DUBAI // Emirati girls are in desperate need of more role models, with a fictional TV character the best local example of female leadership, according to an academic.
Aisha Hamdoon Al Naqbi, an Emirati researcher at the British University in Dubai, has seen first-hand the importance of strong mentors in shaping the country's future women leaders.
The 23-year-old, a former IT teacher at government schools and now a counsellor at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Ras Al Khaimah, spent three years using film and advertising to teach 30 students aged between 15 and 18 concepts of leadership. But she found there was a lack of relevant cultural examples.
As a teacher, she found it "challenging to teach the concept of leadership to Emiratis".
"They immediately think it means success. For them, the concept of teamwork was hard," she said. "They all wanted to be the leader and didn't understand they needed one strong leader while other people had roles like playing negotiator and others doing different tasks they were good at."
A Dubai-based television series, Abla Noora, about a headmistress who leads her school to success, proved to be a successful resource.
"The girls could reflect upon it and since they were at school, they could see and discuss and compare things on screen with what was happening in their own school," Ms Al Naqbi said.
Other Arabic films were either hard to come by or not pertinent to the UAE. "Abla Noora was perfect for us because she was a strong and charismatic leader who came and made positive changes in school."
Teaching the concept of charisma was also hard, she said, not least because there is no word for it in Arabic. "By seeing Abla Noora, they could understand."
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister of Foreign Trade, is another rare but "useful example" of a strong woman the girls can see on television, and quote.
"Using film stimulates students, she said. "It helps them try to connect things to their own reality and environment."
Ms Al Naqbi moved to the HCT colleges last year and has already seen her students make progress.
"They're performing better in areas such as critical thinking and they are confident now to express their opinions," she said. "My experience as a teacher has given me such a different perspective and having seen different sides, from being an IT teacher to being a counsellor, it's shown me the need for finding leadership among students.
"The idea now is finding the opportunities for these girls to be leaders."
Sara Al Boom, a final-year media student at the American University in Dubai, said there were a growing number of female role models, such as the cabinet member Reem Al Hashimi. These women need to be heralded as an example, not only through film but also through social media and conventional media. "Everyone's on social media nowadays," Ms Al Boom said.
Dr Robert Moulton, director of the HCT in RAK, said Ms Al Naqbi was a great role model.
"Aisha is a good example of what will happen if you give support and encouragement," he said. "The girls need these role models. She's asking important questions and it's important these questions are addressed by an Emirati woman."
Ms Al Naqbi's thesis is now focusing on three students at HCT who are in leadership roles - the student president and her deputy, and an executive committee member of the student council.
She will conduct 20-member focus groups with women at the college, examining their perceptions of female leadership and their own place in that.
She hopes the research will help create a model for educators to give students a better experience and better opportunities, encouraging them towards leadership.