Emirati Women's Day: 'We owe to Sheikh Zayed, his vision and efforts'
Dubai - This year's theme is 'Women on the Course of Zayed,' which coincides with the Year of Zayed.
Today, the UAE celebrates the fourth annual Emirati Women's Day to honour the work they have carried out in helping advance this nation across many different sectors.
This year's theme is 'Women on the Course of Zayed,' which coincides with the Year of Zayed, and aims to highlight the work the late founding father of the UAE did in supporting women's progress in the country.
His work in promoting the advancement of women is evident in the country today, as Emirati women constitute 66 per cent of government jobs, 30 per cent of which are decision-making positions. In the private sector, more than 23,000 Emirati business women in the UAE have invested more than Dh40 billion.
Khaleej Times spoke to 10 Emirati women working in various professions across the UAE and highlighted their achievements. They also continue to thank the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in his work towards empowering women.
Sheikha Al Maskari, Chief Innovation Officer at the UAE Space Agency, said she reminds her colleagues to think of Sheikh Zayed when they are facing any kind of difficulty.
"His Highness Sheikh Zayed was the person who created the path and laid the foundation alongside Sheikha Fatima and he is, to us Emiratis, an inspiration. His story of building a whole nation from nothing is something we always want to learn from. As employees, we go through challenges every day and I like to remind everyone to remember what Sheikh Zayed went through to get us to where we are today," said Al Maskari, who is one of the founding members of the first space agency, which was formed by an Arab nation.
Nada Al Taher, a lecturer at the Higher College Technology at the Dubai Women's College, believes there are equal opportunities for women in the UAE today, thanks to the initiatives carried out by Sheikh Zayed.
"I think I've never seen a difference between men and women while being raised as a woman by my father and in the society," she said. "I feel that this was inspired by Sheikh Zayed because he was raised by women, Sheikha Salma bint Butti, who really helped to raise a great leader that influenced his vision. He believed that women should work side by side with men. There are so many examples of empowering women in the UAE."
Emirati women play a strong and active role in UAE's government as well. The UAE government has nine female ministers. Also, so far, 24 Emirati women have obtained membership in the Federal National Council during three legislative chapters.
Women no longer stereotyped
At only 21, Nouf Abdulhamid Omar is flying her dreams high. Starting from school, she has always been determined to take a career that's closer to her personality. "I took on many activities at school to develop leadership skills. With time, I learned to be a leader who's capable of making decisions and taking on responsibilities," said Omar.
Graduating from Al Mawakeb School, she joined Emirates Airlines in November 2014 to become a pilot. A year later, she went to Spain for training and started officially flying a Boeing 777 to Cairo, Mumbai, Delhi, Singapore, Kuwait and Saudi since November 2017.
Omar led over 15 flights, and today, she is among seven Emirati female pilots in Emirates Airlines, with five more currently training on ground in Emirates Flight Academy.
Her goal is to become a training captain. "The stereotype against females not able to fly a plane is diminishing. When I greet people before a flight, they give me an encouraging, rather than a shocking look. They even send their regards with the cabin crew."
Omar is working to receive more training to become an official officer who can fly to destinations unlimitedly. She made it a mission to inspire the young generation of women. Until today, she goes back to her school and other educational institutes across the country to share her story with students.
Our main supporters are men
Dr Mariam Al Shanasi, president of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), is the product of a system that ensured equal opportunities to men and women in education and workforce. The businesswoman was raised under the UAE's federal state that had dusted off remnants of the British colonialism and focused on education before anything else.
She holds a PhD in Environmental Microbiology and Nutrition from the University of Glasgow, with her research titled the second best for PhD students at the 2002 UK Microbiology Society Conference.
With over 47 research papers, she has taught at more than 15 university courses and worked on linking environmental policies with environmental economics programmes.
Currently, she sponsors the Arab Culture Festival in foreign countries, and has so far helped provide 14,000 Arabic literature books to libraries in India. She also sponsors Al Yasmeen Award for Arabic poetry, exclusively dedicated to Indians.
"I never felt there's a difference between men and women. Education and employment opportunities have always been available to both, and the only thing that set us apart was our efficiency," added Al Shanasi.
Emirati men, she said, have been the women's main supporters and firm believers that their roles complement each other to achieve progress.
We've a supportive government
Although she graduated from Dubai Women's College with a degree in Mass Communication in 1999, Nayla Al Khaja followed her passion for film, leading the way to become the UAE's first female filmmaker.
Upon starting, she faced criticism and strong opposition from her family, but she went against the odds to receive her degree from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She's been climbing up the ladder through writing and directing award-winning films, a journey that led her become the first and only Emirati director to be rewarded twice in international film festivals for her short films Animal and The Neighbour .
Al Khaja also recently made history at Cannes when her feature-length screenplay for Animal became one of 500 entries to be accepted at the festival's prestigious Producers' Network, another first for an Emirati.
She now combines her role as CEO of Nayla Al Khaja Films, while mentoring local young talent. Although it was tough to penetrate the film industry while growing up in a conservative family, Al Khaja found no challenges as an Emirati woman in the field.
"I feel fortunate that we have such a dynamic and supportive government that believes in women and seeks to empower them."
In fact, she believes that gender balance is more in UAE cinema than Hollywood. She hopes to mentor young talents and provide them with a platform.
Success stories inspire youth
Gaining support from the government as an Emirati woman, Najla Al Midfa's mission has ultimately been to give back. Starting her career after receiving her MBA from Stanford University, Al Midfa made history when she became the first ever Emirati female to join the Board of Directors of United Arab Bank in 2012.
Al Midfa worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, Shell, Google and the international management consultancy McKinsey & Company before she comes back to the UAE and establishes Khayarat, an online careers office designed for young Emiratis who want to work in the private sector.
Currently the CEO of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), a one-stop shop that helps young entrepreneurs to incubate and accelerate their business, Al Midfa said the centre actively encourages Emirati women towards entrepreneurship and teaching them the skills they need in line with the UAE's message of female empowerment.
"We also believe that showcasing success stories is a great way to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs." Al Midfa said throughout history, Emirati women have been a major driving force in their communities, and that remains equally true today.
"With the continued support of the government, they are forging new paths across industries, proudly representing the UAE both locally and abroad."
Females are part of space history
The space industry was once known to be the most male-dominated fields around the world, but, Emirati women are breaking barriers and are leading the way in UAE's thriving space industry.
One of the founding members of the UAE Space Agency, Sheikha Al Maskari, is currently working as the chief innovation officer and revealed that 40 per cent of the agency's staff are females, majority of whom are Emiratis.
Al Maskari said that when she and the other founding members were recruiting members for the agency, she ensured that females were part of that list.
"The Space Agency was formed during a golden time for women because the foundation for women empowerment was already there. When we started the agency and were recruiting staff, we always had the mindset that we give a fair chance to females to be part of the workforce. Looking at the space agency as an initiative, it's a historical one.
Whoever joins us, is going to be part of writing history and we wanted to make sure females were part of that story," Al Maskari said.
"We have Emirati women working in all departments in the agency, including those working in space regulations, on strategies for space agency and future plans, and a great group are working as engineers on the Hope Probe and other projects. They are all very passionate about the work they do."
Not a single field without women
When the bidding for the World Expo 2020 was taking place in Paris, Khawla Darwish was chosen as one of the eight ambassadors to represent the UAE in the field of art.
Her skills and passion for visual arts has led her to great heights in her career. She currently works in the Executive Office of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and reports to Mohammad Abdullah Al Gergawi. Minister of Cabinet Affairs and Future. She is responsible for the private art collection of Sheikh Mohammed.
Her artwork has been displayed not only in the UAE, but across the world, including at the Venice Biennale exhibition in 2009.
"I got the opportunity to become an artist because the country is very supportive towards us. The support is growing and I can feel it as the years go on. The culture of art is more recognised by the government and the people, even people who are not into the field. As an artist, I also feel that we have more opportunities to participate in national events that are presented abroad," Darwish said, who has been a visual artist for nearly a decade.
"There has been support for artists in the UAE when the industry was still flourishing because they were giving so many opportunities to us. Now, there isn't a single field that women aren't a part of in the UAE."
Gender doesn't matter in careers
There are also many young Emirati females who are breaking barriers and achieving their goals. A 13-year-old Emirati poet and horse rider, Mezna Alameri, reads poems to the royal families of the UAE when there is a special occasion, such as National Day or Eid.
She said she often gets invited by members of the royal families during a gathering to recite her poems to them and their guests.
Though, her achievements do not stop here - she is also a presenter of a children TV show, which airs on a weekly basis.
"I am very fortunate and blessed to be an Emirati. I'm only 13, but, I have already been given so many opportunities. Imagine what life will be like once I'm an adult! I would like to thank the leaders of this country for paving the way for us," Alameri said, who has been writing Arabic poetry since she was seven-years-old.
Besides her love for poetry and presenting, Alameri is also on the way to becoming a professional horseback rider. "When I turn 14, I can take part in the junior race," she said.
"The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, had a great vision for women empowerment. Today, we are where we are because of his vision. Today, it doesn't matter what your gender is when it comes to career building - there are equal opportunities for all, especially Emirati women,"
Freedom to express is more in UAE
An Emirati female is proving that women can have success in more than one profession. Lawyer and photographer Huda Bin Redha fights legal battles and captures eye-catching images as part of her two separate careers.
Bin Redha took on photography as a pastime, but, it soon turned into something more than a hobby. Her photographs have been picked up by some major brands and have been displayed in billboards across the UAE. "The youth today can do more than one thing at once. For example, my photography wasn't a business at first. I started it as a hobby, but then I was able to balance between law and photography and able to both at once," she said.
"Both of them are completely different, which also shows that as Emirati women and youth can multitask. My work was showcased on billboards across the UAE, which was a huge deal for me. I was also recognised by some big brands. They contacted me to showcase my work for their launch here."
However, Bin Redha has noticed that photography remains to be a male-dominated industry in the UAE.
"There a lot of females out there that are very creative and they are not recognised. I've been to photography events here, and sometimes, I'm the only female. In the UAE, though, we have the freedom to express and showcase our art, which is great," she said.
We are mothers and colleagues
A leading Emirati educator is on a mission in ensuring a bright future for the education industry in the UAE.
Nada Al Taher currently teaches graphic design at the Higher College of Technology at the Dubai Women's College.
"Emirati women have contributed in many aspects in the development of this country and stood side by side by men as mothers and colleagues throughout the years. Both men and women in the UAE receive equal opportunities, education and jobs," Al Taher said.
Al Taher's inspiration to be a lecturer started with her own achievements when she was a student, especially when she received a scholarship to study at the Monash University in Australia.
She also took part in the 2008 Sheikha Manal Art Exchange Programme and took on an 18-month Cultural Excellence Fellowship by Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.
However, Al Taher considers that the most rewarding gift to her is being a mother of two children.
She added that, personally, she has never seen a difference between men and women in the UAE.
The graphic design teacher also feels that there are equal opportunities for both genders in the country, be it education, or jobs.
Criticisms have waned over time
Striving to become number one, Amna bin Bahar, 28, was intrigued when she joined Emirates Fitness Championship six years ago and found herself ranking at the 24th place.
Since then, she has committed to everything from healthy eating to hiring a trainer to occupy the first place. "What I do is a lot of work. There's a lot of disappointment every year, a lot of yelling from my instructor every year because I'm not fast enough, but that's part of it. Hard work pays off when you see your results," said Bin Bahar, who joined Crossfit six years ago after a history of sports in school. "I never found myself in any sport until I started Crossfit."
Fast forward to 2017, Bin Bahar finally won the first place in the Emirates Fitness Championship. She gained the title of Fittest Emirati. "My greatest achievement was when I represented the UAE in the 2016 Dubai Fitness Championship and the 2017 Crossfit Games Regionals in Madrid. It was an honour to wear the UAE flag and compete with the fittest athletes in Europe."
She now competes at the Dubai Fitness Championship. While strong athletic build wasn't usually admired for women in the Middle East, Bin Bahar said these preferences are changing. "Everyone now wants the toned arms and abs. So, such criticism is decreasing over the time." To encourage younger females into sports, Bin Bahar holds public speaking and engagement events so they also achieve their dreams.