From geek to superhero
Before the early 1960s, Emirati women were given very few opportunities to work outside of the home. Since then, the commercial production of oil has increased the wealth of the United Arab Emirates and allowed for advanced industrialization to take root. Citizens are now offered free health care and they take advantage of a strong public education system. Although public schools and universities are segregated, and strict sharia laws often discriminate along gender lines, women are twice as likely to enroll in higher education programs than men, and they are beginning to take more positions in science, government, law, and media industries. In 2004, the United Arab Emirates became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the country is helping to lead the charge among Arab countries for gender equality and empowerment. While many women’s rights advocates argue that it might be difficult to pass gender-equal laws in this small, non-democratic nation, some sociologists, including Rima Sabban, believe that the United Arab Emirate’s legal system is a “work-in-progress,” and they note a changing tide in its relationship with feminism and women’s rights. With a Bachelor in English Literature (1986) and a Masters in Translation Studies (2004), Noura Al Noman is a glowing example of a woman who has found success as a writer, a profession that used to have its doors closed to most women in the United Arab Emirates. In 2010, Noura published her first two picture books for toddlers. Cotton the Kitten and Kiwi the Hedgehog were published by Kalimat in Arabic, and aimed to contrast how children deal with pets and wild animals. Noura believes that Arab youth are hungry for fiction, which can excite them enough to read in Arabic. Noting the huge deficit in books for young Arabs (aged 15+), she wrote her first novel, Ajwan, one of only a handful of science fiction novels in the Arab world, published by Nahdet Misr (Egypt). Ajwan, which focuses on a strong female protagonist who has her baby stolen from her, won the Etisalat Children Literature Award, as Best Young Adult Novel in 2013. Noura also won the Arab Woman Award in the Literature category, presented by the ITP Group. Although she has a full English translation of her first novel, Noura has delayed publishing it to give a chance for the Arabic version to take a foothold. The sequel to Ajwan, titled Mandan, was launched at the Cairo Book Fair in January 2014. Noura is currently working on the third book in the series. Below is a letter Noura - who was nicknamed "Naawar" - wrote to her thirteen-year-old self. It contains advice about how she can deal with being a “geek,” why she should read as many science fiction books as possible, and it sends the message that she is a formidable young woman with a superpower. Noura’s letter resonates with young, book-hungry teens from around the world – in fact, if the mention of “Arab” or “United Arab Emirates” were suddenly omitted from its text, it might be possible to imagine that its universally-appealing messages had been written by any strong, science-fiction-loving woman, from any city, nation, or colonized planet. Melissa Banigan Founder and Managing Editor The Advice Project __________________________________________________________ Dear Nawwar, So you’re a geek, and no one around you knows enough about your condition to have a name for it. It’s OK, you’re not alone. There are other geeks around the United Arab Emirates, and millions around the world who are just like you. One day, geeks will be celebrated and even envied. Own it!
Here’s where it gets fun: Don’t wait till you’re fourteen to read Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) – start now. And when you’re twenty-eight, and a voice inside your head starts to say: “Stop reading these geeky novels, and start reading something realistic and serious,” Do. Not. Listen! The insight you will get from SFF novels will be invaluable. You will live multiple lives, on many planets and in several parallel universes – something no other genre can provide. Soaring high on the back of a dragon will show you that our planet is one home, and everyone on it is one family. Peeking from the window of a spaceship will tell you how small humans are, and how great we can be if we think of the big picture. Race, color and religion don’t mean a thing when you’re telepathically linked to your loving dragon, or piloting a spaceship on a course to colonize a planet hundreds of light years away. Girls your age will tell you that it is important to be Emirati, and that such and such nationality, race or religion is beneath you. They know nothing – they are ignorant and afraid. The strong build bridges, the weak nurture hatred and resentment until they implode with a sickening POP. Surround yourself with people who love you. How will you recognize them? They never tear you down; they never say you can’t do anything. They say that you can do it. They’ll give you tools that will help push obstacles out of your way so you can fulfill your dreams. See, life is too short to be around negative people who moan and whine and tell you to give up. All they do is sap your energy, till you crouch down with them and share their misery. Come closer. I have a secret for you. You have a superpower. It is called empathy. No, it doesn’t let you blow things up with your mind or move objects without touching them. What it does do is allow you to sympathize with others and feel their pain and anxiety. The world could do with more empathy. Do not mute it, as it will help you make friends, and build teams at work. And even though some will abuse your superpower, that doesn’t mean you should stop doing using it. Thirty years from now, a team of trainers will tell you: “You are made of steel.” Watch for the opportunities to test that steel; stand for your rights and the rights of the voiceless. A lot of people will say that it is shameful to speak your mind – that being outspoken makes you too much like a man. Nod and smile, and then turn around and stay true to your heart. You are a formidable creature, as all women are. You will bear a mountain on your shoulder, and you will move it. Be patient. Know your enemies, and be extremely kind to them. It will confuse them, and that is always good for a laugh. Oh, and read more Arabic books, they’ll come in handy later in life. Love, Noura PS. Next year, go see a movie titled Star Wars. Trust me. ________________________________________________ *Note – Advice Project Media and authors hold the copyright to all of the content on this website, meaning that this letter (or portions thereof) cannot be reprinted without permission. Please send all inquiries about reproduction here.