When we think about the world’s most influential women, not many Arab names feature in the top 10. That’s not to say they haven’t played an active role in society; on the contrary. One woman wants to change the perception of Arab women. It is not about women’s activism or women’s rights – it’s about honour. For that reason Professor Rafia Obaid Saeed Ghubash recently opened the Women’s Museum in Dubai. She gave Joanna Andrews a guided tour…
Professor Rafia Ghubash wears many hats. She is an accomplished academic, a psychiatrist and the former President of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain; she is also an innovator and a philanthropist. But first and foremost she wants to be known as the Founder of the Women’s Museum.
The museum is tucked away in the backstreets of Deira near Dubai’s Gold Souk. As I make my way from ‘new’ Dubai - with its glitzy sky-high modernity - I can’t help but notice the stark contrast on both sides of the Creek. As soon as you hit Deira the streets are bustling; traders are going about their business and the waterway is lined with battered old trading vessels being loaded and unloaded with goods coming and going. It’s as if I have stepped back in time.
I continue down the cobbled streets until I reach the Women’s Museum, or Bait Al Banat, which translates as “The Girls House” (I later learn an Emirati women is referred to at as a ‘girl’ until she is married – no matter what her age). The building has been completely renovated at Professor Rafia’s expense. The interior is contemporary in style yet the exterior blends in well with its surroundings. On the ground floor rare items are displayed in minimal, yet creative ways. Priceless jewellery is displayed in a glass cabinet made from an old Arabesque-style door. A subtle display is nestled in a seating area; it is full of colourful traditional folkloric remedies highlighting the historical importance of herbs. It is displayed alongside small handmade dolls, the type every young Arab girl dreamed of.
The museum pays tribute to all women from the Gulf, but with a particular emphasis on women from the emirates. Professor Rafia says, “Women have long played an important role in the history of the UAE. People forget that, particularly people from the West, who have a skewed picture of Arab women.”
Professor Rafia says she wants to preserve the history of women in the UAE and break down stereotypes to reveal the extraordinary role that UAE women have played in defining their culture and shaping their society. She says the museum honours all women - past, present and future.
“When I told people I was building a museum dedicated to women, they just thought of the beauty aspect of women, not about the intellectual role we play - in education, economics or politics. It is not just about a pretty dress or jewellery. It is about real achievements.”
She has even named the museum’s perfume shop after the folkloric and mythical character Um Al Duwais, who according to legend was a beautiful demonic seductress. But Professor Rafia, who always looks for good over bad, wants to eradicate that misdemeanor and change the memory to show the beauty of Um Al Duwais instead.
Professor Rafia has played an active role in every aspect of the museum, and even admits she has become a little “obsessed” with it. “Everywhere I go, I am talking about the museum and trying to get people to donate parts of history to it,” she adds.
It is that obsession that has helped her create a unique museum unlike any other. “I went around the world looking at other museums dedicated to women. In Europe, it seems like there is a fight for women’s rights,” She adds, “My approach is very different. I am here to show the positive aspects of women. My mother always told me the issue of women’s rights has been put the wrong way. Your right is with you; you are born with it. Nobody can give it to you. You just have to practice it.”
Professor Rafia studied a Bachelor of Medicine at Cairo University and went on to receive a PhD in community and epidemiological psychiatry at the University of London. She is a woman who has always pushed boundaries. She became the dean of the faculty of medicine and health sciences at UAE University in 1996, and president of Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain from 2001 to 2009 – the first time a women held either position.
Professor Rafia has dedicated a small alcove within the museum to honour her late mother, Osha Hussein Lootah. She says she is the person she is today because of her mother. “She was a woman ahead of her time. She taught herself to read using my brother’s school books.”
The first level of the museum features artwork by female artists from across the emirates. The top floor is dedicated to the famous Emirati poet Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, popularly known as “Fatat Al Arab” (daughter of Arabs).
Since the Women’s Museum opened in November last year, Professor Rafia has received many high profile guests including His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and Dubai Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
But Professor Rafia wants to share the museum with everyone. Her dream is that UAE nationals, residents and tourists from all over the world visit the Women’s Museum. “I have put everything into the museum, I want to give something back to society.”
The museum is a rare gem and it is a great achievement of one very determined women - honouring all women.
Opening Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 10:00-19:00
For Group bookings: +971 4 234 2342
Admission: AED 20 per person