HE Dr Maryam Matar, founder of the UAE Genetics Diseases Association is a lady of many talents. A scientist, humanitarian, daughter, wife and mother, she has also held many prestigious positions including being the youngest Undersecretary at the Ministry of Health and helped propel and implement the law that makes it mandatory for all marrying couples in the UAE to be screened for genetic abnormalities. Perhaps her most admirable quality of persistence manifests when she met an eminent royal family member, when he came to deliver a speech at the Dubai Women’s College. 20’s something Maryam stood before him and explained her proposal to start a screening centre. What is remarkable is that her research was all in place and so was the cost of setting up the space. Her courage and perseverance worked. In ten days, she received a cheque from His Highness. At the time, she didn’t even have a bank account to deposit the cheque. What happened later is not just a personal achievement but is also a part of UAE’s contemporary medical history. Manju Ramanan meets the softspoken Dr Maryam Matar who has carved a distinct name for herself in the pantheon of women achievers of the UAE
I walk into the modestly designed UAE Genetics Diseases Association office behind the Village Mall Jumeirah and am greeted by Dr Matar’s gentle assistant Hureya who seats me before she walks in. The stunning, petite, soft spoken but strong woman puts me at ease completely with her feminine charm and grace. That sort of sets the tone for the interview.
A woman doesn’t necessarily need to be un-feminine to succeed in a man’s world. Whenever we discuss religion, politics or any other subject, we need to have a reference. Science gives me that reference. People cannot fight science. What I state is backed with a lot of research and not a personal opinion.
I am a proud Emirati but I also belong to the larger part of the world. Unfortunately many of us are victims of culture and interpret culture in a certain way. So I seldom hate anyone. I always try to see them as victims of the culture they have got and pray that God shows them a good way. I thank God that I am part of this stage of my life in the UAE where you are given a chance by the founders and leaders of the country to help build the country. Very soon, there will only be minute areas in the country where you have to start from zero. The future generations can build on the work we have done. We are setting the path and infrastructure for the coming generations.
There is a generation of women who didn’t respect feminity. But we don’t have to be men to compete with them. We just have to be ourselves. Through your magazine I would like to send out this message that the UAE is a country of initiatives and we need to reposition the image of women. We are not talking about possessions such as a branded watch, handbag, an expensive car or a rich husband. We are not even talking about education here. We are talking about quality of your thoughts and the way you nurture them to make them a part of our life. Many people have enough money and education but are not lucky with a peaceful situation in their countries. There are smart people in the wrong place. We have to strengthen our core- that is in our attitude and how much you respect nature and people.
I am very lucky that I had a lovely childhood. I hardly regret anything. I am blessed with a great family, husband and friends and I have hardly have anything to complain. The way I have been raised, I have always been taught to see the bright side of life. I don’t see the black side- a lot of friends have told me this but I feel that we human beings have a great power to attract the right charges.
Both my parents are illiterate but full of wisdom and rich in the right knowledge. We are a total of nine brothers and sisters and all of us are highly educated. I am not from a rich or well-known family but I have very rich parents. Rich in love and affection. That made us all different than a lot of our Emirati neighbours. The way my mother raised was very interesting. She never reprimanded us for our little follies when we were growing up. Lunchtime was sacred for us and the whole family got together to share the meal of the day. That is the time, she would tell us all a story. The story would be from one of our Holy Prophets (PBUH) or a known person but through the story she would convey a message and we would know who was she talking about. I am reminded of the 1001 nights and the stories Queen Scherazade narrated to the king. My mother would never put anyone down or point towards them. She would narrate the story and we would know. Every weekend we would go camping on the mountainside or the seashore and the destination was decided by the majority. We are five sisters and along with my mother we would outnumber the men of the house. When I was told that I was the among the first women in the country as a leader, I wondered why? I was raised on the basis of capability never gender.
The male chromosome denoted by Y has only 50 genetic characters while female chromosome denoted by X, has 2500 characters. As science develops and discovers more traits, the number 50 will go up, so will the number 2500. When we talk of smartness, if the male is smart there are 99.9 percent chances that the smartness come from the X chromosome that comes from his mother. But epigenetics plays a part too. Environment plays an important part in the child’s growth. As women, we need our men. They are our beloved fathers, brothers, husband and sons.
When I was pursuing my internship in 2002, I was but 17 years of age and I had a rotation duty at the Thalassemia centre at the Al Wasl Hospital (now called Latifa Hospital). When I saw the mothers who came there for blood transfusion for their children and how they blamed themselves for their condition, it troubled me a lot and an idea was germinating in my mind. My research showed that in 2001-2002, Cyprus was celebrating the last child born with Thalassemia and I wondered why we in the UAE couldn’t be Thalassemia free. The church wouldn’t approve of marriages of couples if they didn’t screen themselves before they got married. And even if they went ahead and did so, then they wouldn’t be provided monetary aid from the government. I made a two-page proposal about trying to work it out in the UAE and went to my senior with it. He asked me to focus on studies and my patients and keep this for the Ministry. I went home sad that day. But what my mother did was amazing!
When my mother asked me why I wasn’t happy, I told her that how I wish I could be part of the Ministry of Health and help my people be screened for Thalassemia. After a few hours she came to me and told me that two of our neighbours were getting married and she would like to invite them home and let me speak to them. I invited them home and spoke to them and they agreed to be tested. At that time couples would be tested only to apply for marriage fund from the government. Today it is mandatory for every one. Anyone who gets married in the UAE has to go through screening.
The next day I was waiting expectantly in my clinic for my neighbours to arrive. They tested negative. Then I was called to one gathering after another and everywhere I could talk to my people and persuade them to screen themselves. The word spread in the community and to some ladies who worked with the government. If you saw me then, you wouldn’t take me seriously. I was 49 kilos and petite. But I was collecting data. I had data to show at University. My mother made it possible for me to reach out to people and I am indebted to her for this move of heir’s.
There was a time; I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. I love myself, hate wrinkles and I look after my health and beauty. But such a job would take me away from my community, my people. Here, I was treated like royalty. I took up family medicine and enrolled in a residency programme at Dubai Women’s College. I felt at home there and I was called to speak at several occasions. I started talking about skin care and health care and then screening. There were many Emiratis there who understood the value of prevention of Thalassemia and other genetic disorders. I went to the Dean with a proposal and asked him to give me one room where I would conduct regular health awareness campaigns. There was no budget but we worked hard. And then one day, it all fell in place…
At the Dubai Women’s College, one day, the Dean told me that an eminent member of the royal family was there to deliver a lecture. I found my way to the space where he was seated before the speech. I stood in front of him and in one breath explained all that I wanted to say about starting a screening centre and the finances required. He laughed and asked me, “Daughter what do you want.” I told him that I needed AED 2.7Million. He laughed again indulgently and asked me why I wanted it. I told him, I wanted to build a lab for screening people free of charge and that I will tell then not to get married if they are infected. In ten days, I received a call from a 02 (Abu Dhabi’s code) number stating if I was Maryam Matar and there was a cheque in my name, a cheque from His Highness for AED 2.7Million. I was stupefied! I didn’t even have a bank account. I went to Dr Najeeb and showed him the cheque. I told him it was from Allah, the Almighty through His Highness. They opened a sub account and helped me build a lab at the Dubai Women’s College. We had to get it registered as well that took two years. To implement the work I went to all the concerned government bodies – the Ministry of Health, the registrar of marriage and other government departments concerned. But my aim was to get the law implemented as well. That was the next step.
I became the youngest Undersecretary at the Ministry of Health. If I look back, it feels that I was there to draft the law that is in effect today. It was a draft of four pages. I am so thankful to Allah the Almighty who helped me set the law. It was not based on my opinion. I got approval from the concerned group of experts from law, pediatrics, Islamic values etc and today the law is implemented. It all started with my mother. My father was so proud of me and told me that I made all Emirati women proud. I am glad that I initiated things and didn’t lose surveillance. I am glad that we rang the bell. Today, the centre is in charge of seven genetic diseases and we have had five Nobel laureates visit us and call it a ‘Spot of Light’ in genetic research. We have conduced conferences that has seen attendance from 55 countries. My team comprises of 17 nationalities and we all love the UAE. Right now we are in the process of mapping the UAE genome. I am also pursuing my clinical PhD in Japan.
I got married in 2005 and my husband is a child psychiatrist. He is my strength and is confident enough of himself and me and takes care of me and watches over me as I shine more. He was the 27th in the list of people who were keen to be married to me. My only condition was that the groom should write in the marriage contract that he wouldn’t stop me from further studies or work. If he flouts it, I can ask for divorce without penalty. He agreed to it with great confidence, as he was sure he could keep the promise.
I try my best and prepare for the worst. When I prepare for crisis management, I am planned as what to do. I am never stressed and can maximize my level of innovation. Most of the time when I submit my proposal, my file of risk assessment is thicker than the proposal. Today I have initiated 28 successful projects at the government level and they are all successful.
From 2004, I was involved in many programmes to learn about leadership. I wanted to learn about women in leadership but there weren’t too many courses that resonated with me. Our biology is different than men. Every month, we are under the spell of estrogen. That is the time; we have to be careful to defer major decisions. Feminity is a power, it is strength. Every month we celebrate it through our menstrual cycles. As women leaders, if we have women in our work force, we need to be sensitive to these issues.
When I came to the workspace I had no difficulty dealing with men. I respect seniority and capability in people. Not because that person is male of female. Sometimes it wasn’t smooth but that normal process of understanding each other happens between a brother and a sister too. So why blame colleagues and co- workers? I value and love my brother because of the way he handled the family and all of us after my father passed away, not because he was male or my brother.
Photographs by: Sarfaraz Ali Photography