Everything in Dubai is tall, it seems, and everyone is from somewhere else. The man who greeted me at the airport was from Bosnia. The cabdriver was Sri Lankan; the hotel clerk, Nigerian. (Yes, I am one of those annoying travelers who ask a lot of questions.) Like the buildings that tower over what was recently desert, the people of Dubai appear almost to have dropped from the sky, hailing from across the planet and now mixed randomly, picturesquely, in this tiny crossroads by the sea.
The country—city, really—is a deceptively complicated place, full of contradictions that reveal themselves slyly. Foreigners comprise 85 percent of the population; they stay for a few years or a lifetime but can never become citizens. There are no bars but many fast cars and clusters of burka-clad women sporting Versace handbags and Gucci shoes. It is a city thrown up in a hurry, where Vegas looms across the straits from Iran and exquisite towers mix with new faux souks.
We had come to Dubai for our second global symposium, focusing this year on “Women in the Arab World.” Although we have few alumnae in the region, although we had little help on the ground and few local connections, we still packed the ballroom of the Jumeirah Emirates Tower with more than 300 women and clusters of wide-eyed girls—it was a crowd, as it turned out, that didn’t want to leave.
Our speakers were incredible: passionate, polished, and wildly unassuming. From Ahdaf Souief, the world-acclaimed novelist who urged an aspiring young writer to “pick up the pen and just write,” to pioneering surgeon Houriya Kazim, who frankly admitted that halfway through the rigors of surgical training “those kitchen knives started to look really good.” Najla Al-Awadhi told of having to convince the veiled mother of the country’s first female news anchor that it was alright to let her daughter go on air. Rabia Z., who designs high fashion hijabs and abayas, described the irony of being reprimanded by a local design school for daring to veil women, and Moufida Tlatli, the Tunisian filmmaker, brought roars from the crowd as she explained, half in French, half in English, how she balanced family and a career. “‘I love you very much,’ I tell my fiancé,” she recounted, “‘but I love much more my work. So I go film now en Algerie. If you are here when I come back, c’est bien. If not, bye-bye.’”
In the United States, feminism has long, and correctly, held that “the personal is political.” In the United Arab Emirates, by contrast, where 70 percent of college students are female but often face overwhelming pressure from their mothers and their aunts not to work, the politics of women’s rights seems distinctly personal; these rights are pushed and prodded by women like Najla and Moufida and Rabia, women who are unafraid to use their own lives as exemplars of the possible. I feel lucky to have met them, and to have introduced Barnard’s legacy of feminism to a region still grasping to define its own.