Long before the UAE sent its first astronaut to space or appointed the world's youngest minister, a group of trailblazing Emirati women reached for the stars. They were the first generation to receive a third-level education, sent abroad by the country's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, to learn crucial skills and return to the UAE to propel the country into a bright new future. To mark the UAE's 50th anniversary, 'The National' has interviewed some of these pioneers.
It was the early 1960s and Aisha Al Sayyar had just finished school. The graduating class was small and, for most of the girls, it would be the end of their educational pursuits.
But Dr Al Sayyar was not satisfied. She and her peer, Sheikha Aisha bint Saqr, wanted to continue their studies and, with no universities yet in a pre-UAE Sharjah, they looked abroad for a solution.
In 1964, the pair became the first women from the emirate to travel for their education, moving to Egypt, unchaperoned, to pursue higher education.
“Praise be to God, it was the starting step that paved the way for girls’ ambitions”, says Dr Al Sayyar, who was born in the 1940s. “An ambition to learn and support their hopes to complete their university studies and start seeking knowledge.”
The two opened the door for more women to follow in their footsteps, encouraged by their respective emirates' governments to keep learning. Private planes were chartered to take Dr Al Sayyar and Sheikha Aisha to Egypt, and a second group of women to study in Kuwait. They were provided with private housing and a monthly allowance.
“This step also reflected the society’s interest and aspiration to achieve a lot of progress and development, so it prepared the girls with a formal education at an early stage, which then grew and flourished after the union was formed,” Dr Al Sayyar says.
Two years after the unification of the UAE, Dr Al Sayyar earned a master's degree from Ain Shams University in Cairo. A decade later, she became the first Emirati woman to earn a doctorate, in Gulf history, from the same university.
“I became qualified to serve our new state at that time,” she says. She initially worked at Fatima Al Zahra school as a history teacher.
In 1972, she joined the Ministry of Education as head of social services, while also studying for her master's degree. She was then promoted to assistant undersecretary of the ministry, where she worked until 1998. She also represented the UAE at Unesco conferences for more than 25 years.
She now runs a group of private schools in Sharjah, Dubai and Umm Al Quwain — the Sharjah American International private school.
She says her achievements and the opportunities for others to follow in her footsteps were made possible by unrelenting support from her family and the government.
“The first support was from my family who agreed — albeit reluctantly — that I travel to complete my university studies in Cairo. My family was later the greatest support in the various stages of my studies”, she says.
“I am grateful to the ruler of Sharjah who, at that time, provided me with the opportunity to travel and study with his daughter, Sheikha Aisha, who accompanied me in studying at school and university".
At the time, before the discovery of oil, countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Egypt helped the emirates set up schools and would send teachers, books and stationary.
“The most important and continuous credit goes to the state of Kuwait, where I was one of those students who received a scholarship for university study and after, and even the master’s degree that I obtained in 1973,” she says.
However, study abroad was not without its challenges for Emirati women, who lived a more sheltered life at the time.
“The first challenges originated from here,” says Dr Al Sayyar.
“It was not usual for girls to travel alone, but rather it was against the prevailing customs and traditions which see the future of the girl in marriage is better.”
She says her family faced criticism for allowing her to study abroad, and travel and communication were difficult.
“There were no airports that provide regular flights. I felt nostalgic being away from my parents for long periods. London was another challenge, but I believed in the proverb that says: 'The will is what pushes you to the first step on the path of struggle, but determination is what keeps you on this path to the end.'"
After completing her studies, Dr Al Sayyar was able to work with Sheikh Zayed, having first met him during his visit to at Umm Ammar Secondary School, where she was delivering a speech, in 1974.
“After my speech ended, I presented [Sheikh Zayed with] a copy of my master's degree thesis, which he accepted before congratulating and encouraging me.”
That evening, she received a call from Al Bahr Palace, inviting her to meet Sheikh Zayed and his wife Sheikha Fatima, the mother of the nation.
“We spoke about Sharjah and the family, about studying at the university in Cairo and obtaining a master’s degree, and many other things. At the end of our conversation, he said to me: 'You are one of us, a part of our family, and our daughter. I want you to work with Sheikha Fatima for your country and care for the girls and women, teach and support them to make up for what they missed. I pray God will grant you success.'"
Today, Dr Al Sayyar is proud of what Emirati women have achieved, and gives credit to Sheikha Fatima “who represented the brightest aspects of our growth and distinction.”
She hopes future generations will continue to carry the torch and propel the UAE forward, as she and her peers did more than 50 years ago.