Director recalls 20 years of progress for Dubai's women

Howard Reed, who has been at the helm of Dubai Women's College since the institution opened in the humble setting of a converted car showroom, discusses how society, education and students have changed.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 5:  A reproduced photo of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (pictured C), Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with Dr Howard Reed (pictured 2nd R), director, Dubai Women's College (DWC) and senior director, Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), taken in 2007 at the opening of the new Dubai Women's College campus. The copy photo was taken in Dubai on January 5, 2011.  Supplied Photo. For News story by Mel Swan
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // When Howard Reed arrived at the newly opened Dubai Women's College 20 years ago, he found a somewhat makeshift affair: a converted car showroom that held just 200 students.

Two decades later, numbers at Dubai's first women's higher education institute have swelled tenfold, to 2,200, and its campus is a thriving hub of learning.

In that time - the longest tenure of any college director in the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) campuses - some 4,000 women have graduated from DWC and gone into work. They include the UAE's Consul-General in Shanghai, Noora Juma, who graduated in 1992.

Regardless of their family name, on campus all women are equal.

"I'm seen as the father while the girls are in my college," he said.

The state-of-the-art computer facilities and paramedic labs are a far cry from the campus of 20 years ago, when there were just a handful of computers for staff. Many did not even know how to switch them on, he recalled.

As the college grew, temporary classrooms were added until the new campus in Mamzar opened in 1997.

"It was growing so quickly - I remember taking a hairdryer to the walls to get the paint to dry in time for the students coming to class," he said.

Now, the college offers diplomas and undergraduate courses in subjects that range from business to health sciences and education.

Its focus is more vocational than either Zayed University, which opened 10 years later, or the UAE University, which opened in 1976.

Many things have changed in two decades, not least women's standing in the educational sphere and the workforce.

"Education has become accepted now. Parents wouldn't want their daughters to not be educated.

"It would also diminish their chances of getting married even though a lot of the men aren't educated."

What made his students stand out, he said, was their dedication to making opportunities for themselves and intrinsic motivation and discipline not found in men.

"Just that they're working is a huge first step," he said. "It takes time for people to change their attitudes to women and women to change their attitudes to themselves."

DWC was one of the six colleges launched as part of HCT in 1988. Since then HCT has grown to encompass 16 colleges across the country, from Al Gharbia to Ras al Khaimah.

Nada al Yousuf was in the first batch of graduates in 1992 after studying in the wooden mobile cabins in Deira. She said the college allowed many more women in Dubai to continue their education. Previously, their only - unpopular - option was to live away in Al Ain at the UAE University.

DWC changed this, she recalled, but it was under Dr Reed that the students really felt the change.

She said: "We were so used to other people taking the responsibilities for us at school, but Mr Reed made us more independent and disciplined. He brought something new with him. It was a different way of studying for us."

Dr Reed has made a point of encouraging mature students, applying in person to the college chancellor and Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, for funding.

Salima Abbas, 26, is one such student. Married with three children, she is studying a higher diploma in business. She said Dr Reed had "done great things for Emirati women. He encourages us and gives us so many opportunities".

He has also tried to foster healthier lifestyles, banning fizzy drinks in the cafeteria and opening the first gym in a women's college.

He has made some bold moves, too - not least the introduction of a mixed-sex paramedic programme. A move that could have raised many objections, it has instead gained a strong reputation.

But there were still things to achieve, he said. He wants to set up a creche for student mothers, where their children can not only be cared for but learn.

With such steady progress, he said, it might not be long before the UAE's women overtook its men.

"Sometime there's going to be a woman who runs a marathon faster than the fastest man. It's about opening up the pool. The more women who run, the faster they will be."