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▶ Dr Aisha Al Sayyar studied in Egypt with the former Ruler of Sharjah’s daughter


Long before the UAE sent its first astronaut to space or appointed the world’s youngest minister, a group of trailblazi­ng Emirati women reached for the stars. They were the first generation to receive a third-level education, sent abroad by the country’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, to learn crucial skills and return to the UAE to propel the country into a bright new future. To mark the UAE’s 50th anniversar­y, ‘The National’ has interviewe­d some of these pioneers.

It was the early 1960s and Aisha Al Sayyar had just finished school. Her class was small and, for most of the girls, it would be the end of their education.

But Dr Al Sayyar was not satisfied. She and her peer, Sheikha Aisha bint Saqr, wanted to continue their studies. With no universiti­es yet in Sharjah, they looked abroad for a solution.

In 1964, the pair became the first women from the emirate to travel for their education, moving to Egypt, unchaperon­ed, to pursue degrees.

“Praise be to God, it was the starting step that paved the way for girls’ ambitions,” says Dr Al Sayyar, who was born in the 1940s. “An ambition to learn and support their hopes to complete their university studies and start seeking knowledge.”

Planes were chartered to take Dr Al Sayyar and Sheikha Aisha to Egypt. They received housing and a monthly allowance.

“This step also reflected the society’s interest and aspiration to achieve a lot of progress and developmen­t, so it prepared the girls with a formal education at an early stage, which then grew and flourished after the union was formed,” Dr Al Sayyar says.

Two years after the UAE’s formation, Dr Al Sayyar earned a master’s degree from Ain Shams University in Cairo.

A decade later, she became the first Emirati woman to earn a doctorate, in Gulf history, from the same university.

“I became qualified to serve our new state at that time,” says Dr Al Sayyar. She initially taught history at Fatima Al Zahra School. In 1972, she joined the Ministry of Education as head of social services, while studying for her master’s degree.

She was made assistant undersecre­tary of the ministry, where she worked until 1998, and represente­d the UAE at Unesco events for more than 25 years.

Dr Al Sayyar now runs Sharjah American Internatio­nal School.

She says her achievemen­ts were made possible by support from the state and her family.

“The first [source of] support was from my family who agreed, albeit reluctantl­y, that I travel to complete my university studies in Cairo. My family was later the greatest support in the various stages of my studies,” she says.

“I am grateful to the Ruler of Sharjah, who, at that time, provided me with the opportunit­y to travel and study with his daughter, Sheikha Aisha, who accompanie­d me in studying at school and university.”

Before the discovery of oil, several countries helped the emirates to set up schools.

“The most important and continuous credit goes to the state of Kuwait, where I was one of those students who received a scholarshi­p for university study and after, and even the master’s degree that I obtained in 1973.”

Study abroad was not without its difficulti­es.

“The first challenges originated from here,” says Dr Al Sayyar.

“It was not usual for girls to travel alone, but rather it was against the prevailing customs and traditions, which see the future of the girl in marriage is better.”

She says her family was criticised for allowing her to study abroad, and that travel and communicat­ion were difficult.

“I felt nostalgic being away from my parents for long periods. London was another challenge, but I believed in the proverb that says: ‘The will is what pushes you to the first step on the path of struggle, but determinat­ion is what keeps you on this path to the end.’”

Dr Al Sayyar first met Sheikh Zayed in 1974. He visited Umm Ammar Secondary School, where she delivered a speech.

“After my speech ended, I presented [Sheikh Zayed with] a copy of my master’s degree thesis, which he accepted before congratula­ting and encouragin­g me.”

That evening, she was invited to meet Sheikh Zayed and his wife Sheikha Fatima, Mother of the Nation.

“We spoke about Sharjah and the family, about studying at the university in Cairo and obtaining a master’s degree, and many other things. At the end of our conversati­on, he said to me: ‘You are one of us, a part of our family, and our daughter.

“I want you to work with Sheikha Fatima for your country and care for the girls and women, teach and support them to make up for what they missed. I pray God will grant you success.’”

It was not usual for girls to travel alone – rather, it was against the prevailing customs and traditions

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 ?? Photo: Aisha Al Sayyar ?? Aisha Al Sayyar and Emirati diplomat colleagues at the Unesco conference in Paris in 1974
Photo: Aisha Al Sayyar Aisha Al Sayyar and Emirati diplomat colleagues at the Unesco conference in Paris in 1974

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