x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Modern Arab Women: book aims to dispel cultural misconception

The author Judith Horok aims to give outsiders a deeper understanding of modern Emirati women.

Judith Horok, author of Modern Arab Women. Fatima Al Marzouqi / The National
Judith Horok, author of Modern Arab Women. Fatima Al Marzouqi / The National

For some it is their sense of having got something right that fuels the desire to write a book. For Judith Hornok it was the realisation that she had got something completely and utterly wrong.

"My perception [about Arab countries] was very one-sided" she admits. "Radical, domineering men oppressing women and forcing them to cover themselves. I judged something I had never seen or experienced. I wasn't critical enough. I made a big mistake."

It is a refreshing starting point, this mea culpa, and a "big mistake" that Hornok sets out to rectify with her book, Modern Arab Women: The New Generation of the United Arab Emirates. The book, which is available across the UAE, is in 20 chapters, each a stand-alone interview with an Emirati woman from disciplines as varied as business, film, medicine and politics. It is the result of eight years of travel on Hornok's part, moving between the UAE and her home in Vienna, Austria, building relationships, trust and understanding. But, far from the completion of a task the book is, as far as Hornok is concerned, only the start of a life mission. She feels it is her personal responsibility to address the misapprehension she herself once held wherever she finds it in others. It has taken her across Europe and into the United States, where she has lectured and hosted discussions on the realities of being a modern Arab woman. And the thing that sparked all this happened, as so many life-changing revelations do, purely by chance.

She says, "I never wanted to come to the Arab countries. I was working as a journalist for a big newspaper in Vienna, covering Formula One, business stories, big celebrity profiles.

"I thought of Arab countries and I could think only of the women covered and oppressed. I remember even when a girlfriend went there for business and came back and said, 'Judith, you would like it.' I rejected it. But then my old life brought me to it in spite of this."

Her old life - a whirl of glamour and high pressure - saw her sent to cover a European Class 1 Powerboat race. There were people there from Qatar, from Bahrain and from the UAE.

"I met my first Emiratis," Hornok recalls. "And I was really impressed. They treated me with respect. They were highly educated and straight away they were not what I thought they would be. I wanted to learn more. That is how it began. That is how the UAE became the first Arab soil I set foot on and you know I am really grateful to the country and the people because they totally changed my outlook and my approach to life."

It is rather a grand statement but, as she sits sipping water in the lobby bar of the Shangri La, Abu Dhabi, it is quite clear that she absolutely means it. Hornok is not a woman who does things by half. It just isn't part of her emotional make-up, as she later explains, "When somebody shows me a glass half empty I don't see that. I see it as completely full."

She wants to see the best in things - in people, in situations - and she feels the onus is on her to share the results with as wide an audience as possible. It is an endearing - if slightly exhausting - trait, this chatter of energy and it comes through on every page of the recently published book, thanks to the idiosyncratic format chosen by its author.

Rather than editorialise her subjects Hornok has chosen to simply transcribe her conversations with the women complete with insertions noting smiles, laughter, the offering of gifts and so on. So the opening interview with Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of Foreign Trade, starts with such niceties as the sheikha enquiring after Hornok's health.

"I wanted it to be as pure as possible," Hornok explains earnestly. "I don't want to tell all the time what I'm thinking. I want it to be so that you take your time and you know who these people are and you hear them, not my interpretation."

Across the chapters, the impression that comes through in encounters with Sheikha Lubna, with writer Sara Al Jarwan, with businesswoman Muna Easa Al Gurg, with racing driver Nahla Al Rostamani and so on is not so much one of an academic study or an agenda-driven work, but of a series of interlinking conversations. These are women discussing their lives and dovetailing the professional and personal in a way that is both peculiarly female and peculiarly global.

Hornok says: "This book is for people outside the UAE, for the western audience and it is for people inside the UAE too. It is for the expats who maybe have little contact with the Emirati women and the Emiratis themselves.

"I talk to these women and they are all asking the same sorts of questions about how to balance life and all the roles she must have in life. Sometimes I wonder how do they do it? They have their job, their position in their family, social responsibility ... they are modern and they are in their culture too."

Hornok offers, as an example, Sheikha Lubna's reaction to being offered her ministerial role. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, called her and said that the president of the country wanted her to be Minister of Economy. She replied: "I have to ask my mother."

"You see," Hornok smiles. "This shows how a woman can be on an international platform but really so much in her own culture.

"But when I spoke to these women I really had the feeling that they were so proud of their country. In the West we have a lot to be proud of too but often we forget it."

The way Hornok sees it, that cultural pride has been lost amid the flurry of modern life, of career demands and relationship expectations. She cites the fast pace of life as a root cause. It is a pace that, she says, has not yet fully engulfed the UAE woman in part because of the nation's relative youth and in part because of the traditional values that remain shored up around her.

"But it is very challenging now for generations here in the UAE like everywhere. In the old days they were sitting for hours with coffee and talking. Today they have so many projects ... the rhythm of life is changed. It will be a big challenge to hold on to the traditional part of life. In the West I think we lost a lot. A lot of women in the West are alone and though it's nice to be single, to be free and have no responsibility, I wonder sometimes have we lost the ability to compromise?"

What, Hornok ponders, is the right or wrong way to live your life?

Before quickly concluding that there is no right or wrong way to live one's life only "wisdoms" to be taken from your own and others.

For Hornok much of the "wisdoms" she has found in the women she has spoken to stem from what she calls the "Bedouin style" - giving and receiving, taking care of others, forgiving and recognising that some worries can simply be given up to God. "Inshallah," she smiles. "It really is fantastic. All my life I have been a fighter, pushing for things to happen, but this idea that you have to sometimes let go and that whatever is meant for you will be ... I would say thank you to the people who have taught me this."

It is not just women, she says, who have proved instrumental in her own enlightenment or in the atmosphere of nurturing and tolerance that she understands to be at the heart of the UAE.

She says: "In a way this book is also about the new generation of Arab men because without their goodwill and support, the development of these women would never have gained this incredible momentum." It is the antithesis of the prejudiced view of oppression she once held and, she believes, a defining feature of the UAE, its foundation, its development and its continued growth.

"But still when I go home, people talk about Arab countries as if they are all one and they say, 'Oh, the poor girls, they are not free, they are covered,' and I feel a responsibility to explain.

"I could have filled a library with all the interesting women I met but I have to choose just some; maybe I will do another. The most precious investment for the 21st century is getting to know each other better. It is really so important that the West gets a better picture of the Arab world and that we connect with each other's wisdoms. This is the message I hope I get through with my book."