History Project: Girls’ schools in a class of their own

Encouraging girls to go to school was a priority for Sheikh Zayed in the early days of the UAE.

“The real asset of any advanced nation is its people, especially the educated ones, and the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education,” said Sheikh Zayed, first President of the UAE.

Education, something we take for granted now, was once a privilege. The founders of the nation believed in education and in equal rights between the genders and they pushed people to enter schools by enrolling their own children, the sheikhs and sheikhas.

Financial incentives were also offered. In the early 1970s following the formation of the UAE, it is said pupils were paid about Dh200 to 250 a month when they enrolled in girls’ schools.

Before the 1950s, education was limited to religious studies, mostly Quran study and Arabic. Girls and boys were taught at home or by a religious sheikh or mutawa, sponsored by the wealthiest in the freej (neighbourhood).

One of the earliest initiatives to include classes for girls at schools was Al Islah School in Sharjah in the 1930s.

The investment paid off. Women in the UAE rank among the most educated in the world and hold senior positions in all fields.

Milestones in women’s education

1954 Sharjah

Educational opportunities for girls developed quickly in Sharjah. The first all-girls school was Al Zahra and the first female teacher, Sherifa Al Ba’baa, was seconded from Kuwait.

Pioneering female students included Dr Ayesha Al Sayyar, former deputy minister of educational activities at the Ministry of Education and the first woman to obtain a doctorate in the UAE, and Sheikha Noora Al Qassimi.

1958 Dubai

Dubai’s first two girls schools opened in Bur Dubai, Khawla Bint Al Azwar and in Deira, Al Khansa. Both were named after prominent women in Islamic history: Al Azwar was a warrior and Al Khansa a poetess. After Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, sent his daughter, Sheikha Hessa, to school, the admission jumped to 490.

1959 Ras Al Khaimah

Al Qasimia school opened with 22 students but only seven graduated – the rest got married. Students include Roudha Al Mutawa, chairwoman of the executive committee of the Abu Dhabi Women Business Council and Mahra Salem Al Qasimi, who also contributed to the development of women’s associations in the UAE.

1963 Umm Al Quwain

Al Sobahya school opened for girls up to grade four. Grades were unrelated to age so girls from ages six to 12 would attend classes together. The first students included Sheikha Juma Bilal, Maryam Ali bin Juraish and Safya Al Zarouni.

1965 Fujairah

Umm Al Momineen school for girls was set up by annexing two classrooms from Al Sabahya school for boys with 65 female students.

1966 Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s first school for girls had the UAE’s first female head teachers, Noura Al Shamsi and Moza Habroush.

1967 Ajman

Khadija School, the first school for girls, had its enrolment based on height; the taller girls were turned away. After protests, an influential sheikha made sure they were admitted.