As a child Rafia Ghubash was often dispatched to a spinsters’ house nearby bearing gifts from her mother. Sisters Maryam and Sheikha Al Sham never married, but were stalwarts of the community, together with their brother, Saif, who lived with them. Their three-storey townhouse tucked among shops and stalls in Dubai’s old Deira quarter and known as Bait Al Banat – or “house of girls” – left a lasting impression on the young Dr Ghubash.
Forty years later, she returned to buy the house near the Gold Souk shortly before Maryam died at the age of 90. That building is now Dubai’s Women’s Museum, the first of its kind in the region and a testament to the role women have played in politics, economics, education and industry in the UAE for centuries. It has been a labour of love for Dr Ghubash, a university professor and practising psychiatrist whose stellar career was honed by her own mother’s determination and sharp intellect. “I was born and grew up in the area, and the idea for the museum was rooted somewhere in my heart or my mind,” she says. “Even though we moved from there in 1968, there was something that kept bringing me back.”
Dr Ghubash’s original plan was never for a women’s museum but a cultural centre, somewhere “I could come every day and invite people, and create something to be visited”. It was only when a friend mentioned that Bait Al Banat was for sale that it occurred to Dr Ghubash to create a monument to the achievements of Emirati women, inspired by the building’s original occupants.
Women are well represented in the modern-day UAE, making up more than 70 per cent of undergraduate students, while the likes of Her Highness Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Foreign Trade Minister, are forging a role in politics. But one thing Dr Ghubash did not bank on was the abundance of folkloric stories of great women in history, stories that took her nearly seven years to collate.
She knocked on more than 800 doors to collect histories and artefacts, and found 300 tales of strength in adversity, entrepreneurship and derring-do. Illustrated in the museum by letters, diaries, political documents, clothes, household objects, and trinkets, they tell an evocative story of the evolution of the land in the last century through the eyes of its women.
Among the stories is that of Suhaila bint Al Shaikh, who began trading in cattle, perfume and textiles at just 17 in the 1940s. The enterprising teenager went on to import gold from India and became one of the most successful property brokers of her time in Dubai. Then there was Sheikha Sana bint Mane Al Maktoum, a ship broker and property manager; architectural engineer turned fashion designer Lubna Lootah; and 1930s-born Ousha bint Hussain Lootah, who had dealings in property and retail and was one of the first women in Dubai to open her own bank account.
They were the ordinary citizens but they were led by example. Among the royal family, some of the notables were Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, wife of the late Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who instilled leadership and political skills in her children; Her Highness Sheikha Salama bint Boti, the mother of UAE founder Sheikh Zayed, who brought an end to decades of tribal warfare by extracting a promise from her sons to maintain peace, and Her Highness Sheikha Meera bint Mohammad Al Suweidi, wife of Sharjah’s former ruler His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, who took the reins and ran the emirate for two years while her husband was undergoing medical treatment.
Dr Ghubash broke exhibits down into sections relating to education, economics, the arts and motherhood, with an exhibition gallery featuring prominent Emirati artists such as Maitha Demithan and Lateefa bint Maktoum. A special wing has also been dedicated to the poet Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, known as “the girl of the Arabs”. Her poems are inscribed in calligraphy on undulating sandstone walls designed to mirror desert sand dunes.
This old building has also been given a contemporary feel thanks to the modern art peppered throughout. The walls and doors are also covered with ornate Thai wood carvings and enlarged black and white photos from Dr Ghubash’s personal collection, including ones of her as a shy teenager staring solemnly out from beneath a thick fringe.
A successful career woman in her own right, Dr Ghubash says she was able to flourish because women have always been “highly respected” in the UAE. “We are proud of our history and women’s achievements,” she says. “You do not hear the language of gender issues here. We have got our rights slowly and gradually, with respect to our culture.”