The UAE celebrates its women today. Emirati women have seized opportunities and emerged leaders and heroes. Inspired by the trust placed in them by their country, these women are actively leading the UAE into the future. This Khaleej Times special pays tributes to the countless women who have fought the odds to make a difference in fields as diverse as archery to imagining the future.
She shot her way to success with a bow and arrow
A student of NYU Abu Dhabi, Maitha Alsuwaidi was one of the first members of the UAE National Archery Team when it was formed in 2015. She was only 15 then.
Currently in her fourth year, Maitha is studying political science with minors in creative writing and social research in public policy, and aims to continue her research and work in the public policy sector of the UAE government, specifically around public mental health. But this hasn’t stopped her from pursuing archery that she calls her “first love” and she has won dozens of medals nationally, regionally and internationally.
Talking about how it all started, Maitha said: “I was only nine when my PE teacher, who was also an archery coach, introduced me to the mighty bow and arrow. Back then archery was not an officially recognised sport in the UAE and I had never even heard of its existence besides in the movie Robin Hood. Little did I know that in just a few years I would be given the same nickname (Robin Hood),” Maitha said shyly.
Maitha said when she began practising archery, she became part of a small all-women community of archers who would practise the sport together. “It was the all-women community of archers that made me feel so empowered, at peace and helped me destress.”
Belonging to a family of athletes – with most of her uncles having played football in UAE’s local teams, aunts being active volleyball players and her mother also being a runner once – Maitha said she was lucky enough that her folks always supported her and encouraged her to pursue the sport.
Also a mental health advocate, Maitha said the sport has taught her the art of being patient and gives her an outlet to channelise her negative emotions. “I love archery because I apply it in my life. It has taught me patience. I used to be a very stubborn kid but it helped me channel it positively. It basically channeled my negative emotions into positive reactions. Archery is what I go to in order to disconnect. It is an amazing source of relief and peace for me.”
When she is not racing her horses, she takes to the stage
Marwa Al Hashemi is a professional endurance horse racer and part-time actor and model. An international relations graduate, Al Hashemi has also participated in the Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Festival Cup for ladies and in the 120-kilometre Emirates Heritage Club Cup – but has her sights set on even greater feats.
A student at University of Sharjah, Marwa started horse riding at the age of 14. “It all started by doing show jumping. Then I saw videos about endurance riding and also racing. Since I am a great fan of adrenaline activities, I decided to venture into endurance racing. I did face some challenges convincing my mother due to the dangers involved in the rigorous sport but since my father was supportive, I managed to convince her to believe that even women can do endurance horse racing.”
Talking about breaking Emirati stereotypes, Marwa said earlier people would raise eyebrows when seeing a woman talking about participating in an endurance race. “People thought we women cannot do this endurance race as it is a tough, risky and rigourous sport … you need to tame and train a horse. Some stables even rejected women racers but things have become easier now and I am also doing my bit to show to the world that Emirati women are strong.”
Marwa said it wasn’t too hard to foray into acting and modeling as “the UAE has entered a new era of modernisation”.
Books can bridge gaps and open minds
Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Festival of Literature, is on a mission to encourage everyone to read. The Emirati, who began “serious reading” only at the age of 18, said it opened her mind.
“I got hooked to it after reading some books on women and the hardships they underwent during various periods of time. Also, I never studied literature,” she said.
The hotel management graduate worked for a hospitality group before moving to Dubai Tourism. “I worked with the Emirates Literature Festival team on certain projects and attended some sessions as a moderator before joining them as director.”
Ahlam is responsible for devising a strategy to curate a diverse, inclusive and enlightening festival programme that appeals to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. “For me, it was important to bridge the gap between regional, Emirati and international voices, so I tried to weave in more panel discussions that saw a mix of different nationalities along with Emiratis.”
Ahlam brought about a digital revolution at the festival. “Last year we started filming sessions for the first time and that has been instrumental in preserving the work the festival does.”
Ahlam is also co-founder of Mangroves 4 Mankind, a licensed social enterprise established in the UAE with the aim to combat climate change by conserving and restoring mangrove ecosystems in every coastal city around the world.
Solving problems of the future today
Mariam Obaid Al Muhairi is a project manager at the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), where she heads the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) UAE. The centre develops technology governance in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
With technologies such as blockchain supporting efforts around the globe to battle the coronavirus, Mariam has delivered the first-of-its kind Blockchain Deployment Toolkit through the C4IR.
“My interest in this field stems not only from my curiosity in new trends and technology, but also from the potential these technologies, such as AI and blockchain, have to further provide opportunities for a more equal and inclusive future. My journey to where I am today has been diverse. I was privileged to grow up with a family that have been extremely supportive of my interests and work, and continue to support me today.”
Talking about the opportunities the UAE has given Emirati women to excel, she said: “That sort of flexibility really is key in a place like the UAE. The country has changed so rapidly over the last 40 years and will continue to do so. This ranges from economic diversification to technological advancement to societal developments. It’s inspiring to be able to see the number of women in leadership positions, to be able to see ourselves in these women, and to follow in a similar path with the support from the government.”
When used smartly, data can change the world
A data enthusiast, Latifa Saleh Alshehhi started her career in the banking sector and moved to the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority (FCSA), in the Future of Data Department. She now heads the smart data section at the FCSA, and is also one of the youngest female members of the Bureau of the United Nations Global Working Group of Big Data.
“I believe in dreaming big, never losing sight of what you want to achieve for yourself and your nation. In every challenge, there is an opportunity to learn and grow, therefore, I have learnt to use my mistakes as lessons for future.”
Latifa Saleh Alshehhi, Head of Smart Data Section, Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority
Talking about her career focus, Latifa said her main goal is to enable the UAE government to leverage data in decision making. “What intrigued me about a career in the data domain is the ability to make a difference to the UAE.”
At the beginning of her journey as a young woman in the public sector, she said the UAE leadership gave the youth platforms to gain knowledge, obtain experience, and excel in career development. Latifa is currently enrolled in the UAE Government Leadership Programme. “I am blessed to have the opportunity to be the youngest and only Emirati to represent the UAE in the UN Global Working Group for Big Data.”