Her Highness Sheikha

National Heroine and International Champion of
Women Rights

by Sangeetha Swaroop

In an interview with the UAE-based Gulf News daily on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the UAE National Day, commenting on the how the UAE women are forging ahead in the 21st century but not discarding their most valued traditions, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak remarked, “I see myself as being behind a great man and my role is limited to being a wife and mother to the sons of a great leader”.

This comment from a woman who has single handedly led the women of the United Arab Emirates to new heights of development is extremely striking for it throws light on the innate essence of an Arab woman who, despite her career successes and noteworthy achievements considers herself rooted in tradition where motherhood gains extreme significance. As Sheikha Fatima further added, “Everyday I meet my grandchildren and follow my sons because motherhood is what I value the most”.

Heralded as a national heroine among women of the United Arab Emirates and a champion of women’s rights at the international level, Sheikha Fatima has played a pivotal role in consolidating and promoting the women’s rights movement in the Arab world. Born in Al Hayer in Al Ain city as the only daughter to her parents, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi was married to His Highness Sheikh Zayed, President of the UAE, during the 1960s when he was ruler of the Eastern region.

When the foundations of the country were laid and early efforts of modernization began, the rights of women too were enshrined in the constitution of the UAE. However, there is no denying the significant role played by the late President and the First Lady who together have been the formidable catalyzing agents in the development of social equality. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan believed that nothing should hinder women’s progress, especially as “women are half of the society”. He further called upon “my sisters and daughters all over the country to recognize that their responsibilities are great and not less than those of men in this society”.

Acknowledging that promoting the cause of women was the way forward, Sheikha Fatima, encouraged by her husband Sheikh Zayed, helped in the establishment of the first women’s organization in 1973 called the Abu Dhabi Society for the Awakening of Women. She also started a nation wide campaign of educating young girls as she considered illiteracy to be the first obstacle in the way to progress. Indeed, it is no mean achievement that illiteracy, which once exceeded 75 per cent of the population, has now been almost eradicated.

In 1975, it was again thanks to Sheikha Fatima’s efforts that the UAE Women’s Federation was set up with the aim of assisting in developing the image and self-esteem of women, encouraging education and eradicating illiteracy among adult women, ensuring that social services and care reached the needy women and their families, planning activities to raise cultural standards and to build strong links with international women’s organizations.

At the time of the formation of the nation, there was hardly a handful of educated women in the UAE. Today, however, women constitute a vital part of the country’s development. Education has given women the means to reason and act independently and the support of a government that gives priority to women’s issues has enabled women in the UAE to achieve the highest rate of development in the Arab countries. UN statistics too reveal that the UAE is among the most developed nations in educating females.

With the provision of both primary and higher education, there is no dearth of choice of careers for women in the UAE. They have successfully made inroads into every field possible and have firmly entrenched their names in the progress of the country’s development. Such empowerment could not have been possible without the pioneering efforts of Her Highness Sheikha Fatima, who did not rest once the primary needs of education and eradication of illiteracy were adequately met.

A constant go-getter and with a far-sighted vision to enable her fellow counterparts to achieve their maximum potential, she then began to aggressively campaign for the women of the UAE to work in the media and become members of the country’s parliamentary assembly, the Federal National Council. This dream too bore fruition when in December 2006, Mrs. Amal Al-Qaisi became the first elected female member of the Federal National Council (parliament) and the rulers of the various emirates appointed eight other women to the FNC as part of their jurisdiction to nominate 20 appointed members. And it is indeed an overwhelming tribute to Sheikha Fatima’s hard work that the current FNC includes nine women out of its 40 members.

However, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima has not restricted her humanitarian efforts to the national level alone. Her pioneering role in support of women’s causes has extended to both the regional and international levels. For instance, she never forgot the sufferings of the people in Palestine and never abandoned her support for them. She also reached out a helping hand to the needy in Kosovo and is now supporting people in Iraq. In fact, the combined value of charity and humanitarian projects implemented by the UAE Red Crescent Society (RCS) on the sponsorship of Her Highness Sheikha Fatima have touched Dhs71.5 million, according to an RCS official.

The projects were executed in the areas of health, education, re-settlement of refugees and also in the form of assistance to people with special needs and were implemented in Iraq, Palestine, Kosovo, Morocco, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Yemen. As honorary Chairwoman of the RCS, Sheikha Fatima has always offered a glimmer of hope to many distressed and disadvantaged people around the world.

While domestic charity projects sponsored by Her Highness Sheikha Fatima reached Dhs16 million, projects executed abroad continued to increase and expand. In Palestine, charity projects that included schools, health and rehabilitation centers reached more than Dhs16 million. Iraq and Afghanistan also received considerable chunks of money for projects that brought hope to thousands of the needy families.

Sheikha Fatima is currently the Chairwoman of both the UAE’s Family Development Foundation and the Cairo-based Arab Women’s Organisation (AWO). Clearly, such tremendous work could not remain unnoticed for long and it wasn’t long before accolades and awards, both within the Arab region and from international bodies, began to pour in.

In recognition of her tireless efforts in the sphere of development of women in the UAE, Sheikha Fatima, on 14 December 1997, was honored simultaneously by five organizations of the United Nations. These included citations and awards by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Volunteers Program (UNV), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). These citations represented international recognition for Sheikha Fatima’s leadership of the UAE women’s movement for over a quarter of a century.

In its lengthy citation, UNIFEM described her as a ‘Champion of Women’s Rights’ and praised her ‘untiring work to bring about social justice’, acknowledging her ‘for her tremendous efforts in putting women on the path of gaining access and participation in the political and economic institutions’.

Her Highness Sheikha Fatima also became the third international figure and the first Arab personality to be bestowed with the Marie Curie Medal from the United Nations Educational, Culture and Science (UNESCO) organization in appreciation of her great efforts in the field of education and emancipation of illiteracy and in encouraging women to get involved in various national activities. She is the third international figure and the first Arab figure to obtain this award.

In 1997, she also received the United Nations Volunteers Program (UNVP) shield in appreciation of Her Highness’s leadership and continuous support for the voluntary works. Thanks and appreciations for Her Highness Sheikha Fatima have also come in from the UN personal committee for her support to the municipality of Kosovo.

In 2006, she was also presented with the prestigious French decoration, Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques, a decoration instituted by Napoleon in 1808, to recognize outstanding efforts in education, culture, and education research. The award was given in appreciation of her pioneering role in support of women’s causes at local, regional and international levels.

Her Highness Sheikha Fatima has also been selected by a Moroccan paper as one of the most outstanding female personalities who made great contribution to humanity during 2005. The Moroccan Desert newspaper noted that “H.H. Sheikha Fatima has demonstrated lofty humane gestures in every endeavor she had pursued”, citing her pivotal role in promoting community services and preserving family traditions.

Without doubt, Sheikha Fatima’s leadership and unwavering commitment to the cause of women’s empowerment, gender equality and the welfare of the community at large has been truly outstanding. She successfully used the Women’s Federation as a medium to advance the status of women in society and help them to achieve their full potential. She also consolidated the women’s movement and gave it a sense of direction at the national level and later led the Women’s Federation towards taking regional and global perspectives into account. Her efforts in putting women on the path to gaining access and participation in the political and economic institutions, has also been commendable.

The highest international honor and recognition came as recently as April 22nd, 2007 when the United Nations honored Her Highness Sheikha Fatima in recognition of her outstanding contributions to women’s empowerment in the UAE. The decision to honor her came after the Security Council on March 7, 2007 called on Member States and the Secretary-General to bolster efforts to empower women and increase their representation in decision-making reasserting how crucial women are in preventing and resolving conflicts and in peace building.

While stressing the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution, the 15-member Council highlighted the UAE policy to involve women’s participation in the country’s development and how this decision-making process has encouraged many UAE national women to get involved in all kinds of fields.

Truly, none deserves this award and all the recognition it endows as much as Her Highness Sheikha Fatima, also fondly referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, who through her tireless efforts has been a role model to thousands of women across the Arab world. To people in the UAE, the Arab region and at the international level, she has been and will continue to be a source of inspiration for her enduring work in empowering women and spearheading various societal aspects like the well being of children, orphans, aged and the disabled.


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