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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Higher Learning

by Alex Philips

© Dino Metropolous | Shamsa Quriban wants to get the best out of her education
Sheika Maisa Al Qasimi
The lives of today's young women are very different to those of their mothers

A generation of young UAE national women are enjoying freedoms their mothers could never have dreamed of. Alex Phillips talks to the new breed of young, educated and highly ambitious UAE woman

In the not so distant past national women were rarely seen on the streets of Dubai, except in the company of their brothers or husbands. And they certainly didn't work or even have aspirations to follow a career. It was accepted they should be married, have children, cook and clean and look after their families and that was the limit of their horizons.

But in the space of just one generation almost everything is different - there's a new wind of change blowing through the emirate and at the forefront of the move are young women. Backed strongly by their mothers UAE national women now have their eyes firmly fixed on getting the best education they possibly can before moving into their chosen career.

It's not a feminist revolution by any means - women still dress in the traditonal black abaya, wear the veil and are mindful of their rich culture and heritage and willingly follow the teachings laid down by Islam.

But they are different from their mother's generation of women who were expected to get married, have babies and find contentment and personal fulfilment in looking after their husbands and children.

Now girls, not from every family admittedly though the numbers are growing, have higher expectations of life, they want to be educated and to have a demanding career as well. And nowadays they being actively supported by their parents, especially by their mothers, who are keen to see their daughters extract the very best from higher education.

In many cases mothers have been the powerhouse behind their daughter's academic sucesses and have enjoyed, albeit at second hand, their offspring's educational achievements. Ironically the rapid change between the curent go-getting generation and their parents has only been possible because the parents realised what they had missed out on and were determined that all their children, but especially their daughters, should make the most of the officially sponsored boom in education within the UAE.

Increased women's access to education would not have taken off as quickly or as thoroughly as it has done were it not for the upfront and high profile support of the UAE Royal families who have put educational excellence at the top of their list of priorities.

Now, though it's not exactly commonplace yet, national women can be seen in virtually all walks of life, from loan officers in banks to working in insurance offices and other administrative jobs - though to date there are no female taxi drivers!

But what is probably the most significant change is that of young women's expectations. No longer do they see their future in getting married early, having several children and keeping home as their personal target.

Now they want to learn as much as they possibly can, be as free as they can and work as hard to reach as high as they can - while at the same time respecting their parents, culture and religion. In short they want it all.

Many young women still want a husband and children but they also cherish a fulfilling job and are willing in some cases to put off marrying or having children, or both, until later when they have achieved their career goals.

According to a leading sociologist, education, knowledge and self-confidence, are the three keys, which if used properly, could unlock the gates to freedom for women in the Middle East. Sociologists feel that over-protective parents can make girls feel insecure and anxious if they are not allowed some of the freedoms boys take for granted. Achieving education equality has been one way of helping daughters become more self-confident.

In many ways the corporate culture in the UAE is as not as harsh or as aggressive as that in the west, especially in America, and the business climate in Dubai in general is more accepting of women in the workplace.

Government statistics show a 6.7 per cent rise in the numbers of women working in the UAE in 1995 than in 1980. As many educational and sociological experts agree this is down to the government's policy of providing equal opportunities for education of both sexes.

Restriction of careers for women comes mainly from individual or family choices rather than the so-called 'glass ceiling' which acts as an invisible barrier to promotion and about which women complain so much in the west.

In the UAE in general and in Dubai in particular there are many colleges, universities and centres which national women can attend for higher or specialised education which were simply not available to women from previous generations.

The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) provide education of an internationally accepted standard to nationals of the United Arab Emirates.

Using expert staff drawn from countries all over the world students are prepared for professional and technological careers in both government and private sectors of the country's rapidly growing economy.

The HCT are for both sexes with separate colleges for women in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. The Chancellor of all these colleges is HE Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Nowhere is it more obvious that there has been an explosion of educational opportunities for women as at the Dubai Women's College where records show that just 15 women graduated in 1992 - a figure which rocketed to 337 this year! Another sign of the changing times was that fathers and husbands were allowed to attend the ceremony for the first time this year.

Other educational centres of excellence include the American University in Dubai which this month saw the very first batch of 88 graduates awarded their degrees, with many national women among the recipients. As a mark of the support the degree ceremony was attended by HH General Shiekh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and the UAE Minister of Defence.

There are also private educational establishments, such as the Centre for American Education, which, though set up mainly for expatriate students, has begun to attract considerable numbers of national women students, partly because of the appeal of the American system of education which also offers the chance of completing degrees in the States.


Sheikha Maisa Al Qasimi, at 18 years of age, is already in her third year of studying Photography and Graphic Design at the American University in Dubai.

She knows all about the value of education as both her father and her uncle, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah and Member of the Supreme Council, are both keen on the merits of education for everyone, not just women.

" It's different for our generation than it was for other generations of women. Education for women is very important. I believe women should work as well as men and they should study for a degree.

" My mother and father are both very well educated and they are keen to promote education. My father has supported me all the way and he really wants to me to do well. Even if I didn't want to work he would make me as he's very strict about education."

Even though she is studying hard at university Sheikha Maisa is already building her budding reputation by freelance photography, fashion work and advertising shoots.

Eventually after gaining her masters degree, probably abroad, she intends to open her own business and would ideally like to teach photography later.

" I would recommend anyone, but especially women, to study for a degree - it changes not only your own life but that of the country as well," she added.

Shamsa Quriban, 21, is a typical example of a modern, forward looking national woman who knows her own mind and who wants to get the best out of her education.

She is studying Interior Design and Painting at the Center For American Education, and is in the third year of a four year degree in Liberal Arts.

This year, for the second time, she is joining fellow students to spend the summer at the prestigious Edinburgh College of Art where, unusually, she won't be chaperoned as she was last year.

" My mother didn't have the chance of this kind of education that I'm having and she's very happy for me. She has been so supportive all the way through my education.

" We have talked about this and I know she would have liked to do what I'm doing but couldn't because women then got married and had children. Eventually I would like to take a painting course in France and then maybe get a good job here in Dubai."

She says her fiance, who is studying architecture, supports her 100 per cent in her ambition to use her education to obtain a rewarding career.

She thanked her mother for her continuous support and UAE President Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed for providing educational opportunities for women.

She says: " Women in Dubai and the rest of the UAE must use education and compete with men in the workplace. Education helps me to improve myself - if I just stayed at home like previous generations I wouldn't feel fulfilled and I wouldn't be happy. Now my mother is so proud of what I have achieved."

Like many young women of her generation Shamsa wants to get married and eventually to have children: " I want to work though and have my children later - my own mother was 15 when she had her first child."

She is adamant that she will make the best of the unique chance she has been given to further her studies and she is determined to carve a career for herself and she recommends what she has done to others.

" Everybody - men and women - should study and we should all complete our education - not stop half-way through like many do. After all education is the key to cope with rapid change."

Bahiya Kayed, 21, finishes her fourth year of her Business Administration degree this year and already she is thinking about what kind of career she would like, though she has yet to make a firm choice.

She was sent by her parents to attend kindergarten school at the tender age of three and left when she reached 17 before joining the CAE.

" My mother didn't finish her education but she and my father have strongly supported me in my education. I have seven sisters and six brothers and we were all encouraged to go into education. My brothers had no problem with me going to university.

" While I want to get married and have children I also want to work to use my education. I would like to work in Dubai and I would like to thank Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed for strongly supporting education for women.

" Even though my mother has never worked herself she has always supported me in my desire to work. Women are more accepted now in the workplace, especially here in Dubai in the nineties."

Bahiya says she is ambitious and that whatever career she eventually moves into she will work hard to achieve her potential. " I will probably work for someone else for a while and then, maybe after about five or seven years, I would like to start my own business in Dubai." Nada Saleh is 23 and currently in the third year of a Liberal Arts course at the CAE. Once again, like the other women, she praised her parents for their continuous support: " They really tried hard to help and encourage me in whatever I wanted to do."

She has an older sister who studied for her Master's Degree at Richmond College in the UK and who has lived and worked alone in London for Emirates Bank for two years.

" It's good to support yourself and be independent - that's the choice you make in your life. If I got the chance I would like to work abroad but I would come back to Dubai and use what I had learned abroad in my job."

Both her parents were educated and obviously realise the importance of educating their children, her father studied in India when it was under British rule and her mother now runs her own tailoring business.

Nada added her mother says that even if a woman is married she should always have something to fall back on. In her family her grandfather on her mother's side didn't believe women should be educated but her own father supported her education.

" Women should support themselves for their souls, they should be recognised in their own names , not just for their father's or husband's name."

Nada wants to become a top interior designer in Dubai: " I will try to work hard and to achieve all my dreams and use my talents in order to go forward.

" I feel that in this generation that each person should have their own recognition. We try hard to show that we're capable of showing the men that we are very talented."

Fawzia Al Hashimi, 21, has just graduated from the HCT in Dubai with a degree in Business Administration and she is currently searching for a job.

Though many national women enter banking her parents don't want that for her and so she is looking for: " something interesting in business or administration."

Fawzia says her mother never worked and that like virtually all the women in her generation she got married: " but if she had worked she would have been a graphic designer. She had an opportunity but she left it because she got married."

Her mother encouraged her to pursue her education but she feels if she got married she wouldn't be able to work and look after children properly and she would have to make a choice.

And that's a choice all women, regardless of their religion or culture, have always had to make.

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