I rarely, if ever, tell her this, but my mum is awesome. Before writing this piece, I had thought about ways to discuss the position of the female in the UAE, the increasingly dominant and proactive roles played by women in government and society. I was also interested in addressing the vital yet invisible impact a certain segment of society has on the private lives of Emiratis and expatriates alike — namely domestic workers. Many things inspired my interest in these discussions, but the single and most important thread was my mother. The following will perhaps lack in objective analysis, but this is about a son sharing his admiration for his mother, so please indulge me.
For lack of a better place, I shall begin with my childhood. As a child, I spent a lot of my time in libraries. My mother was undertaking a PhD and while she spent long hours researching, I happily immersed myself in children’s books and imaginary adventures carried out in this silent universe, often under the careful watch of the security guard Pat. Today, I can read through the dissertation my mother was working on during that time. Her research was a foundational sociological study into the dynamics of domestic workers and migration in the UAE. Looking back at it, no easy task it must have been for her to undertake this research while raising two children.
Born and raised in Beirut, my mother had the support of a very encouraging father. My grandfather was a strong advocate for the empowerment of women and believed in the power of education. I am told he was especially fond of my father’s youngest sister, who is a paediatric cardiologist, because to him she was the model of a strong, capable, independent woman. His dream was for my mum to acquire a PhD and made every effort to support her endeavours. Originally pursuing her studies to be a journalist, my mother’s life has hardly followed a straight path. The civil war in Lebanon defined many of her choices and realities as a youth, as it did for Lebanese society as a whole. Circumstances had it that she met my father in Washington D.C. while they were both students, their romance forever intertwined with the cherry blossoms by the Potomac River.
My mother’s personal and intellectual interest in domestic workers developed after she married my father and was exposed to a very different lifestyle in Dubai. Shortly after, she took up her research on domestic workers and migration at the American University in Washington D.C. Her keen interest in this field arose out of a desire to shed light on this under-appreciated segment of society that she believed formed an essential part of the UAE’s social fabric. Her work continues and she remains determined to address the plight of domestic workers that often goes unnoticed because of their uncertain position between the private and public sphere, in the shadows of society. I have often complained about her choice of research, pleading that it is dull and not a “hot topic”, asking her to move on to more interesting issues.
An undisputed feminist in her day, my mother instilled the values of equality and individual merit in my brother and me — exposing us to a diversity of cultures and opinions befitting the globalised microcosm that Dubai is. Perhaps the reason why my brother’s early artwork was so profoundly influenced by the construction workers of Dubai was this value we saw in the power of perception. I recall my own artwork at school on the veil and the freedom of choice and now see ties between that work and my upbringing. Growing up, I was exposed to the difficulties of dealing with predisposition, in the close and homogenous society that was Dubai before the turn of the century. And having a foreign mother definitely made you stand out.
A recent short-documentary, Half-Emirati, by a half-Emirati filmmaker, Amal Al Agroobi, was a groundbreaking attempt at illustrating some of the tensions faced by the growing number of children born of mixed marriages in the UAE. The close and culturally homogenous society that was the UAE is now one of unrivalled diversity and is exposed to myriad of cultures. Today, the fact of the half-Emirati is perhaps not as uncommon. It may even be that “full” Emiratis are faced with difficulties of assimilation in social circles that are becoming increasingly diverse and multicultural.
For a girl born in Beirut, it is quite a leap to imagine herself becoming an Emirati mother of two. My grandfather will be happy to know she completed her PhD and is still doing what she loves best, researching and teaching. Her two boys are grown up and she now focuses her unending motherly attention and care on the students at Zayed University, enriching their young minds with her special blend of love and critical thought. My mother’s research on domestic workers in the UAE and the countless other achievements by the great women of this country are now a wealth of experience and knowledge. There is still much predisposition and miss-understanding in the UAE — some still hold dangerously restrictive understandings of nationalism and loyalty, but who knows, the always under-appreciated mothers may well be the ones to develop the most enduring legacy.
I wanted to discuss the increasingly important role of women in UAE’s globalising social fabric in this piece, but the truth is that the accomplishments of UAE women speak for themselves. Whether it is the mother that raised her children to understand and appreciate difference and diversity or the girl who grew up to be a successful filmmaker, CEO, policymaker, minister, academic or artist. The women of the UAE are truly its life blood and not meaning to be sexist. They are the ones who will lead this country through its coming challenges and achievements.
Gaith Abdulla is a Dubai-based writer focusing on socio-political issues. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gaith_ab