Not everyone feels a connection with his or her cultural heritage, as Professor Rafia Obaid Ghubash, Founder,
‘Women’s Museum’, a first in the Emirates and the Arab region, does. She tells Yasmeen Maqbool how by glimpsing backwards, we learn to know ourselves better and move forward
From 1819, when Emirati women fought alongside their men, defending Ras Al Khaimah against an invasion by British forces to 2016, when the UAE boasts of five women ministers in the Federal Government with HE Shamma Al Mazrui, at just 22, as the youngest Minister of State for Youth Affairs. These are just some of the ways Emirati women have shown political participation, which is often neglected or even unknown to most citizens,
residents and tourists visiting the country. In an attempt to address this very issue and more, Dr. Rafia founded the region’s only women’s museum in 2012, investing a handsome sum of money and more than five years of hard work to bring her vision to life.
A writer, professor, consulting psychiatrist and President of the Arab Network for Women in Science and Technology, Dr. Rafia personally curated the museum as she had learnt very early in life the importance of preserving and learning from history. The three-storey building housing the museum is tucked away in an alley near Deira’s bustling Gold Souq, marked as ‘Sikka 28’, behind the RAK bank. Refusing to set it up in the touristic Bastakiya site in Bur Dubai, Dr. Rafia picked a location close to her heart. “I was born and raised in this neighbourhood, but now no one remembers this place. It is just a busy souq,” she rues.
What truly triggered the entire thought process behind the birth of the museum is as intriguing as Dr. Rafia’s story. Reminiscing her childhood and growing up in Deira, just metres from the sea, Dr. Rafia says that as a child she used to go fishing everyday. “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 should do something in the area to bring the
Searching for and finding the ideal location for the museum in Deira, Dr. Rafia realised the premises she had found had once been called ‘Bait Al Banat’, or ‘The Girls’ House’. It was home to three Emirati sisters who remained unmarried till they died when aged 80 plus. As a child, Dr. Rafia had been sent by her mother, Ousha bint Hussein Lootah, to visit the women many times and perhaps this subconsciously played on her mind to ideate on an only women’s museum.
Inside the Women’s Museum in Dubai, which is dedicated to everything related to Emirati women, there’s a wall adorned with rare photos and documents narrating explicitly the political roles of these women of the past and the present. They tell the stories of Sheikhas operating as peacemakers and dynastic linchpins, women who became pioneers in education and business, and also poets (“When the West say Shakespeare, we will say Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, known as Fatat Al Arab, the ‘Girl of Arabs’,” says Dr. Rafia with pride). “Emirati women today are financially independent because many of them are now able to go to school and work.” She sees these changes as the legacy of the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former President of the UAE.
Her expertise in Psychiatry has indeed helped her curate, design and create the mood at the museum. “I want the visitors to feel at ease. Even the colours I’ve used for the walls and the exhibits’ display are consciously done up to make the visitors resonate with the time and era they witness.” Dr. Rafia has not only worked towards creating a visual treat for the visitors but also play on their senses of smell creating a feeling of nostalgia. With aromas of coffee and incense as you enter; the visitors are immediately introduced to the Arabian hospitality. “Thus, everything put together, should work on your mind to connect you to the place.”
“Emirati women have been active in every possible role,” points Dr. Rafia. “From their economic roles in setting up businesses and participating in real estate and land sales from as early as the 1950s, to social and humanitarian roles, as well as, their important political role in raising the leaders of the country. It is endless.”
But for Dr. Rafia her mother Ousha bint Hussein Lootah is her hero, role model, mentor, guide and friend. It’s been 22 years since her mother has passed, but she continues to inspire and lead her. “She taught me that womanhood need not equal subservience and recalls her teaching: ‘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 practice it.’”
She remembers, “Once I wrote an article for her on Mother’s day. The article spoke about her strength, her influence on me and what I had learnt from her. My mother felt elated on reading the article and exclaimed that it was the best gift that I had ever given her. For it brought home to her that I had actually learnt from what she had been teaching me; while all along she had thought that I wasn’t listening!
She would usually say less but mean more. Another very vivid memory I have of my childhood days is when my mother would ask me to write each and every poem of my grandfather, Hussein Bin Nasser Al Lootah, who was a very famous poet. It was only later I realized that she would put me through this exercise to help me memorise his poems and later get into a discussion while interpreting them.”
For Dr. Rafia the appreciation of history and tradition in a rapidly developing society like the UAE is not just cross-generational manners at its best, but is mentally healthy, she argues. “Those who keep their tradition alive will be healthier than those who disconnect themselves from it.”
She wants to reach those young women, and help them appreciate the achievements of the past women generations. She rues, “Our young women are well educated but there is something missing – their connect with the roots.” She also wants to close the distance between non-Arabs and locals. “Expatriates are the majority here. They know nothing about our society. They live with us but don’t know us.”
In an attempt to fill this gap, she has been working endlessly to document and preserve information for the future generations through many of her books, including historical papers from the life of the Emirati poet Hussein Bin Nasser Al Lootah, her grandfather. “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 have approached many tourist companies. But not one has made it to the museum. Their argument is that the tourists would not have the time to read,” she says. “They come to the Gold Souk because they get commission when the tourists buy something. But they do not want to spend 30 minutes in the museum.”
“The new generation doesn’t know much about their past,” she reemphasizes. “This museum will help them reconnect with their past and feel proud of just how much an Emirati woman has done.”
The museum is open from Saturday to Thursday from 10am to 7pm and entrance costs AED 20 per person. For more information, call 04 234 2342 or visit www.womenmuseumuae.com
Photograph by: Sarfaraz Ali Photography