When she was born the second daughter in a distinguished, educated family of pearl merchants in the southern Gulf of Iran, they were fervently expecting a son. As she grew up she sensed her family's disappointment. She felt, being a girl, she was just being tolerated. But she was blessed with an indomitable spirit, and a firm belief that she was equal to any boy.
So, when customary restrictions were imposed on her, she vociferously questioned them: Why couldn't she go to school? Why couldn't she choose the colour of her own dress? Why couldn't she have the same freedom of expression as the boys? The family thought something was wrong and took her to a doctor. She was just six years old. The doctor, a gentleman from Oman, talked to her and told the family, "I am sorry to say that the child is very normal. The only trouble is: she is born before her time; she should have come 40 to 50 years later."
Mariam Behnam was born with the conviction: 'Men and women are equal.' What was remarkable was that she nursed this belief amidst the deeply conservative Persian society of the 1920s in which she was born. In her mind, the obvious measure of that equality was education. So, she became a life-long learner. And for most of her 85 years, she has espoused, fought for and championed this conviction, dispensing education and empowering other women in the region's conservative cultures.
Today, Mariam Behnam's trail-blazing work in women's causes, education of children, cultural and charitable areas has been duly acknowledged. She was one of the founder members of Dubai International Women's Club. A writer in Persian, Urdu and English, she has written articles and acclaimed books, including her autobiography, Zelzelah. Having lived in Dubai which has been home for her entire family for over a century, and in Pakistan and Bombay, she is acquainted with several languages, including Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujrati and Sindhi and, today at 85, goes for French classes, hones her computer skills and exerts at fluency in Arabic. She plays tennis and bridge, and can read the fortune from coffee cups. And she has done this and, much more, while raising two girls and a boy of her own and bringing up several other children.
Octogenarian Mariam Behnam was honoured last week for her outstanding achievements by Khaleej Times in association with Coral International Hotels, Resorts & Spas. She is the sixth of many prominent UAE personalities to be presented each month with the Coral International Hotels, Resorts & Spas Trophy for excellence in their respective fields. At a specially organised luncheon in the new Coral Boutique Hotel Apartments at Al Barsha, she was presented the trophy by Fadi Mazkour, Business Development Director, Coral International Hotels, Resorts & Spas. Also present at the luncheon were Shanaz Bhambot, Behnam's friend and former president of Dubai International Women's Club, Jan Harrison, Human Resource and Training Manager, Coral International Hotels, Resorts & Spas, Mohammed Elkhala, General Manager, Coral Deira, Dubai, and Coral Boutique Hotel Apartments, and Bassel Arnouk, Hotel Manager, Coral Boutique Hotel Apartments.
Dressed in a beige suit with matching turquoise necklace, ear rings and bracelet and looking 20-years younger, Mariam Behnam's diminutive, slender frame belies her phenomenal energy. "Being positive in life is very important," she says. "I like to wake up in the morning and feel positive and see nice things."
She believes being positive and learning something new is the recipe for happiness. "This is what I want to tell the young girls: that once their school is over and they are married, life doesn't stop growing. Learning never stops. So, they should move on, learn more."
Although women have come into their own in this age, Behnam thinks many people even today have not accepted the changing role of women. "I'm fighting for the rights of women, still today," she points out. But she is happy to see the change in the world. As a UAE national she has witnessed epochal changes in the country. "The girls, especially, are doing fine in the UAE, and I am so proud of it. Of course, the entire credit for it goes to the country's progressive leaders who constantly strive for the benefit of the people," she says.
Talking about the greatest challenge that she faced during her time, Behnam says, "I started my career with teaching, without taking any money for it. So, building up my career, working toward it, combining both work and domestic responsibility of bringing up my children, and bringing myself to a level where I could be in a position of authority, to be an ambassador, was a great challenge. Because people said, 'You can't do it.' And I told them, 'Of course, I can'." That is why, of all her achievements, she says she is most proud of "whatever little I have been able to do for the cause of women, and education of girls."
Which is also why, she urges women to work. "I'd say don't neglect your family and children, because they are important, but also work at the same time. If you don't need to do it for money, then do it for your culture go and visit someone in the hospital, whatever. Go, do something, inculcate the habit of reading."
When asked whether there is anything that she worries about, she says, "The only thing I worry about is that I should not be a burden to my children or friends. When my time comes I would like to go peacefully." After a momentous life, Mariam Behnam has aged gracefully. She loves being among young people, revels in the achievements of her accomplished children and takes delight in seeing her grandchildren grow into mature, responsible adults.
But does she ever think about age? "No, never," she laughs. "I don't have time for that."
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