Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world."
Twice a week, for two hours in every meeting, I stand before a group of young Emirati women and teach them skills to pass the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), a test of English that stands as a requirement for them to continue with their education or to apply for employment.
Most of the students in class happen to be mothers and wives who have found the time and space in their lives to continue with their education. They come charged with a unique type of energy, an energy that has a forceful drive advancing them to learn and to fulfil their ambitions.
Moreover, many of the students in Continuing Education programmes in the UAE are Emirati women who were not able to earn an education earlier in their lives due to reasons such as early marriages, pregnancies, lack of choice of institutions, or dilemmas in transportation.
However, today, as those obstacles and circumstances have changed, these women have made the decision to jump on the train heading towards a world of education and new learning adventures.
Teaching such motivated group of women has unveiled an inspirational reality. One discovers that underneath their modest black headwear are determined minds hungry for an education.
One woman in class asked in Arabic for the English word "insist", and once provided with the word, she enthusiastically declared: "We insist on learning English, and we will learn it."
When asked for the reasons behind their desire to continue with their education, one student explained: "We want to study so that we can help our children in school. If we don't know English, we find ourselves helpless when it comes to teaching our children and helping them with their homework. Our children will respect us more if we have an education. And, by seeking our own education, we can teach our children by example. They see us studying and they follow our example."
Another student said: "It is about self-respect. We can feel that education brings along more respect from others, and, more importantly, we are gaining more self-respect. We truly can feel a boost in our self-esteem."
On a pragmatic note, one mother said: "The teachers of our children seem to have more sympathy and respect for us as mothers who are learning and genuinely desiring to help our children."
Contributing to society
Lastly, another woman added: "We are able to contribute more to our society by obtaining an education. Many women seem to be wasting their lives away by choosing to stay at home and watch TV or go shopping. They are never going to be fulfilled. We choose otherwise".
While these replies were being generated, there was a change in atmosphere of the classroom. It was charged with zeal, dynamism, and a vigorous passion that will most definitely drive these women to scale the highest peaks of success, or as this group of women happen to live in the UAE, perhaps to fly above the highest sky-scrapers and the tallest towers!
To further support what was voiced by this group of Emirati women, studies have repeatedly shown that with education, women gain confidence and self-respect. They delay marriage and childbirth, and they are more likely to educate their own daughters.
However, the responsibility lies not only with women to make the choice of continuing their education, but also with those women in power who must help spread awareness, open doors and create opportunities for their fellow women.
One noteworthy example is that of Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, wife of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. She has played an exemplary role in the empowerment of Emirati women as the head of the women's federation promoting training, education, and the advancement of the status of women. Today, the UAE is a country that stands as a leader in the Arab world on women's rights.
Queen Rania of Jordan has said: "The best advertisement for empowering women is an empowered woman ... I am moved by the image of a reverse domino effect in women's empowerment. Instead of falling because of being pushed down, every woman lifts another up and passes the gift of strength on. In this way success breeds success".
Queen Rania's words most definitely depict the reality of these Emirati students. A few students have shared with me that not only have their friends and colleagues of their age decided to continue with their education, but so have their mothers and aunts — a phenomenon that is contagious, opening the minds of Emirati women and unfolding their wings to fly.
As Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, once said on the cause of women and education: "Progress has been made but there are many challenges ... women will prevail … I often remark that the cause of women is inseparable from the cause of humanity itself. A society that is without the voice and vision of women is no less feminine — it is less human."
Ghada Alatrash Janbey holds a Master's degree in English and teaches at a college in Abu Dhabi.