Maryam Behnam, an Emirati Woman of the Year, was the keynote speaker at the American Women’s Association (AWA) of Dubai’s luncheon celebrating International Women’s Day. Held at the Dubai Ladies Club, the packed house marveled at the energy and spirit of this remarkable woman who has advocated for women’s empowerment in the Middle East for more than 80 years . . . yes, this means she started when she was 10! Actually, it appears even her birth “rocked the world” as she was born in Iran the year of the terrible earthquake in Bandar Lingah a harbor in the Hormozgan province of Iran on the coast of the Arabian Gulf just across the “eastern tip” of the UAE.
Maryam, the second daughter of a distinguished, conservative, aristocratic family of pearl merchants, describes her life as “rich textures and interlocking patterns.” As “just another girl,” when a son was expected, she had to work hard and diligently to make her voice heard. This training provided her with one of her strongest assets – tenacity.
Raised in Iran, India and Pakistan, she moved from local politics to diplomatic posts in Pakistan, to Director General, Ministry of Art and Culture for Iran. She was also a writer for Gulf News, one of UAE’s major newspapers, and is the author of four books. In 1979 she was living in Iran and escaped just days before being listed on a “mamnoo-el-khoroj” list – those prohibited from leaving the country. Today, she is a resident of the UAE and lives in Dubai with her family.
What a heady sight to behold!
“Why indeed?” I wondered.
The National, one of UAE’s major newspapers, reported that Suaad al Oriam, a professor of gender and development at UAE University, noted that while government initiatives have created a degree of opportunity for women, social attitudes still present significant obstacles, particularly in politics. Reiterating Maryam’s sage advice, Dr. al Oraim stated, “Women need to work to empower themselves from within. The Government is playing its role. It’s time for women to start doing something for themselves.”
In discussing women’s empowerment in the UAE, I think it is important to remember that this progressive country is only 39 years old. When the USA was 39 years old - 1815 - Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born and her movement to gain the vote for women did not gather steam until the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Fall, New York in 1848.
|Shirin Abdul Razak with |
her mother Maryam
For the women of the Arab world and beyond, she is a beloved and most revered App (elder sister).