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.
Dr Nora Al Midfa remembers having to clean the classrooms at her school. She and another pupil would arrive early, carrying cleaning products from home to wipe down the tables before class.
At a time when there were very few schools in Sharjah, and it was uncommon for girls to attend them, her parents were determined she pursue an education.
“There was nothing. There were no schools until Kuwait started sponsoring our schools. They brought everything we needed: the papers, the books, everything. They brought over teachers for us,” she says.
It was 1956 and the emirates were still years from unification. Supplies were sent in from education offices in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Aged 6, Dr Al Midfa was one of fewer than 10 pupils to attend Fatimah Al Zahra School in Sharjah. When she entered high school, this whittled down to two.
“Our parents wanted us to learn. They didn’t object but other families wanted their daughters to get married. This is a different ideology. My family wanted me to learn,” she says.
On completing high school, Dr Al Midfa travelled to Kuwait to pursue higher education as Sharjah's first university would not be founded for many more years.
Today, the 71-year-old has achieved so much. She was part of the first group of five women to travel abroad to earn a degree, studying at Kuwait University from 1967 to 1971.
The year she completed her studies in Kuwait, the UAE was formed. The geography and education graduate began working as a teacher at the first school she attended as a child.
Two years later, in 1973, she became the first Emirati school principal. She was in her twenties at the time.
“Because I was so young and the position was too big for me, I tried to look and behave older than I actually was. It was very stressful and I had to prove myself. I was suffering inside but tried my best.”
Despite the difficulties, she says times were simpler then.
“Girls at the time were easier and their parents believed in the importance of education.”
The school also ran a teacher training institute, which she led. She also taught literacy to older Emiratis in the evenings.
“It was terrible managing both the school, the institute and teaching in the evening but I loved it. As long as they came and they wanted to learn then I didn’t mind and they deserved it,” she says.
“It was very difficult for these women, the chairs were not suitable for them nor the books. They were taught the same curriculum as young children so it wasn’t suitable for them.
“There was so much illiteracy at the time. My mother knew how to read and write but she insisted on going to these classes because she wanted to learn more.”
In 1977, Dr Al Midfa earned a master's degree in higher education from the University of Southern California. Keen to continue her education, she pursued a PhD at the same university in 1984.
On her return to the Emirates, she worked as a professor at UAE University until she married in 1988.
“After my marriage I was sent to Egypt to be in charge of students studying there,” she says.
Dr Al Midfa says her years of study and experience in academia have taught her the importance of honesty and appreciation for the opportunities made available to young Emiratis today.
“I found that you have to be honest in everything — in your job ... if you are honest, you will be relaxed.”
She says Emiratis today are living in “great times” and that this is all thanks to UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed, whom she fondly remembers visiting her school.
“When he came to my school, you could see how happy he was and humble. He wanted to talk to everyone and know everything and this image has remained in front of my eyes, so thanks to God, we are from the old generation and we’ve done and seen many things.
“Our wish is for future generations to appreciate this. To see that they are living the good life and be grateful for it. We suffered but we had hope and believed in it. In my time, my school was humble and electricity was limited.”
To young Emiratis today, she says: “You really are living the good life.”