x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Hike across Austria raises profile of Emirati women

Eighty-kilometre walk by five UAE women through mountainous countryside meeting locals breaks down stereotypes and opens minds.

Left to right) Salwan Al Shaibani, 39, Hala Kazim, 47, Maha Jaber, 32, and Aida Al Busaidy, 27, all of Dubai. Kazim recently took the other women on an 80-kilometer hike in Austria through her program, Journey Through Change.
Left to right) Salwan Al Shaibani, 39, Hala Kazim, 47, Maha Jaber, 32, and Aida Al Busaidy, 27, all of Dubai. Kazim recently took the other women on an 80-kilometer hike in Austria through her program, Journey Through Change.

DUBAI // Five Emirati women who traded their abayas for backpacks have returned from a successful five-day hiking trip through Austria aimed not only at their own personal development but also at breaking down stereotypes outside the UAE.


Their tour was organised through Journey Through Change, a Dubai life coaching and organising company run by Hala Kazim, 47.


Mrs Kazim said: “I wanted to show the ladies and men in our communities, there are more things to life. This was not just a walking trip: I exposed them to different cultures, showed them how to absorb the beauty around them, and counselled them as we walked.”


The group, composed of women from their mid-20s to 40s, walked 80 kilometres, starting at Vienna through Fuschl towards St Wolfgang, across mountainous terrain and past green fields, farms and villages. Dressed down and wearing no makeup, with minimal internet access at the bed and breakfasts where they spent each night, the trip took the women back to basics. 

As foreign as their environment was to them, everyone they met knew about the Emirates, Mrs Kazim said: “Even in the small villages, there was not one person we met that did not know about the UAE.” 


One of the hikers, Aida Al Busaidy, a communications specialist based in Dubai, said: “A few years ago I would have been surprised that almost 99 per cent of the people we met knew about the Emirates but, today, the UAE is very well marketed globally.”


An aim of their journey was to tackle stereotypes about their country and, in particular, about female Emiratis. Salwan Al Shaibani, a Dubai-based risk manager, said:“During our hiking journey, we came across people from small villages who were surprised to see Emirati females hiking by themselves without a guide.

 
“It can be frustrating how some view us as completely unapproachable, so we are telling the world we can be conservative and traditional but open at the same time.”

The stereotypes, Ms Shaibani said, are probably a result of restrictions on past generations that the media blew out of proportion.


“We are really not that different,” she said. “We are just as willing to take chances, challenges and be as independent. It was so enlightening to get to know the natives and show them we are open to learning about their environment, too.”


The women carried a UAE flag with them, which they unfurled for photo opportunities along the way.


“It was one of the most astounding experiences I have had,” Mrs Kazim said. “I made the girls meet, talk and take pictures with people and it was so easy for them. No one could believe we were the first Emirati women to do something like this.”


El-Sayed El-Aswad, a professor in the Department of Sociology at UAE University, praised the women for travelling to a Western country while maintaining their identity and traditions.


“They took action and defied the stereotypes without violating their dignity,” he said. “This was their way of saying, ‘Look, we are Emirati women; we are not oppressed or abused – we are great.”


Miss al Busaidy said the trip signified only a small step towards something bigger.


“The hike opened our minds and is just the beginning,” she said. “As soon as I arrived back home, a number of Emirati women expressed interest in going on a similar trip for the same reasons.”

melshoush@thenational.ae