History Project: United we stand

The General Women’s Union began with a gathering at the majlis of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak and became a network of organisations spanning all seven emirates of the UAE.
Sheikh Zayed looks at a model of the General Women’s Union complex for Abu Dhabi in 1978. Courtesy Al Ittihad
Sheikh Zayed looks at a model of the General Women’s Union complex for Abu Dhabi in 1978. Courtesy Al Ittihad

Abla Al Nowais was lucky with her neighbour. A compassionate and generous giver, she always welcomed the young university student into her majlises.

The neighbour was Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the wife of Sheikh Zayed now known as “Mother of the Nation”.

“Every Saturday and Tuesday in the Sea Palace and sometimes at Al Bateen Palace, Sheikha Fatima welcomed women from all walks of life to share their thoughts, concerns and requests with her,” says Al Nowais, now a mother and grandmother.

But even though Sheikha Fatima’s majlis could accommodate quite a crowd of women, it was difficult to tackle all their issues and concerns in such a setting.

So it was decided that a formal organisation was needed to represent the interests of women and help them play their role in the new country.

“Eradicating illiteracy among women was her primary goal,” says Al Nowais, a former media adviser to Sheikha Fatima and now the editor in chief of the monthly Al Dounya magazine.

To make this vision a reality, Sheikha Fatima established the Abu Dhabi Women’s Association in 1973 as the country’s first such society after the union. Its initial aim was to improve social relationships and women’s social lives, but soon after Sheikha Fatima proposed a more ambitious project to her husband; one that would empower women in all aspects of their lives.

Sheikh Zayed supported the idea wholeheartedly, and so, in 1974, under a federal law, Sheikha Fatima got the green light to create a women’s union, and her vision became reality on August 27, 1975, when the General Women’s Union was born. The union was to act as an umbrella group for all women’s associations in the UAE.

“Sheikh Zayed chose the location of General Women’s Union,” says Al Nowais. It was located in Abu Dhabi, on the intersection of Al Karama and Shakhbut bin Sultan Street, where it has been expanding its services since its establishment.

“Like the husband, like the wife, always thinking about her people. She dedicated a huge amount of time elevating the status of women,” says Al Nowais of Sheikha Fatima.

The new GWU was divided into seven committees, each led by a woman whose commitment included being ready to work without pay. “There were other volunteers too for the sake of advancing women in all aspects of life,” says Al Nowais.

She has her own store of memories from her involvement with the GWU. One of the fondest was her participation in an all-female delegation at the first UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975.

“We were chosen to represent the face of the UAE,” she says nostalgically. The purpose of the conference was to fight discrimination against women in the world and increase their participation in their communities.

“On that particular day, we seized the opportunity to tell others that a country named ‘UAE’ existed. It was a proud moment.”

Sheikha Fatima long understood that women’s organisations could be an effective and secure way of integrating women by connecting them to their community, benefiting society as a whole. In the process they would improve their skills and gain new experiences that would help make them better citizens.

The union’s goal is to promote and empower women in the long run and to utilise them as effective members of society. In particular, the aim is to maximise the growth potential of Emirati women and encourage them to serve as role models for women of other nations. To serve that purpose, over the years, the GWU has drawn up strategies to ensure the participation of women in eight key areas: social work, education, the economy, media, health, environment, laws and regulations, and politics.

“The General Women’s Union did achieve its goals,” says Al Nowais. “A few years ago, there was only one woman cabinet minister; today, we have four female ministers, and 60 per cent of graduates are women.”

Researching and studying women’s issues is another key part of the union’s work. It carries out annual research on the circumstances of women in the region and suggests solutions to raise their status. The organisation also offers education and training and has initiated a number of economic programmes to improve women’s administrative, technical and linguistic skills. It also plays a role in local community services by raising issues of concern.

Under the direction of Sheikha Fatima, the union has been able to push for important legislative changes relating to women, calling for the Ministry of Social Affairs to provide nurseries for Government departments and set up day-care centres for working mothers.

In 2001, the union opened a nursery for working mothers, providing comprehensive day care for children from three months to five years. It also has a library with teaching and educational materials.

In addition, the GWU is a strategic partner with Unicef in protecting the rights of children, while Sheikha Fatima has chaired a number of local, regional and international organisations and sponsored initiatives and conferences across the country, aimed at raising the status of women and improving their quality of life.

Sheikha Fatima did not overlook any group of women. To empower low-income families, the Mother of the Nation established the Productive Families Project in 1977 to give women independence and empower them economically. As a result of this initiative, many women have taken part in festivals around the UAE, promoting their products and showcasing their business talent to a wider audience.

At the General Women’s Union premises, elder Emirati women prepare for workshops in the Handicraft and Heritage Centre. From close observation, it is clear that the women enjoy each other’s company. They might not necessarily be in the workshop to earn a monthly wage, but to contribute to their society and become an active member. One aim of the workshops is to create jobs for all ages and enhance their occupational skills. Through workshops, women can introduce their heritage to people inside and outside the UAE.

Many women participate in these workshops. Umm Ahmed is one. She always shows up for the telli workshop, usually surrounded by her friends Umm Abdullah, Umm Saeed and Umm Khalid. “Please come and sit with us for breakfast,” gestures one of the women, referring to the traditional food that always accompanies their gatherings.

It is obvious from her lively conversation that the workshop has a special place in Umm Ahmed’s heart. She has been going there for 30 years, with the gathering also a chance to talk with her friends. “As you see, I am working on this silver colour strap,” she says. “In the past, this was a famous style, but today, we have many choices.”

In the early days, it relied on seven pioneering women and a handful of additional volunteers.Today, the GWU has a staff of more than 100 women of all ages and backgrounds, but the motive is the same: they want to give something back to their country.

aalhameli@thenational.ae

Published: December 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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