Class of '71: the first female Emirati psychiatrist who founded museum dedicated to women

Dr Rafia Ghubash studied and worked abroad, before turning her childhood home in Dubai into a museum

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 higher 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.

Although Dr Rafia Ghubash spent decades away from the UAE, she says her years of study have only ever been in service of the country.

At her family home in Dubai, which she has turned into a museum for Emirati women, the UAE's first female psychiatrist talks about simpler times when people felt uncomfortable discussing mental health.

She says the country's younger generation should not forget their roots while working hard to further themselves.

"If you can balance where you came from and who you are with new and different civilisations and cultures, then that is an achievement," she says.

“A future generation that appreciates and honours their culture, traditions and religion would be a successful one.”

Today, the awareness on the importance of psychiatry is increasing but the community is still ashamed of going to see a psychiatrist. They would come to the clinic but be too ashamed to tell their family
Dr Rafia Ghubash

Dr Ghubash, who was born in 1957, grew up in Deira. She helps to organise cultural initiatives in the old district "as if I am trying to continue my life by beginning where I started".

After completing high school, her studies took her all over the world, beginning in 1976 with a six-year stint in Egypt, where she studied general medicine at Cairo University.

She later changed studied psychiatry in London.

"Today, the awareness on the importance of psychiatry is increasing, but the community is still ashamed of going to see a psychiatrist. They would come to the clinic but be too ashamed to tell their family," she says.

"This too is gradually changing."

She returned to the UAE for two years before travelling to the UK to earn a PhD in epidemiological psychiatry from the University of London in 1992.

“I am the first to graduate as a psychiatrist and the first to study child psychiatry before specialising in women’s health,” she says proudly.

On her return to the UAE, she became assistant dean of the college of medicine at UAE University in Al Ain. Over her eight years at the university, she worked her way up the academic ladder to become dean.

“Then the UAE nominated me, with support from Sheikh Zayed and the leaders, to be head of the Gulf University in Bahrain," she says.

She served as president of the university from 2001 to 2009. Overall, Dr Ghubash spent six years in Egypt, six in the UK and eight in Bahrain.

She decided to return to the UAE to develop an idea that had been in the back of her mind for years. In 2012, she opened the UAE's first museum dedicated to the accomplishments of women from the region.

The museum is called Bait Al Banat, which translates to House of Women.

She has also published a book featuring more than a 1,000 women and their achievements.

She says visitors come from all over the world and are surprised when they learn about the achievements of Emirati women.

“This is what the museum did – it changed the stereotypical image that some uneducated westerners have on Emirati women. Let them find me a woman during my mother’s time who has achieved what my mother achieved," she says.

Her mother, a writer and poet, was one of the biggest inspirations in her life. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister for Tolerance, also helped her in her career and believe in her dreams. Sheikh Zayed also had a major influence on her.

“I am one of the lucky ones who met Sheikh Zayed in 1973. After the union, one of the first school visits by Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid was to my school, Amna Bint Wahab," she says.

“Sheikh Zayed remains with us in our hearts until today and it is so rare to find a leader like that and a leader who everyone unanimously loves.

"Throughout history you would always find someone who disagrees or dislikes a leader, but not Sheikh Zayed."

Updated: November 24th 2021, 7:26 AM