30 years of service to Sharjah

Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the Ruler of Sharjah, works tirelessly to improve the quality of life for women, children and families, and to keep the true culture of the emirate in its rightful, lofty place in the hearts of its citizens. Rym Ghazal reports

The saying that behind every great man is a great woman rings particularly true in the Arab world, where the feminine influence is often hard at work in the background, working to bring change.

In the case of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, her work in the emirate of Sharjah ranges from health-awareness campaigns and sports tournaments, to setting up social and cultural clubs for families and supporting new businesses.

The wife of the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, can look to her own contribution to the emirate’s development as a founder of organisations and initiatives that underpin her personal philosophy of “live and let live”.

As she puts it: “If you provide the right platform, a nurturing one, it allows people to pursue their inner dreams, whatever they may be, and successfully achieve their aspirations.”

Dressed in a simple abaya and scarf, Sheikha Jawaher welcomes guests to the majlis at the back of her office, greeting her visitors with a smile and checking if they would prefer tea or coffee to drink.

This year marks 30 years since she took up her official role. After her marriage to the Ruler, she made it her mission to promote ideas that had inspired her and made an impression in her own youth.

Some of her fondest memories were of her time in the Girl Guides, leading to a project that would encourage families to let their own daughters join the association.

“It was a time of bonding, cooperation, love and sharing,” Sheikha Jawaher recalls. “All of us Girl Guides were like sisters, equal, where we shared our ideas and experiences with each other.”

Her memories included spending time together on private farms, learning from nature and each other. “Volunteering was a big part of being a Girl Guide. It was and remains an important experience for leadership and for building confidence,” she says.

The Guide and Scouting movement has long been an integral part of Sharjah’s education system and in 2007, Sheikha Jawaher was awarded the prestigious Princess Benedikte Award, given for services to the movement by the World Association of Girl Guides.

One of the challenges was overcoming the conservatism of many Emirati families, who were sometimes reluctant to allow their daughters to become Guides or take part in any social activities.

One reason for this, she explains, was the influence of extreme Islamist doctrines, Al Tatarouf, which found many supporters in the education system in the 1980s.

Followers “took up influential positions in our ministry of education and introduced this kind of extremism into our school system”, she explains.

“They basically started making everything haram. No creative-art classes, no sports, no recreational home studies, no more Girl Guides, they removed all of this and more.”

This desire to repress “by the same people like today’s Ikhwan Al Muslemeen” (Muslim Brotherhood), pushed people to the extremes, she says.

“Some were completely repelled by the extremists’ thoughts and practices, so went the other way completely. Others joined them, making every other thing haram or halal depending on their whims.”

Today, those extreme views have been removed from schools, and Sharjah has an enviable reputation as a cultural centre, with more than 17 museums and festivals celebrating art and literature.

Sheikha Jawaher is equally passionate about the roles sports clubs, the fine arts and creative organisations can play in curbing antisocial behaviour among teenagers and young adults.

“You need that outlet, you need somewhere to release your energy and frustrations,” she insists.

One of the challenges of modern life is what she calls the “lack of trust” in the relationship between teachers and their students in today’s education system.

“The school was once truly your second home. That respect for teachers and, in return, teachers’ respect for the child was strong. A student wouldn’t dare be impolite to a teacher,” she says.

“That kind of respect is now missing. Teachers are overwhelmed with more work and bigger classes, and so devote less time to students. That special connection that we once had with our teachers isn’t there any more.”

In 1982 Sheikha Jawaher founded the Muntazah Girls’ Club, the first of its kind in the UAE, where women and girls from all backgrounds could meet in a safe environment for recreational and creative activities.

Women in the UAE have “always had a special place and their rights respected” she says. But she felt women lacked a “breathing space”, somewhere they could be themselves.

“Anyone can come and suggest a class or an initiative, and I will do my best to find them the right teacher and the right outlet that would best help their idea grow,” says the Sheikha, recalling that after one group wanted their children to learn ballet, a ballet class was set up, followed by another group that wanted to learn tap dancing.

In 1994, the club relocated and became Sharjah Women’s Club, before becoming Sharjah Ladies Club in 2004. With a beach and sporting facilities, the club also offers music and dancing lessons, a spa, arts centre, ice skating and even a shooting gallery. The club also has 10 smaller branches across the emirate.

The club also added tennis courts for women who would like to try their hand at this sport. Sheikha Jawaher herself loves tennis.The club has majlis devoted to poetry, where women can meet and recite their favourite works.

“I love to listen to poetry,” Sheikha Jawaher says. “I especially love listening to the pieces composed by my husband, who is a poet, a writer; an artist in every possible way.”

Her concerns also extend to children and youth. It is a constant battle, she says, to promote social clubs and educational activities as an alternative to the mall culture.

Most of this goes back to the home and upbringing, she says. “We have become too much of a consumer society, instead of an innovative, productive one.
“Why must we buy everything that is new? And why do we have to keep importing ideas and innovations from the West? We just talk and reflect back on our golden Islamic civilisation of innovations.

“We have the tools and the right platforms available, we just need to push our people to make the best use of all the opportunities given to them instead of racing to buy the latest gadgets.”

Supporting the family unit is one of her main concerns. Emirati families, Sheikha Jawaher says, can become over-dependent on maids and domestic staff, with parents not spending enough time with their children and abandoning the traditional roles of grandparents and the extended family.

“I understand many have to balance work and their home lives, but even those who are stay-home mothers, they leave all the housework and child rearing to the maid,” she says.

“I believe it starts with the mother. If she instils the right values, the child will grow up to be a productive and proactive citizen.”

Respecting people’s rights and being fair are critical to building a happy home and consequentially a happy community, says Sheikha Jawaher.

“Families overwork their maids, leaving them with their children all day and night. When does the mother spend time with her children? Mothers don’t bother to investigate their maids’ background and value system. Most are unqualified to be nannies.

“At the same time, you see very religious families, the father bearded and the mother covered up, and yet they openly mistreat their maids. That is not allowed in Islam. Islam is not about appearances and looking like a good Muslim, but about treatment of others and what is inside one’s self.”

The effect of the modern world is something she observes daily, from the weakening of the Arabic language, to disconnection from national identity and the deterioration of simple good manners and basic etiquette.

“I see children as young as 8 owning mobile phones and playing with an iPad, their internet connection open and working. They are left to surf the internet unsupervised. This is dangerous.”

One attempt to make children engage with society from a young age was Her Highness’s Sharjah Children’s Parliament, set up 10 years ago and now being considered for a national role.

Participants run annual elections in schools, with Sheikha Jawaher recalling one session where a child demanded better food in the school canteen.

“They go and address their officials at sessions, demanding their rights and answers to their questions. It encourages the child to be active, to ask, and to participate in the making and development of their country.”

Health is another of her interests. She has battled against social attitudes towards terminal illness, such as the “taboo” of cancer, where it was called “‘wahesh’, this monster that invaded families’ homes, with the victim suffering alone and in shame from the stigma”.

In 1999 she set up the Friends of Cancer Patients Society, which led to the national Pink Caravan breast cancer awareness campaign. Similar organisations have been founded for kidney patients and those suffering from arthritis and diabetes.

“We compete to build towers,” she points out, “when we have areas within our country that still need a lot of attention and investment.

“We still don’t have specialised hospitals for terminal illnesses like cancer. We keep sending patients abroad, which is costing the country a lot of money.”
At the same time, private citizens must play their own part in the country’s future, she believes.

“We can’t just wait for the Government to do something. There are many citizens who are wealthy and can afford to donate and give back to their communities by investing in health care and other much-needed areas.”

Supporting her efforts are a team of women she calls her “sisters and daughters”, who monitor the success of her projects and brief her on the most pressing issues.

“I listen to their advice, to their suggestions. We are a family here,” she says.

“There is no such thing as ‘we are on vacation, our phones are closed’. Our lines remain open.”

As a mother of four, Sheikha Jawaher is proud of her children, “each and every one of them”.

“Each of them followed their dreams. They excelled in their passions and are now giving back to the community by supporting other people to reach their dreams.”

And while they were educated at the best foreign universities, she makes sure they stay true to their roots and culture. “Never throw away your roots,” she advises. “They are what ground you in times of trouble.”

As a wife, Sheikha Jawaher says her husband has introduced her to an “exuberant” world of art, history and culture. “He has been like a school for me,” she says.

From the perspective of one who has seen great changes to Sharjah and the UAE, Sheikha Jawaher concludes with a lesson from life.

“People need to stop hurting each other, sabotaging others in their quest for quick success. Sure, compete, but don’t destroy your competitor,” she says.

“I like to treat people as I like to be treated. If everyone stopped and thought about this, there would be a lot less suffering.”

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