Removed from Dubai’s shiny skyscrapers and mega malls is Bait al Banat (House of Women, in English), commonly known as the Women’s Museum. It’s housed in one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Dubai, in the Gold Souk Deira, which still bears the signs of old Dubai, of a humble fishing and pearling village that it once was, until it struck oil in 1966.
The privately funded museum, which opened in 2012, is usually not on the “touristy” itineraries of Dubai. I came across it on the internet while searching for art galleries and museums worth seeing, especially in old Dubai.
Back in the day, Gold Souk was the residence of the first few families that settled in Dubai. But in the 1970s, most Arabs living in the area moved out, to quieter, more spacious homes.
Professor Rafia Obaid Ghubash, a psychiatrist, epidemiologist, and founder of the Women’s Museum, was among them. “But even after moving out, I felt a deep connection with the area I spent my early childhood in and frequently found reasons to go there,” says Ghubash. Her education took her away from home. She first went to Egypt to study medicine and then to London to pursue a PhD in epidemiological psychiatry. She then moved to Bahrain to work as the first woman president of the Arabian Gulf University.
While she was in Bahrain, a 1950s-house from her old neighbourhood came up for sale. Ghubhash recognised it immediately. It was called Bait al Banat as three unmarried women had lived in it. “Something about the name of the house and its history compelled me to buy it although I was not sure what to do with it,” says Ghubhash. But one thing was sure, it had to, somehow, serve the women of the Emirates.
Ghubhash is also a writer, who publishes stories of Arabic women and their accomplishments, including that of her mother. “Born in the 1930s, my mother Ousha Husain Lootah was a powerful business woman. She ran all her factories from the house,” she says. She became the starting point of Ghubhash’s exploration of the lives of Emirati women.
Ghubhash’s brother suggested that the old residence be turned into a women’s museum, a space where she could introduce the world to Emirati women and their lives. “Women here were empowered a long time ago, but we haven’t had a chance to tell our story,” says Ghubash. “Don’t think because we are covered we are not empowered.”
The museum provides an account of their lifestyle and philosophy, which mirrors the story of the country. “It’s hoped that by examining the past, new light can be shed on the present, enabling a better understanding of female Emirati history, culture and identity,” says Ghubash.
One of the most intriguing exhibits at the museum, and a recent one, is of Sharjah resident Muneera Bint Ahmed Bin Salem Al Mazrou. She is an expert healer, known for her ability to fix the trickiest of fractures. In her younger days, she was also an enthusiastic photographer, sculptor and gunsmith. She has 40 different types of rifles in her house. A few are displayed at the museum along with her photographs, her collection of cameras and her hand-crafted children’s toys. It is rare for any woman around the world to be a master gunsmith. And here is a woman who not just toyed with guns but would also loved to take photographs.
All the artefacts in the Women’s Museum are donations from the families of the women whose life stories are on display. “Nothing in this museum is bought. Every item was touched by a woman and used by a woman, even if she lived a hundred years ago,” says Ghubash. “I have spoken to all the families myself and portrayed the lives of the women as accurately as possible.”
Another exhibit is about Arabic Nabati (vernacular poetry) poet Ousha Bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi (1920-2018), known as “The Girl of the Arabs”. In a world of poetry dominated by men, Ousha was regarded as one of the finest wordsmiths at the early age of 15. Ousha wrote verses about places she never visited, about people she never met and about love, patriotism, wisdom and nostalgia.
In 2010, Ousha won the Abu Dhabi Award, which honours people who have contributed to the UAE. In 2011, an annual award for female Emirati poets was established in Ousha’s name.
Another exhibition at the Women’s Museum is dedicated to Hajar Al Khaja of Ajman. Born in 1910, Hajar was a knowledge seeker and books were her constant companions. The text on the museum’s wall reads, “We are documenting the history of a woman from the Emirates who adds to the biographies of the women we have documented in various fields an important dimension, namely the fact that she was a Literate Woman.” Several of her books and her personal stationary items are displayed in the section dedicated to her. Back in the day, hardly any woman in Emirati read anything more than the Quaran, but Hajar not just cherished books but also wrote elaborate letters to her children. It was a big step up in the women's education movement in the Emirates.
Visitors can also see old outfits of Emirati women, a collection of burqas, eye masks and jewellery. There is a chart of important landmarks in the history of education, social and political events in the Emirates and the role women played in them. It mentions Moza Al Dahri and Afra Al Falasi among the first women educators who taught the Quran from their homes, in the 1930s, to both boys and girls. In 1958, the first two girls’ schools were opened in Dubai. But the response was poor until Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum enrolled his daughter Sheikha Hessa. Almost 400 other girls followed her to school.
The museum tells many such stories of Emirati women, who are otherwise perceived as conventional by the outside world. Ghubash features high on the list of Emirates’ powerful women. In the three years of putting together the museum, she wrote 10 books and is now prepping to open another Women’s Museum in the same city.
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist.