Emirati women make a point with tradition and pride

Emirati women are using age-old skills to create modern designs - and for some, a new way of life for their families.

Women weave straw baskets and mats out of palm leaves, a traditional handicraft in the UAE, at the Liwa Date Festival.
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LIWA // Emirati women are using age-old skills to create modern designs - and for some, a new way of life for their families - for the handicraft markets at the Liwa Date Festival. "When we were young we had to weave, because it was a part of life," Salma Ahmed al Mansouri, who was selling at one of the booths, said yesterday. "But later on there was no point in it, so we stopped.

"Now though, when I see the finished product I am so proud, and money that comes from my own handiwork has a different taste to it." Her stall is filled with woven bags, bookmarks and other crafts. "Recently at the [Abu Dhabi] book fair, I sold Dh6,000 worth of crafts, and was able to buy my family a washing machine and refrigerator," she said. "It's made a big difference in our lives." There are 160 stores in the marketplace, as well as more outside the exhibition grounds. Some of the women travel to multiple festivals throughout the region.

"It's important to keep our traditions alive as well as make a living," said Maryam Ali Ahmed Saeed, who lives in Khor Fakkan but came for the festival. "We sell at every festival we can find." Decades ago, women would weave tents, camel bags and carpets. But after Sheikh Zayed provided all the residents of the Western Region with houses in the mid-1970s, the craft became less of a necessity. But even today business opportunities in rural areas are limited and jobs are scarce.

Even if the husband or children are employed it often can be hard to provide for big families, said Leila Ben-Gacem, who works for the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. "Extra income is often welcomed," she said. "Even if you go to university, jobs are hard to come by in that area. But now children are seeing their mums, who are semi-literate, provide for the family, and the women are realising they can create their own jobs."

For many, attending events such as the Liwa festival allows them to sharpen their selling skills and to gauge buyers' tastes. Fatima Darwish Almherbi is offering soaps infused with Arab perfumes such as musk or oud. "People love scented soap, but there aren't any that have traditional Arab perfumes," she said. "It's a hobby, but it's good to show that we can make our own things, that I have the ability."

While she is selling only to friends and at the festival, she hopes to one day sell her soaps in other markets and stores. Some of the marketplace participants work with cooperative societies or organisations such as the Red Crescent, Made in the UAE - which supports female artisans in Al Gharbia - or the Women's General Union of Abu Dhabi, which pays women such as Kaltham al Mansouri a salary. "I divorced my husband," said Ms al Mansouri. "I have working children who want to help me, but I refuse to take their money.

"I want to take responsibility for my family. I'm proud of myself." One of the organisations, the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, has been working for the past 18 months with women in Al Gharbia to revitalise traditional crafts. "So the objective was to revitalise Emirati heritage but it had an impact on the family and social inclusion. They never thought they could have a booth at a fair, and argue over where it's placed or negotiate over price," said Ms Ben-Gacem.

For the first time, five of the women who work with the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development have booths at the stall. They have attended workshops to help improve the quality of their craft, as well as work with sewing machines, make measurements and pick the highest quality wool. "I feel a big change in myself, I'm using my time for something good for my family," said Salma Ahmed al Mansouri.

"I never imagined that one day I would produce things, and get into trade. Now, I want people to see my things, to know about me and my business." mdetrie@thenational.ae This article has been altered to reflect that the name of the organisation is Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, not Sheikh Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development as originally published.