Folk tales and songs, traditions, heritage and culture ... these are some of the strongest elements in a society that help to shape the sensibilities of future generations, believes Dr Mouza Obaid Ghanim Ghubash. An expert in sociology, she is convinced that teachers and women can play a huge role in the development of society.

The earliest memories of Dr Mouza Obaid Ghanim Ghubash is that of her childhood in the pre-oil boom of Dubai ... of living in a large joint family, of listening to her grandmothers narrate tales of the sea to her, of living with her aunts, cousins and siblings, of scampering up date palms, of hearing the constant roar of the sea ...

"My mother Ousha Bint Hussain and my aunts and grandmother would narrate stories about the sea and the date palm to us," says Dr Ghubash, who is Head of Sociology Department at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, UAE University.

"They were simple tales of adventure and endurance, of my grandfather and his friends going on pearl diving expeditions on the high seas, of them going on trading expeditions with their bounty to India and Iraq, of their experiences of the voyage ...

"The sea is our strength and the date is our staple food," she says. "Together they are strong symbols of hope and survival. In ancient times, when people led a simple life, the multipurpose date palm helped us provide for many of our needs, and the sea was the backbone of our trade and fishing lifestyle."

The folk tales and songs form a powerful and binding element of the folklore of UAE, says Dr Ghubash. In fact, so influenced was she by all that she had heard and seen during her growing years – the formative years, so to speak – that she decided to pick up that strand of her childhood memories as an academic subject. Thus, she took up psychology and sociology in her attempt to understand the impact of tradition and culture on the people of her country.

"Academically speaking, folklore of a country is the amalgamation of its written and oral traditions – the language, the attire worn by people, the fabric used, the dances, the songs and the stories that have dominated that society since time immemorial. All these have a distinct social impact on the people and play an important part in shaping the tradition and culture of the region. This is a subject close to my heart and I have deeply researched it," she says.

Dr Ghubash has presented several papers on the impact of folklore on, to name just one, the status of women in society. She is keen to enlighten and educate the new generation on the richness of the UAE's culture and heritage and how it can be used in the progress of the people in the region.

Academics is not her only forte.

Dr Ghubash is also a philanthropist who has managed to help many people through her charity work.

With a doctorate in sociology, she has over 19 years of experience as a professor and writes a weekly column in a popular Arabic daily. That's not all. This stalwart in the field of education is a regular participant in seminars and conferences on topics that are close to her heart; she rallies for more woman power and is a strong advocate of conservation of the fast-disappearing traditions and Arabic culture.

However, arriving at this stage of life and letters was no easy task. Though she was an intelligent and sensitive girl in school, considering a career in higher education or even pursuing a degree and a specialisation in a fairly lesser-known subject like culture of the region was almost unheard of during her growing years. But Dr Ghubash, who has all praise for her mother who she says was her mentor and guide, persevered, and is today a shining example of what a woman with a dream can achieve.

"My story starts at the time when I was in the Amna Bint Wahab school," she says. "This was in the early '70s. We were about 15 girl students from my neighbourhood going to school, which had a total of about 200 girls.

"Schools at the time were more like extended families. The teacher was in almost all respects like one's mother and she knew all her students on a first-name basis. She would often meet my mother in the market where she would discuss the progress I was making at school.

"I always had this desire to understand human behaviour and was interested in the social changes taking place around me," she says.

It was also during this time that the UAE was at the threshold of the oil era.

"Our world was a different place. We were secure and happy in our social and filial bonds. But things were changing. Oil had been discovered and there were tremendous social and political changes under way. We could feel the changes and kept wondering whether things would actually really become different or would they stay the same forever. In our minds, we were content with our family lives, our culture and our customs.

"But within me there was this urge to study, to research, to know more about the world and the society."

She credits this thirst for knowledge and education to her mother. "She was a very strong personality who belonged to a socially aware and intellectual family.

"[My family] were prominent pearl traders of Dubai who had travelled [all over the region] for trade and were fairly familiar with the culture and customs of countries like India, Iraq and Syria. In my mother's family, reading history, practising traditions rich in Islamic culture, studying and writing poetry were some of the things she had seen. It was this love for letters that she imbibed in us six children – two brothers and four sisters."

From the beginning, Ghubash knew that she wanted to study sociology as it fascinated her. "I was interested in political sociology since high school. The behaviour of tribes and societies, the impact of their collective traditions on civilisations, particularly interested me."

Since the UAE University was yet to be opened, Ghubash moved to Kuwait for higher studies. At a time when other women her age were settling down to domestic bliss, Ghubash chose to follow her heart and enrolled at Kuwait University in the undergraduate course for a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology which she successfully acquired in 1977.

"That year in summer, the Al Ain university opened and I returned to work as an assistant teacher," she says. "I required further qualifications and decided to go to the US for my master's degree. However, the culture and biases of that country disenchanted me soon, so I returned to the Middle East and enrolled at Cairo University, where I spent the next seven years, completing my Masters and PhD in sociology."

By then it had become clear to her that she was destined for a career in academics and research. So she returned to UAE University and began teaching sociology.

Dr Ghubash was aware that to establish herself as an academician she would have to work far harder than just acquiring a doctorate and she was ready for it. She had certain views on society and the impact of social changes on the collective minds of the people and she was willing to research on this and discover for herself if her theories and hypotheses were still valid.

"I believe that apart from inspiration and guidance, nothing else can be given to you. You have to build your own reputation. In my case, it was my destiny to do this. I have worked very hard to build up everything that I believed in.

"I researched hard, studied the trends and behavioural patterns in society, presented papers on the social impact of traditions, taught at the University ..."

Dr Ghubash also feels strongly about charity and the need for giving to those less fortunate. "I set up a charity association in memory of my mother Ousha Bint Hussain. My only regret is that my mother did not live to see me fulfil so many of her dreams," she says.

"I also realised that many people who did not have poverty of culture were facing actual poverty, struggling to meet their daily financial needs. Hence I started this charity," she says.

When you take up a philanthropic cause, you need to set in motion a plan that will generate the income required to support the cause. Dr Ghubash realised that she was taking on many things – there was the charity that supported the poor and the needy, there was work to be done with children, the future of the country was something that keenly interested her, cultural events had to be organised … before she knew it, she was involved in a variety of activities which helped her not only uphold her duty to society but also to put to use her academic knowledge of her subject in the right way.

So, how easy was to it to put forth her views to people?

She admits that at times she was impatient to present her ideas before society. "There were times when I had to face opposition and anger." But as she walked along the corridor of life, she slowly realised what a long haul it was to get people to understand the import of what she was saying. It was a challenge which she worked on slowly but surely and gradually earned the respect of her peers as an erudite scholar in the field of sociology.

"It was difficult being different from other women in society. In Dubai, very slowly, a new society was replacing the old. However as a young student with new ideas, one had to be very careful about balancing the old and the new.

"You cannot challenge traditions and be tough on the society you live in. If you want to change values or tradition you have to be very close to your people and always take the middle path. This is what I learnt through my experience," she says.

"I was very careful in dealing with my people. I did not want to be perceived as one with radical ideas who was challenging age-old beliefs and traditions.

"When I did make mistakes, which I entirely admit to, I did face a lot of opposition. At a younger age, when you are strong, positive and believe in all your ideas, you want to change everything. But as I acquired maturity, I realised that change must be rooted in its social and ecological context. I paused to think and rethink my strategy. I re-examined my theories and worked on my arguments before presenting them."

Dr Ghubash feels it is not easy to be brave about one's individual thoughts as there is a political, social and economic price to be paid for that. "I think one of the most important aspects that is a prerequisite for anyone who sets about implementing change is honesty," says the scholar. "You have to be honest and sure about your own thoughts and know how exactly they will impact on society."

Loss of tradition

Among her heartfelt anguishes was the feeling of loss of tradition and culture in her society. "The moment I felt this, I thought it was my duty to draw the attention of the rest of the society to it. I started a culture association in 1992 to revive the status of our culture, protect our written and spoken language from the influences of other languages. I aim to conserve language, culture and religion because I feel these are the pillars of our traditional Arabic society.

"For some time it was easy to invite people and lecture them. Slowly many people started to keep away from lectures because they had no time or [because of] traffic issues." So she decided to change tack and chose to go on television. "It had become a powerful medium that was broadcasting into people's homes. I did a series of talks on television."

Marching on relentlessly, fighting to conserve what was fast disappearing in the country became second nature to Dr Ghubash.

"When I felt there was a need for more and more children to understand the tenets of our religion through the study of the Holy Quran, I started classes to impart this education. And mind you I financially bore all the cost myself, allocating spartan budgets for every activity I undertook.
Dr Ghubash feels it is time UAE women are accorded their rightful place in society as a lot depends on their contribution.

Women's rights

"I feel women in our society, as anywhere else, have a greater responsibility because they have this ability to nurture society through the values they instil in the children of their family. Women in the UAE are working very hard to conserve their culture through the values they are imparting to the family and the manner in which they are keeping the history and tradition of this land close to their children.

"In schools, too, it is important to teach children the true tenets of Islam, the Arabic traditions of living, our history, etc.

"When I talk of women as the essential link between the past and present, it is not just referring to the mother in the family unit. It is the women of the house – the mother, the grandmothers, aunts, grandaunts who live in the family and who have seen the past and can narrate it to the child in the form of a folk tale, song or a poem. They build our minds and our relationship with society.

"In my paper on women's rights and duties and its connection to folklore, it is this aspect I have highlighted – that the women have a great responsibility of maintaining the link between tradition and real life by keeping their children updated about the significance of certain things in our lives and encouraging the ethos of love and reverence for these symbols."

But Dr Ghubash does not promote a blind allegiance to traditional practices, many of which she thinks ought to be examined, changed, adapted or even discarded.

"Sometimes there is a contradiction between folklore and human rights and it is against this that I have struggled. We have to be aware that certain malpractices in our social life are [due to certain] traditions which can be regressive. Unfortunately, it is tradition that is stronger and prevails.

"For instance, it is commonly believed by people that if a woman is pregnant with a girl child her face loses its sheen and glow and she becomes dull and lazy. Whereas when she is expecting a boy, her complexion glows, she has a lot of energy and looks beautiful. Such beliefs about male and female children continue to attach themselves through her life and even after her death ...

"It will take a lot to change the bias against women in society."

Dr Ghubash also feels it is time to usher in an era of equality at the work place. "In a study I conducted about women and their sense of satisfaction at the workplace, I interviewed about 500 women in different jobs. All of them felt that despite working hard and acquiring good education, they were discriminated against their male colleagues and did not get the same salary."

But Dr Ghubash is optimistic about the changes taking place in society, however slow they maybe. "Today we find women employed in the army, the police, the health and the real estate sectors. I think it is time to give them their due."

She feels that as a vociferous social activist, she has taken on an unpleasant task of pointing out what changes need to be brought about in society. But she has no regrets about her role. "As a writer and educationist, I think I ought to point out the drawbacks of society. If I love my country, it is important for me not to ignore issues, but to point them out however unpleasant that might be. I work very hard on anything I take up, as I feel the weight of the responsibility towards my readers. I make sure my facts are right, I read extensively and believe in being completely honest with them.

"I spend a considerable amount of time and money on charity. I realised that there are so many people in dire financial straits. For instance, many people are in prison after being caught in credit card debts and ... I am trying to mediate with banks and also talking to these people to solve such issues."

Despite her rich and varied contributions to society, Dr Ghubash prefers to remain low key when it comes to self-assessment. "I can say I have met with modest success in my endeavours," she says.