Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Middle East's first women's museum lifts lid on rich history

By Catriona Davies, CNN
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
Rafia Ghubash with Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at the official opening of the museum, in a room dedicated to the poet Ousha Bint Khalifa
Rafia Ghubash with Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at the official opening of the museum, in a room dedicated to the poet Ousha Bint Khalifa
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rafia Ghubash spent five years working on Middle East's first women's museum
  • Our grandmothers' achievements are greater than recognized, she says
  • Ghubash is former president of Arabian Gulf University

(CNN) -- As a psychiatrist, former university president and advocate for Arab women in science, Rafia Ghubash is one of the United Arab Emirates' most influential women.

But her latest project is possibly her most ambitious yet: creating the Middle East's first museum dedicated to the achievements of women.

The museum, Bait al Banaat, or House of Women, in Dubai was officially opened at the end of 2012 by Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, showcasing the contribution of women to the country's history.

"Women here were empowered a long time ago, but haven't had a chance to tell our story," said Ghubash. "Don't think because we are covered we are not empowered.

Read: Inspiring women, remarkable quotes

"Women here were not in the media, but they were economically engaged and running businesses."

Don't think because we are covered we are not empowered.
Rafia Ghubash

The museum is the culmination of five years' work for Ghubash, who financed the museum with $3 million of her own money.

"For me it was a full-time job but I had 20 volunteers of all nationalities working with me in their free time. It was nice to have people with different backgrounds involved," she said.

In searching for a home for the museum, Ghubash turned down a free site in Dubai's official heritage district for an old house in the historic Gold Souk neighborhood she grew up in.

"I was looking for a place to build and I came across a very old house that I remember from childhood," she said. "It used to be called Bait al Banaat because three unmarried women lived there. Something about the name came to life for me."

Ghubash said her grandmothers' generation contributed far more to the politics, economy, education and literature of the region than has been recognized.

Arianna Huffington tells women: 'Less stress, more living'

The museum contains a room dedicated to the Emirati woman poet Ousha Bint Khalifa -- known as the Girl of Arabia, a gallery devoted to temporary art exhibitions, a collection of Arabian fragrances and oils, traditional jewelery and a women's study center.

"It was very important for me to present the museum in the best way possible to attract a younger generation. I want them to enjoy their culture and heritage," said Ghubash.

Ghubash, 56, has undertaken the museum project while taking a sabbatical from a career that led to her being listed 36th on Arabian Business magazine's "100 Most Powerful Arab Women" in 2011.

She grew up in Dubai in a family where she was encouraged to study.

I came across a very old house that I remember from childhood.
Rafia Ghubash

"I came from a family where both parents made sure there were books available in the house," she said. "I had freedom to read and to think for myself."

Ghubash trained as a doctor at the University of Cairo and for a PhD in London, before returning to the United Arab Emirates as an assistant professor of psychiatry.

In 2001, she became president of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain, a post she retained until 2009.

She also founded the Arab Network of Women in Science and Technology, and served as its president for four years.

"My journey in life is very interesting," she said. "I was focusing on becoming a doctor and practicing as a psychiatrist.

"Recently, I found myself attracted to something different: history and culture."

Having achieved her goal in opening the museum, Ghubash is not content to rest and revel in the glory. She is already working on her next project to compile an encyclopaedia of women of the United Arab Emirates.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 0546 GMT (1346 HKT)
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.
ADVERTISEMENT