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
updated 7:14 AM EST, Fri March 8, 2013
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
updated 6:32 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
When it comes to buildings, they don't come much different than a mosque and a nightclub.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen -- or so the saying goes.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
These 12 fashion experts have millions of followers, but who is the most social woman in fashion?
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mindy Grossman has been the driving force behind making the Home Shopping Network both hip and profitable, but she still makes time for herself.
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Nelly Ben Hayoun speaking at NASA Ames research center
Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take threats such as asteroid strikes more seriously.
updated 10:33 PM EDT, Sun August 24, 2014
Shenan Chuang turned Ogilvy China into the world's third biggest ad agency, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout asks how she did it.
updated 6:45 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Imagine a gadget that knows your mind better than you do.
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
When your grandmother is one of the most famous cosmetics moguls in history, it might put a little pressure on you to succeed.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
bbf
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
updated 5:14 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
updated 11:06 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
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.
ADVERTISEMENT