As I write this letter, you are only four years old and just beginning to experience the world. Just like you, it is a place filled with much joy, hope and promise. However, as you grow up, you will face challenges along the way, and when that happens, you can always count on your mother and I to be there for you.
As you grow up and begin your adult life as an Arab Muslim woman, the only thing your mother and I can hope for is that you continue to push for positive change. I am fairly sure that one day you will inspire and encourage many other women the same way others have before you. You will face many challenges, but you should always stay optimistic. You will hit bumps in the road – they may slow you down briefly, but they won’t stop you. In the United Arab Emirates, we are doing everything we can to build a better, more secure future for you and others around the region and world. We are building an open, tolerant and progressive society that you will play a major part in one day.
Abeer and Yousef Al Otaiba
Samia, your ancestors came from a vibrant land rich with culture and history. This land, which many deem the cradle of civilization, is known as the Middle East, and has given birth to many great ancient societies and religions. The region has also produced many talented, extraordinary women. These women include the legendary Queen Cleopatra, a Renaissance woman who led warships and was highly educated in the sciences and languages; and Fatima al-Fihri, who founded al-Qarawiyyin in 859, the world’s oldest continually operating university, in Fez, Morocco. More recently, we are inspired by the late Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, who produced work that left an indelible mark around the world, including projects in the UAE; and Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE’s first woman to hold a ministerial post in the country, who is now promoting coexistence and respect as the Minister of Tolerance.
The region’s role models include countless Arab women from around the region helping families rebuild their lives in Syria, and the brave mothers, daughters and sisters taking on additional responsibilities when war and tragedy strike. In the UAE, we’ve been lucky to be blessed with ample resources, coupled with wise leadership and vision. Your job will be to carry that torch forward. The UAE has developed an alternative vision for the region where multiple religions and nationalities live and work side by side, youth have access to education and jobs, and women and men can pursue the same opportunities.
One example of the tolerance we champion in the UAE is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It is breathtaking to stroll around its sacred grounds and see people from every country and religion in awe of what and who it stands for. In addition to the Mosque and the other institutions preserving Emirati traditions and heritage, you can also see some of the world’s most impressive art and culture at the Louvre Abu Dhabi or one of Dubai’s many art galleries. Without ever leaving the UAE, you can receive a world-class education at UAE University or NYU Abu Dhabi. In the heart of Dubai, at the Museum of the Future, you can experience what some of our country and world’s most brilliant minds have in store for us 20, 50 and even 100 years from now – from flying robots to 3D printing to other cutting-edge advances in technology. This is what we’ve worked so hard to accomplish.
Samia, the four-year-old daughter of Yousef and Abeer Al Otaiba
The UAE is less than half a century old, and for the country to develop, it took men and women working side by side to survive the harsh climate and living conditions our ancestors faced. That same spirit is evident today, as Emirati women and men work together as peers, and contribute to every facet of our country’s life and development.
Treating women as equals is how your mother and I were raised. Some people simply don’t think women and girls are ready for this kind of progress. But I know that even at four years old, you already disagree with that. Samia, many people in the world like to talk about Arab and Muslim women. They like to talk about what is best for them, and what is not best for them. On this subject, your mother and I have one thing to say: the women in our region are strong. They are the true backbone of our families, our culture, and our society. They are defining their own path for themselves. The truth is, women in the UAE don’t have time to talk about what’s best for them – they are too busy doing it.
The sheer power of their presence and independence is a force in itself. You are lucky to have female role models in the UAE who have paved the path for a world of opportunities. These women include air force fighter pilots protecting our way of life, and a 23-year-old minister of youth who is working hard to make sure that the voices of young people are heard at the highest levels of government. Emirati women have carved out their own place in the country’s government, and the UAE Cabinet now has a total of eight women (about one third of the institution), which is an impressive feat by any standard. More and more women around the world are making their mark in the sciences. So too here in the UAE, where 41 per cent of the Emirati scientists and engineers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre are women and are part of the team working hard to make the UAE the first Arab country to send a space probe to Mars. In fact, more women in our country are studying STEM subjects at government universities than men.
In the arts and fashion field, women from the region are making great strides. Your own mother, a skilled engineer, now has her own successful fashion line. At the Venice Biennale, female Emirati artists are displaying their work in the international arena. The sky is no longer the limit. There are female Emirati ice-hockey players, weight lifters, doctors, CEOs and judges. These women make me proud to be Emirati. You will have plenty of women role models when you are older. And it’s important you understand how lucky you are to have that. Samia, women from our part of the world are helping lead change for the rest of the world. Your mother and I can’t wait to see you take your place among them one day. Your life and your future are what you make them to be – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
This letter appears in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia - out now.