Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


What a way to celebrate International Women’s Day meeting the most fascinating woman in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)!  – an Arab woman suffragette (a female advocate of the extension of equality to women)! This 90-year old dynamo is still the “Little Earthquake” she was nicknamed as a child.

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.

A diminutive woman with soft brown hair and beautiful expressive eyes, who admits to some aging - a slight hearing loss, - she fascinated the more than 160 American and Emirati women who gathered to hear her speak. With microphone in hand, she looked out into the audience describing what she saw as a room full of woman of “all different sizes, stature, coloring and odors  - each an individual flower but, when pressed together, become a beautiful bouquet.” 

What a heady sight to behold!
She went on to ask, “Why do we have to have an International Women’s Day? What does this mean? There is no International Men’s Day. Does that mean that the other 364 days of the year are International Men’s Day? Why do we need to have a day set aside for us?

“Why indeed?” I wondered.

When asked what advice she would give to women today she vigorously replied with the same advice she has given women for years, “Don’t sit behind closed doors.” Maryam, a strong advocate for the education of women, emphasized that women must be life-long learners – “from cradle to grave” – she doesn’t want to hear women say ‘I finished my education.’ She entreated the audience to raise their daughters to trust in themselves and to give their best in whatever they do. 

Mahbooba Syed (Mia), president of AWA, shared a few interesting facts about women in the UAE.  The UAE is a leader in women's rights in the Arab world with constitutional guarantees for equality between men and women in areas including legal status, claiming of titles, and access to education.  In 1974, under the guidance of her husband, the late President HH Sheikh Zayed, HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak established The General Women's Union (GWU)  to promote training, education, and the advancement of the status of women.  She still remains the President. From 1990 to 2004, the number of female university students grew to double that of male students and Emirati women account for 28% of the national workforce. An interesting report Is Women in the UAE: A Portrait of Progress.”

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.” 

Dr. Rowaya Saif al Samahi, former member of the Federal National Council (FNC) (a permanent component of the UAE’s governing structure with advisory tasks rather than legislative powers), affirmed, “Women are supported in terms of health, education and shelter regardless of their personal status. Change is happening – but in stages.”

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.

I agree with Mia’s introduction of Maryam as, “a woman who shaped her own life and set her own rules.  By doing so, she also opened new doors for all of us (Arab women), for our daughters and granddaughters.  She fought our battle so that we (Arab women) can dream and aspire to be equal if not better.”

Shirin Abdul Razak with
her mother Maryam
It was an honor to be in the presence of this “Little Earthquake” who so bravely “rocked” the Arab world!  I applaud her for her courage and dedication to make an equal place for Arab women.  

For the women of the Arab world and beyond, she is a beloved and most revered App (elder sister).

Postscripts . . .

Maryam is the  author of two books . . . ZelZelah, A woman before her time  – her autobiography and “Raindrops, A journey through life” - described as “a gentle drizzle, 50 short essays or ‘raindrops’ each one of the is a little gem unto itself containing the essence of true happiness and are guidelines to a better life.” I so am looking forward reading these and learning more about this amazing woman and her philosophy for living a “richly fulfilled life.”   P.S. Zelzelah means earthquake.

Notable Emirati Women . . .

Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid
bin Sultan al Qasimi

. . . Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan al Qasimi,  UAE Minister of Foreign Trade, is the first woman to hold a ministerial post in the country. In 2010 she was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World

Hassa Al Otaiba

Sheikha Najla Al Qasimi
. . . Hassa Al Otaiba and Sheikha Najla Al Qasimi are the UAE’s first female ambassadors, serving Spain and Sweden respectively – Hassa Al Otaiba is also the UAE envoy to the Vatican.
. . . Kholoud Ahmad Juoan Al Dhaheri  is the UAE's first female judge - 2008 appointment
(source: wikepedia and Gulf News).

American Women’s Association (AWA) . . . Established in Dubai in 1991, AWA of Dubai and the Northern Emirates  is a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide support for women who are citizens of the United States or spouses of U. S. citizens by sponsoring informational programs, arranging social functions, providing common interest groups, and promoting charitable activities for its members. A chapter of the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas (FAWCO), AWA Dubai has more than 300 members.

I currently serve on the AWA Dubai Philanthropy Committee that distributes more than $30,000 to worthy charities across the UAE. Thank you to good friend Susie Black  who recommended this group from her experiences in Thailand and to Anne O’Connell  for introducing me to the Dubai chapter.


  1. Great article Katie! You've captured Maryam's essence beautifully. I was inspired by her as well and so admire her spunk.
    Anne :)

  2. It was such a treat to listen to her. You did a wonderful job of expressing her message to all women.

  3. So glad you two enjoyed the post. I am finding that Dubai, and the UAE as a whole, have some remarkably interesting women. I hope to meet, speak with and arite about more of them. Any suggestions?