Those were the days, when we had our very own beach

Since the closing of Bahr El Hreem in 2003, Emirati women have lacked a beach where we can feel comfortable - as everyone else in the Emirates has.

Pep Montserrat for The National
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I came across two childhood photos recently that made me smile, pause and then think. The first was taken when I was less than a year old, before I was even walking, I would guess. I am wearing a polka dot swimsuit and red armbands in a turquoise sea. The photo shows just me and only the hands of my aunts, ready for any dramas that might happen. In the background is a wooden ship.
The location was a place of many memories for the women of Abu Dhabi; what we used to call Bahr El Hreem, or the women's beach in Ras Al Akdhar. The beach was opened on September 1, 1987, under the patronage of the late President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, and the Mother of the Emirates, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak.
It was developed by the General Women's Union with the aim of giving women the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of swimming in complete privacy, within the framework of the UAE's social customs and traditions. As a result, everyone learnt how to swim, but it was also a place for women to enjoy the beautiful landscape in the area.
As well as the beach, there were sports fields dedicated to various disciplines and a children's play area that also made it easier for women to enjoy a break. The beach occasionally received groups from girls' schools and the Zayed Foundation for Humanitarian Work.
My grandmother remembers it as "a simple place, not extravagant or five-star. But we used to enjoy going there so much. We used to go early in the morning, around six, before the hot sun came out. There was a small cafeteria but we used to bring our own breakfast and sit under the umbrellas".
In those days, Abu Dhabi didn't have a lot of places where its residents could go to visit and relax, especially if you were a woman.
"The entrance fee was modest, so women used to come from all nationalities: Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Indians, everyone," my grandmother recalled.
"That was nice. You only paid three dirhams per person and five dirhams for a car to enter."
I last visited the beach in 2003 and it must have closed soon after.
Al Anood Al Muhairbi, a lifelong friend, has her own memories, including a female lifeguard who made us both smile.
"Every Wednesday when we used to come back from school, we used to change quickly and go there. All my cousins came."
It was not just a beach, but a place where women and children could enjoy many activities. "I used to take my roller blades with me and play", Al Anood said. "I also remember some lemon trees that we used to collect lemons from."
Even though her family had a house on Sheleilah, an island in Al Rahba, "it wasn't really a proper beach. So I stopped swimming in the sea after they closed Bahr El Hreem down".
Sara, Al Anood's sister, showed me her photo, in a black swimsuit, taken when she was three.
She was wearing her father's big sunglasses that covered half of her face. She looked very dramatic in the photos. "My cousins and I played and played with the sand. I was a naughty one, who used to make big holes, bury them in it and run away."
"I was very upset when they closed it, I used to pass every week to check if maybe they reopened it," Al Anood told me.
For my grandmother: "Those were the days. It was a place where we went with our sisters and friends, and talked, swam, or fished from the wooden ship that Sheikha Fatima had moored there. We still need a place like that."
Geographically, Abu Dhabi has a lot of islands, yet not one of them is set aside for women.
We used to go by boat with the men in the family to different islands for camping, and yes, women can have privacy there with their families, far away from any curious eyes. However, these are difficult places for women to go alone.
That is why it is best to have a beach nearby where you can be comfortable, where sheilas and abayas can be shed, to enjoy, in private, what any tourist can enjoy here: our beaches. Women in Abu Dhabi, not just those I know, have been calling for a new women's beach since the Bahr El Hreem closed.
A beach for women was opened at Al Raha in the mid-1990s. According to the announcement at the time, it was "in line with the UAE's commitment to creating beach space and promenades for women in a way that guarantees privacy, in accordance with the UAE society's authentic traditions and customs".
But that, too, is now closed. There was also Al Shareah swimming pool, also closed. All that remains is Al Sheleilah ladies beach, a very small one in Al Rahba area, and at least a half-hour drive from the city.
Moza Al Dhahiery, another friend since school days, spent her childhood in Al Ain. "We used to swim in Ajman and Sharjah, because obviously we didn't have a beach in Al Ain. I remember my friends used to drive all the way to Abu Dhabi just to spend a day in Bahr El Hreem.
These days, when Moza and her cousins want to swim, they drive from Abu Dhabi to use the Ladies Beach in Dubai. But she, like everyone else, has happy memories of Bahr El Hreem. "I loved how it was all groups of family and friends. Women would talk and socialise, and children could play safely."
Although beaches are usually more popular in the summer, Bahr El Hreem was an all year hot spot.
"Even in the winter, we used to go, not necessarily to swim. We would take our lunch. We played with our bicycles there."
Moza is upset by the way things are now. "If you go to any public beach, even if only families were there, could you swim? Of course not.
"I feel troubled when I go to the Corniche beach when I see everyone from all nationalities enjoying the beach, and we, of course, can't."
It is true that there are public beaches in Abu Dhabi where both men and women can go, but they are not suitable for locals because of what we see as the immodest dress of some women, especially when our children are present.
It's not wrong nor too difficult to enjoy the beach wearing just a light dress, Bermuda shorts or something that covers more than a bikini, out of respect to our traditions and culture.
These small gestures by foreign women would be much appreciated by locals, and would make it easier for us to mix more freely with them. And if they really want to wear less, there are always the hotel beaches.
Our last visit to Bahr El Hreem was a school trip in Grade 10. "Ms Maureen, our Canadian homeroom teacher, took us," Moza reminded me. "We inflated the kayak boats and she taught us how to kayak."
That was in the final months before the beach closed. Later that day we went on for lunch, girls and teacher, at the Abu Dhabi Ladies' Club. This was a second home for us after Bahr El Hreem, and close by.
The club was officially opened on August 1, 1997, also under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak.
It was announced at the time that "the club aims to develop the community spirit among its members, nurture their culture, provide them with necessary equipment, improve their mental and physical capabilities, foster young talent, collaborate with other clubs, schools and associations on everything that is beneficial to girls, and contribute to the dissemination of the local heritage." It also recently closed.
As to my second photo, also on a beach, it showed my brothers and I playing on Saadiyat Island, when I was only 5. We went there by a boat taken from the Intercontinental hotel with my father.
I would never have guessed that 20 years later we would be able to drive to Saadiyat.
Then last month, it was announced that a new women-only beach club would be built on the island.
Perhaps, at last, a place where new memories will be created.
Bushra Al Hashemi is a feature writer for The National.