others do. I do it with feeling, not just to provide information,” she says. “I have this intense feeling that I need to write it all down before it’s forgotten. I always feel that we are responsible for holding on to information and preserving it for future generations. Otherwise it will never be documented.”
Later, she wrote another book about the legendary female poet Ousha Bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi whose Nabati poems have often been turned into songs. This book titled The Complete works of Ousha Bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi was published in November (2011) and is currently the biggest selling Arabic book in the UAE. Al Suwaidi was dubbed ‘The Girl of Arabs’ by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, after he visited her in January this year, to honour her as an outstanding woman.
“Ousha Bint Khalifa is someone that our society should treasure. To have had the chance to represent her in a very elegant and respectful way [in the book] is something I’m very proud of,” Ghubash says, “There’s rarely a day that passes when someone doesn’t inquire about her. It makes me feel that I did a good job,” she says.
Dr Ghubash is also in the process of writing an encyclopaedia of Emirati women. The women featured have been categorised according to the disciplines in which they work, such as politics, the economy and medicine.
It’s a labour-intensive project that she hopes to finish later this year. But she says she enjoys the research, particularly coming into contact with the older generation of Emiratis, who have stories from the past.
“I interviewed many people while collecting information [for the encyclopedia] and I really enjoyed the experience,” she says. “However two things make me sad: that a few of them have since died and that others have lost their memory.”
Although there have been many changes in recent years to the role of women in the UAE, Dr Ghubash stresses that women have always been active in society here.
Recently she found herself doing research at the land department in Dubai for example where she came across documents from the 1950s showing that women had bought and sold property in the UAE and generally engaged in economic activity.
If there’s one woman who has had a monumental impact on Dr Rafia Ghubash’s life and work however it is her mother.
“I travel a lot and I’ve met many people including intellectuals and scholars, but I still haven’t met anybody with my mother’s personality”. She says she was unique and very highly respected. She was very intelligent, very wise and very powerful,” she adds. “I feel that everything I do is because of her. She gave me power.”