DUBAI // Sumaya al Balooshi grew up in the UAE surrounded by a cosmopolitan population, but she learnt the intricacies of another faith for the first time only last month, at the age of 25.
She describes her new understanding of Christianity, which was explained to her by students of Oxford University's school of theology, as "fulfilling".
Ms al Balooshi was among a group of 51 students who recently returned from a trip organised by the Al Maktoum Institute in Dundee, Scotland.
The cultural exchange programme forms part of an agreement with UAE universities to expose Emirati women to multiculturalism, interfaith dialogue and lessons in taking up leadership roles.
"The meeting with students at Oxford was quite an eye-opener," said Ms al Balooshi, who works in recruitment and is studying for her master's degree in human resource management at the British University in Dubai.
"Dubai is very diverse, but nobody really pays attention to little things like exchanging religious beliefs or making someone understand what your viewpoint on religion is."
Mariam al Nuaimi, a communications student at the Dubai Women's College, also travelled to the UK for the Al Maktoum programme. She said the recent push for women to assume more significant positions in the country made the trip even more worthwhile.
"Muslim women are often stereotyped as being fragile, and the course in Dundee was a great opportunity to prove ourself as leaders, and not just housewives."
Since 2003, more than 400 female students from eight universities in the UAE and Qatar have taken advantage of the exchange programme initiated by the institute, which is sponsored by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the Minister of Finance.
The institute teaches women to become confident, independent and world thinkers, said Mirza al Sayegh, chairman of the board of the Al Maktoum Institute.
"The vision of Sheikh Hamdan is to make the girls true leaders of the future," Mr al Sayegh said.
Since her return, Ms al Balooshi said she had come to believe there was a major flaw in the way students at UAE schools were cocooned from other faiths.
"In the UK, religious education is part of the curriculum: they not only teach the Abrahamic faiths, but Hinduism and Sikhism as well. Children are raised with the ideology that they should consider everybody, and not only those from their religion."
She said students demonstrated their religion in class, which generated respect. "This, I think, is missing in our culture and from the education system," she said.
"Local families here are still quite rigid when it comes to religion and the thought that the national identity will be eroded [by more information] tends to restrict openness."
She said comparative religion could be introduced gradually to students through awareness sessions. "We have to explain to parents that no one is trying to get them to practice [another religion], just make you understand."
The one-month course is immensely challenging for the students, said Professor Malory Nye, principal of the institute. "The students have classes introducing them to key issues of globalisation, accepting diversity and what it is to be a Muslim in today's world. We challenged them to reflect on issues outside their own perspectives."
For Mariam BuAlShawarib, another participant, the respect given to Islam was the highlight of the trip.
"We visited Christ Church College, where we met students studying to become priests and bishops, and they were talking about Islam, which was fascinating to hear," she said.
"They mentioned how they value our holy book, the Quran, and how they teach it to kids at school."
Ms BuAlShawarib said she was surprised to hear this from westerners because she had imagined that they always attacked Muslim values and culture.
"We thought they hated us, and I did mention this to them. But now I have come back with a completely different perspective," she said.